Rich Finds in Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874

Posted by Juliana Szucs on March 2, 2015 in Site

The year 1865 found many African American Civil War veterans and ex- slaves with money in their pockets and there was a need for an institution where they could save that money. The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (often referred to as the Freedman’s Bank) was incorporated 150 years ago on 03 March 1865 to meet that need.

Unfortunately mismanagement and fraud led to the failure of that institution in 1874 wiping out the savings of many African Americans. While some were eventually able to recover a portion of their savings, many never got any of their money back.

The signature registers of the Freedman’s Bank were preserved and eventually wound up in the National Archives, and in 2005, indexed these records and made the index and images available to members.

For purposes of identification, these registers asked personal questions of the account holder and as a result, many contain a goldmine of information regarding family structure. Names of spouses, children, parents, siblings, and even aunts and uncles can be found on the signature registers. Other information may include physical description, place of birth, residences, occupation, employer, and some earlier records will even include the names of former slave owners–a critical piece of information for tracing a slave before the Civil War.

The record of Mary McGill below is a rich example of what you might find in these records and paints a vivid picture of a family torn apart by slavery.

Mary McGill_Freedman Bank

While she doesn’t list a former master or mistress, the remarks section gives her parents’ and children’s names, as well as some family history.

Father Sharper Irving and mother Diana. Both died in Williamsburg Dist., S.C. Husband died in Savannah in Mch after Fort Pulaski was taken – children – Joseph died on Mr. Jordan’s place up in Geo about first year war. She had four children die before they were named. William, she has been told is in Albany, Ga. She got word through the teachers. Don’t know where her daughters are. She left them in S.C. Major Murray on Edisto Is bought Diana and her children, most 20 years ago. Martha Ann was living with Dr. Clemens who sold her to a Mr. Swinton who was living on an island near Chston [Charleston].

Her living children’s names are also given above the remarks, along with her daughters’ husbands’ names and it tells us that Mary formerly lived in Charleston “on the neck of Kings St.,” which is said to mean just above Calhoun St.

Her current residence at the “Mission House” and the mention of “Rev. Mr. Pettybone” is interesting as well. Rev. Ira Pettibone was a New England abolitionist who worked with the American Missionary Association (AMA) for a couple of years in Savannah, Georgia (as mentioned in his eulogy). The AMA set up schools for African Americans during and after the Civil War, so that could explain the reference to the teachers who sent her word of her son William’s whereabouts. It’s interesting to note that Ira Pettibone also set up an account with the Freedman’s Bank in November of 1867. The remarks give his occupation as “former Supt. of Education, agent of Am. Missionary Association.”

The reference to her husband’s death “in Mch after Fort Pulaski was taken” is worth noting as well. Fort Pulaski was taken by Union forces in April of 1862. When Union forces occupied the fort, Union Major General David Hunter ordered that “All persons of color lately held to involuntary service by enemies of the United States in Fort Pulaski and on Cockspur Island, Georgia, are hereby confiscated and declared free, in conformity with law.” As word spread, enslaved African Americans made their way to the fort seeking freedom. The significance of that event to Mary may have been why she uses it as a point of reference to Joseph’s date of death.

While the losses that came with the failure of the bank were no doubt painful to account holders, the details that can be found in the records are immensely valuable to the descendants of account holders.

For more information on the Freedman’s Bank records, see the 1997 Prologue article on the National Archives website, by Reginald Washington.

Click here to search the records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust.

To mark this milestone anniversary, Operation HOPE and the National Archives are hosting an event on March 3rd in Washington D.C. which is open to the public but you must register in advance here. Those unable to attend can watch via livestream beginning Tuesday, March 3rd at 4PM ET by following this link.

Leave a comment

Past Articles

Leaving a Legacy: Hedy Lamarr

Posted by Lou Szucs on February 26, 2015 in Cool Finds, Moments in Time

If you were asked who the most beautiful woman in the world is today, the names of Angelina Jolie, Kate Upton or Monica Bellucci might come to mind. In the 1940s, the person deemed to be “the” most beautiful woman in the world was Hedy Lamarr. The glamorous pin-up girl, who starred in dozens of American… Read more

Leaving a Legacy: Ada Lovelace

Posted by Anne Gillespie Mitchell on February 25, 2015 in Site

You may have recently watched the Imitation Game and learned about Alan Turing’s efforts to defeat the Nazis with his ingenious computer work.  But do you know who is credited with creating the first computer program?  Would you have guessed an English Countess? Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, born 1815 and died 1852 in… Read more

Leaving a Legacy: Sojourner Truth

Posted by Crista Cowan on February 23, 2015 in Site

When learning about the lives of extraordinary individuals – whether it’s famous women in history or someone from my own family tree – I’m always curious about their childhood.  What experiences did they have that formed them into the human being they became.  What things did they see, what choices did they make in their… Read more

Are You Looking For a Convict in Your Australian Family Tree?

Posted by Jeremy Palmer on February 21, 2015 in Australia, Collections, Guest Bloggers, Research

The founding of Australia as a penal colony for the transportation of convicts from Britain is of course well known. The First Fleet arrived in New South Wales on 26th January 1788 and over the following 80 years approximately 160,000 convicts were transported to various locations in the country to serve their sentence. In the… Read more

Leaving a Legacy: Elizabeth Blackwell

Posted by Juliana Szucs on February 20, 2015 in Site

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we are launching a series entitled “Leaving a Legacy: Important Women in History,” which will feature notable women who influenced the world through their life’s work, immense courage or commitment to a cause. Over the coming weeks, we look forward to sharing the compelling stories of well-known… Read more