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, Ancestry.com 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.
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.
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.