Posted by Linda Barnickel on February 24, 2017 in Collections, Guest Bloggers

By now, many researchers may be familiar with the massive collection of federal records produced by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (BRFAL), more commonly known as the “Freedmen’s Bureau.”

But a frequently overlooked source, with a very similar name, holds a wealth of detail as well. Records from the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (often called the “Freedman’s Bank”)  have no direct relationship to the Freedmen’s Bureau, and should not be confused with it.  The bank was established in 1865 by an act signed by Abraham Lincoln. Recognizing that former slaves, now being paid for their labor, would need a safe place to secure their earnings, the bank was headquartered in New York, then Washington. Branches opened throughout the country, mostly in the South. Records for 29 of the 37 branches have survived. These records are very strong for the years immediately following the Civil War, but the bank closed in 1874 amid charges of fraud and mismanagement.

These records bear the formal title of “Registers of Signatures of Depositors…” but they contain far more information than just a name and a signature (often “by mark”). When an individual opened an account, they completed a one-page form that asked many questions, including: name, birthplace, residence, age, complexion, occupation, employer, spouse, children, parents, siblings, and room for “remarks” which could include just about any kind of additional information, ranging from persons permitted to access the bank account to personal characteristics noted by the clerk, or even a note about military service.

Some forms have portions that remained blank, as formerly enslaved persons might not have known their birthplace, parents, or age. But more commonly, what information is provided, whether extensive or sparse, is a true treasure trove.

These records can be a particularly rich resource for documenting women and yes, even children. Some depositors were as young as 10 or even 5 years old, like Adolphus Moore of Little Rock, Arkansas.

freedmans1

The clerk at this bank often made additional notations in the remarks section, describing an individual’s work ethic, reliability, education or active schooling. Fifty-eight-year-old Dice Edwards was described as “strong and sensible.”

freedmansbank2

No doubt. Her trade as a washerwoman was hard, physical labor, and she stated that she would only work for “those who will pay.”

Bank accounts were not just limited to individuals, however. Churches, charitable organizations, businesses, and social clubs also opened accounts.

freedmans3

The building fund for the First Bryan Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia, and the Blacksmith Benevolent Society of Charleston, South Carolina, are just two examples.

freedmans4

 

These organizational bank accounts may be more difficult to find, even through a keyword search, so browsing the collection geographically may be a more useful way to discover these particular resources. Many times, the organization may be listed or registered under an official from the group, such as a treasurer or minister’s individual name, so that can be another method to search for these types of records.

Other unusual records lurk in these files. Occasionally, even Caucasians may be found, like Charles Crotty, an Irishman in New York, who had relatives scattered about the globe.

freedmans5

 

How or why he would bank at a predominantly African American institution is unclear, particularly given the bitter history between the Irish and African Americans in New York City, which culminated in the violent draft riot of 1863. Perhaps because he arrived in the U.S. two years later, and was just entering manhood, he may have been more open-minded than many of his contemporaries.

freedmans6

 

The bank record for abolitionist Gilbert Pillsbury makes more sense. Originally hailing from Massachusetts, he came South to serve in the Freedmen’s Bureau. After the war, he briefly served as mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, where he opened an account with the Freedman’s Bank. Defeated in his attempt at reelection, he moved to New York, where he transferred and continued to maintain his account.

Freedman’s Bank records can be a critical resource for tracing African American families during the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. They hold out the possibility of identifying parents, siblings, children, and other relatives, even when familial connections had been broken or strained because of slavery and war. Even deceased relatives may be named. Further details about black churches and benevolent organizations can also be discovered, as well as occasional entries for whites who supported black freedom or chose to bank at a predominantly black institution.

Discover many more records for African American research here.

Linda Barnickel

Linda Barnickel is a professional archivist and freelance writer. She is the author of the award-winning book, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory (LSU Press, 2013) and has written on numerous historical, genealogical, and archives-related subjects. Learn more about her work at lindabarnickel.com.

9 Comments

  1. Rose Dolan

    My heart breaks for these poor refugees im hope and praying these poor people gets to stay in the united states of America
    They desearve because they eard work on their way own. .God Bless you all like youve never been bless before..I myself Praise your people has to tell them white house people your standing for your rites to stay in the united states of America. .

  2. Rose Dolan

    Thanks for your allowing a only frend rose Yost Dolan to send messages to these poor refugees should take a stand for their rites to say in the united states of America. .God Bless his people like their had never been blessed before
    ..

  3. Rose Dolan

    Im very sore if I had said anything to these poor refugees again im very sorry if I have said anything that would have upset these poor refugees please I would never say anything that would upset anyone poor refugees are out American people and if anyone seats refugees please stab in the united states for good. .

  4. Pam

    I accessed this African American Collection from your blog post and found usfull information on several of the Ancestry sites. Could not access the same info when searching Ancestry.com with my paid subscription. Most were not included in the African American Collection list of databases available. Unable to reproduce results that were found when linking from this blog.

  5. Pam – I’m sorry you are having difficulty. If you have not done so already, please contact Ancestry Customer Service to report your problem. I am a freelancer, so cannot offer you any technical assistance.

  6. Pauline Kealoha

    My home has been taken over by a servicing company. My loan was with a bank. A year into my mortgage I found that my loan was being sold to other bank’s. But later found out that I got a servicing company instead of mt bank. This servicing company wants to to sale my home. I wish not to but have no choice to do so. It’s our family home. They told me to stop payment then they could do a modify with us. But rhey ended up saleing my loan again and I am at there mercy. What can I do. Where can I go. My bank is no more and this company being cruel and has taken my home right from under me.
    Sincerely pauline

  7. jona agnes wilson clark

    Trying to find out about my uncle that was in world war 11. His name is PVC.hoarse Emory Wilson. He was MIA and my great grandmother never really got any closer they sent a.cask
    et home after several years after the war but I would like go know really what happen to him

Join the Discussion

We really do appreciate your feedback, and ask that you please be respectful to other commenters and authors. Any abusive comments may be moderated. For help with a specific problem, please contact customer service.