Strike it Rich with Freedman’s Bank Records

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.

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.”

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.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.