Update: This article has been corrected to specify that the National Archives was not a part of the release of the records. The original records are the property of the National Archives and Records Administration, which has preserved them.
FamilySearch International, a subsidiary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Smithsonian Institution, is releasing 1.5 million digitized images that contain the names of up to 4 million former slaves collected by agents of the Freedman’s Bureau at the end of the Civil War.
The release of information, called a “treasure trove,” by genealogical groups, coincides with the 150th anniversary of the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas. On June 19, 1865 a Union general in Galveston, read aloud the contents of “General Order No. 3”, announcing the total emancipation of slaves, even though the Emancipation Proclamation has gone into effect two and a half years earlier.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was organized to assist freedmen in 15 states and the District of Columbia after the war. The bureau opened schools, managed hospitals and gave support to an estimated 4 million slaves. The 1.5 million images released Friday are from the actual reports filed by the 900 agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau who were located across the country.
Hollis Gentry, a genealogist with Smithsonian Institution, said they were very interested in partnering with the church and genealogical groups to make records available to a wider audience. “One of the biggest challenges in researching the Freedmen’s Bureau records are the number of handwritten reports that are in the form of letters. The agents may have been reporting on deaths or marriages.”
“Because the Freedmen’s Bureau was an agency within the government the records have been in the custody of the National Archives and available only in Washington DC.,” Gentry said. “Now 1.5 million images have been scanned in and digitized and we estimate that they contain the names of upto 4 million slaves.
“We would like to have all of the names of the Freedmen indexed by the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” Gentry said. “By the Fall of 2016 when the museum is scheduled to open.”
Laura Diachenko, spokesperson for the National Archives said that FamilySearch bought the records from the agency. “FamilySearch obtained copies of the Freedman’s Bureau Records that were on microfilm and scanned in the records so that they could be digitized in a name index.”
“The records were available here in Washington but not online,” she said. “We absolutely support having online index before it was a no name index.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson, leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced the release of the data at a Los Angeles press conference that will launch a campaign to include Hollywood icons. But church officials and researchers from the church’s non-profit genealogical group FamilySearch talked earlier this week about the project.
“African Americans who tried to research their family history before 1870 hit a brick wall because before 1870 their ancestors who were slaves and showed up as tics or hash marks on paper,” said Paul Nauta, spokesman for FamilySearch. “They didn’t have a name. The slave master would just have tick marks.”
Nauta said the church paid for the digitizing of the actual records because “We believe that family relationships do not end at death. We truly believe that we will see our grandparents again and we have to create connections and pass them on to future generations. “
FamilySearch worked with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum to make these records available.
But this new information is in the form of “raw records,” that still need to be organized and indexed into a computer. The Smithsonian and FamilySearch are hoping that volunteers will sift through the data and type the names into a massive data base.
Sherri Camp, vice-president of Genealogy of the Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society, said: “The Freedman’s Bureau records are an absolute treasure trove. This is a great opportunity to move forward with our history.”
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