Monday, February 6, 2017

Not Everyone Watched the Super Bowl on Sunday

Some of us were focused on genealogy!  In fact, I was at the Sacramento Public Library talking about using Freedmen's Bureau records, specifically focusing on the recently digitized and indexed version available on and searchable through  And we actually had about 40 people show up!

Now remember, these records are extremely important for black family history research because they are the contemporary primary source that indicates the last owner of a formerly enslaved individual.  In many of the records created by the Freedmen's Bureau, one of the questions asked was "What was the name of your last owner?"  That owner's name is critical to finding more information about the individual prior to Emancipation.
One big topic I covered was the limitations of the new searchable index.  First of all, notwithstanding all of the publicity, not all of the Freedmen's Bureau records were transcribed.  Most of the field office records still have no index.  So of the 30 Bureau databases on, only half have an index.  (One small sliver of hope:  FamilySearch is still considering whether to have the field office records indexed. I really hope they do it.)

Another problem is that the National Archives microfilms of the Bureau records had the records sorted by state.  Now all the labor contracts are in one “United States” database, and the same for school records, hospital records, etc.  So if the state that the freedman was living in didn’t actually appear on the record but another state did (and yes, some of the records are like that, like a contract where the person hiring is in a different state), that record will only appear under the second state, not the one that the person was living in.  Most of the time a researcher isn’t going to check a record that lists the wrong state, so that’s a bunch of people who are now harder to track down.

There are also problems where the location listed on the index is not that on the record.  So someone might be in Plaquemine Parish, Louisiana, for example, but the index says New Orleans.  This is another situation where a researcher probably wouldn't look at that record.

Something else that hasn’t been publicized well is how the search works now for the records.  If you go directly to, as I did at first, you will need to search through each database individually.  If you go to, the very, very basic search on that page — which allows you to input only first and last names, so it looks next to useless — actually searches all 15 indexed databases at once, which is a good thing.  But don’t pay attention to the short list of 20 results you’ll see on the DiscoverFreedmen page.  Click the link that says it will show you all the results.   That will take you to, and along with the option to see more than 20 results at a time, you’ll get to see which databases the results came from.  You can delete databases if you don’t think the locations will be relevant, but considering the whole location problem discussed above, do so with caution.

And yet another problem with the index:   From the beginning, the instructions given to volunteers were not to transcribe every name on a record.  Yes, someone decided that Bureau employees weren’t worthy of being recorded, and some other people’s names also were not included in the index.  So the index is not really an every-name index for these records.

The good news is that even a flawed index is better than no index, and the Freedmen’s Bureau records are far more accessible than they used to be.  But the flaws need to be understood so that researchers will know when not to put all their faith in that index.

For some additional pointed commentary on the new search, see this post on Nicka Smith's blog.

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