Records of 3.5 million enslaved people are digitized, giving Black families ancestry clues

·7 min read

After more than 20 years researching her family’s origin in America, Nicka Sewell-Smith found the name of an uncle who had filed a complaint about having his horse stolen. Another notation said he had shopped for bacon, a broom and tobacco in “Short’s Place” in Louisiana about seven months before the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865.

With her standard supply of popcorn and a beverage at her reach, Sewell-Smith clicked on, and learned that Hugh Short was a lawyer and owner of enslaved Black people. Then she came upon Short’s will, which listed the names of her great-great-great-grandparents near the bottom of the document. 

“I could not turn from the page for an hour,” she said. “I had resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to find them. So, I called my cousin who had been searching also for 20 years and I said, ‘Guess what? We didn’t come here on a spaceship from Cameroon and land in North Louisiana.’”

Image: Nicka Sewell-Smith (Erica Dunlap)
Image: Nicka Sewell-Smith (Erica Dunlap)

A renowned genealogist, Sewell-Smith gathered much of the information through the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency for formerly enslaved Black people created near the end of the Civil War in 1865. Its goal was to assist the newly freed in their transition out of slavery by negotiating labor contracts, legalizing marriages and locating lost relatives, among other things, documenting it all. It also provided food, housing, education and medical care to more than 4 million people, including poor whites and veterans displaced by war.

Video: Kentucky's Mammoth Cave sheds light on slave history

For decades, the information was hard to come by. It required patience and determination, attributes that allowed Sewell-Smith to hole up in the National Archives, libraries and research centers — and her desk at home — to go through archaic microfilm by the thousands, document by document.

However, this month, the genealogy site Ancestry.com unveiled a Black family lineage game-changer — 3.5 million records of previously enslaved Black people, available for free.

It is believed to be the world’s largest digitized and searchable collection of Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank archives. The collection has Black genealogists and habitual researchers thrilled because the descendants of the enslaved in America can learn more about their families in a far easier way.

“This is very exciting and will help many researchers, historians and ordinary people trying to learn more about their ancestry,” said Angela Dodson, CEO of Editorsoncall, a company that provides editorial services for writers. Dodson has done extensive work on researching her own family tree. 

“It is often very difficult for Black Americans to trace their history because of the disruptions of slavery, being sold down river, etc.,” she said. “I am often haunted by something I read in one of the narratives of the formerly enslaved who remembered Black people just wandering the roads and trails after the Civil War looking for long-lost kin. This post-war era is a crucial period for trying to make some of these connections.”

Further, the collection is significant because it is most likely the first time newly freed African Americans appear in records after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, as many enslaved people were previously excluded from standard census and federal documents.

“The enormity of this is that this is something that we’ve known was there, but we thought it was beyond our fingertips,” Sewell-Smith said. “To see ancestors memorialized ... there are documents within this collection where 100-year-old people are getting rations in 1865. In most people’s minds, you can’t trace that far back to Black folks. We automatically count that out. ‘Oh, that’s not possible, not on paper.’ But it’s right there.”

Image: Dennis Richmond Jr. (Ryan Mighty)
Image: Dennis Richmond Jr. (Ryan Mighty)

Dennis Richmond Jr., 26, of Yonkers, New York, found it incredible that when he was 13, the iconic miniseries “Roots” moved him the way it did. He watched it with his father, who “each and every Sunday” would share his family’s lineage with his young son. As Richmond got older, the Freedmen’s Bureau became his daily place of interest.

“I come from two unique Black families,” he said. “My father’s family was quasi-free Blacks, so they were not slaves. These were Black people who were reading and writing, or buying and selling land or sending their children to school.

“On my mother’s side of the family, from South Carolina, I found big sprawling plantations and fields and bills of sale, and families who are buying Africans off slave ships from Ghana and Mali and Senegal. I found out about the Freedmen’s Bureau, through my mother’s ancestors, because those were the ancestors who were enslaved during the Civil War.”

Those discoveries filled Richmond with pride, which he considers the value in Black people learning their family history. 

“We live in a time where so many people attempt to discount certain history,” he said. “But you can’t discount history — when you can prove it. Especially when you’re connected to it. There’s the Freedmen’s Bureau, papers you can now access online that connects you to your history. I found out that after slavery, my ancestor saved up money with other slaves to seek medical care. That almost made me cry. I would never learn that at public school. We knew that we had carpal tunnel from all this cotton-picking and sought help.”

Image: Linda Buggs-Simms (Courtesy Linda Buggs-Simms)
Image: Linda Buggs-Simms (Courtesy Linda Buggs-Simms)

Linda Buggs-Simms of St. Louis is writing a book about her family after gathering information from the Mississippi State Archives and the Freedmen’s Bureau. She found a set of great-great-grandparents mentioned on a labor contract in Mississippi. She also confirmed the slaveholder, who was the landowner on the contract and discovered a photo of one of her newfound family members.

“There’s not a day that I am not on the computer searching for my family and reading other records,” she said. “It’s addicting. Seeing my ancestors recorded on a labor contract ... I tear up seeing their names. And now, with this Freedmen’s Bureau breakthrough, you can get records beyond 1870. That’s like breaking down the wall of Jericho.” 

Denessia Swanegan said she felt the same about the access to so much data. “As a small child in the 1960s, I was always fascinated by the stories told about family by my parents and their siblings,” she said.  

As an adult, she said, she began pursuing her family’s history in 1980, “viewing reel after reel of census records on microfilm.” She found the name of her great-great-grandfather on the 1870 federal census and later — through a Facebook group called Our Black Ancestry — learned that he was married Jan. 1, 1866, in Leavenworth, Kansas, by the Rev. Hiram R. Revels, who later became the first Black person to serve in the U.S. Senate. 

Further, she learned her relative was among the first to volunteer to fight in the Civil War as part of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry. Swanegan also found his death certificate and burial place. 

Image: Denessia Swanegan (Shelly Hamalian)
Image: Denessia Swanegan (Shelly Hamalian)

“He did not have a grave marker,” she said, “so I was able to get a Civil War-era tombstone engraved with his name, rank and military unit from the Veterans Administration installed at his resting place. That is one of the most satisfying achievements that has come from my years of research.”

It is stories like these that make the access to the Freedmen’s Bureau so important, she said. 

“We need to be cognizant of the things our ancestors endured and how they persevered for us to even be here,” she said. “We do them a huge disservice if we don’t learn about them and the lives they led. We need to breathe life into their stories and share them with future generations. Our future can only be made better by reaching back into our deep past.”

Added Buggs-Simms: “The greatest gift you can give your offspring is their heritage, so they truly can know where they came from. With my two granddaughters I am able to get them back seven generations on one line and eight on another one, and to have pictures to support it. And that’s exhilarating.”

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