A national effort to connect African Americans with their Civil War–era ancestors through the release of documents from the Freedmen’s Bureau Project has reached a significant milestone.
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“We have completed 50 percent of the indexing and arbitration of the records of this project,” reported Thom Reed, marketing manager for FamilySearch International, a nonprofit organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
More than 1 million records have been digitally indexed by more than 15,750 online volunteers who are using computers to transcribe information from the digital images of records of millions of freed men, women and children. That information is then verified by another volunteer called an arbitrator.
Michael Judson of FamilySearch explained, “To ensure the accuracy of the indexed information, two volunteers index each document. Any differences between the entries of these two volunteers is reviewed by a third, experienced volunteer called an arbitrator. The arbitrator chooses the correct indexed data or adds their own information when neither appears to be correct.”
Working on the Freedmen’s Bureau Project has been “interesting work,” said volunteer JoAnn Gilbert Jeppsen of Mantua, Utah, who has been indexing census records and other documents on a weekly basis for FamilySearch since 2006. “I think it gives African Americans an opportunity to find their records.”
Jeppsen has been working as an arbitrator on the project since November. She was recently informed that she was responsible for arbitrating the one-millionth record.
“I was just amazed,” expressed Jeppsen. “I didn’t know the government had these programs for [Civil War–era African Americans]. I just think about what happened to them when they were freed.” She has worked on documents that include labor contracts, pensions and rations, as well as a murder trial.
Jeppsen encourages others to participate in indexing. “It really doesn’t take much time. It’s something they can do, regardless of what their circumstances. If they’re hooked up to a computer, [they] can do it.”
Reed anticipates there will be millions of searchable names online for African Americans to access their family history research when the Freedmen’s Bureau Project is completed this fall.
The Freedmen’s Bureau Project was announced at a news conference on June 19, 2015, held in the California African American Museum in Los Angeles on “Juneteenth,” the celebration of Emancipation Day more than 150 years ago.
The project’s completion is expected to coincide with the September 2016 opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C.
“The genealogical community is fully embracing these records,” said Hollis Gentry, genealogy specialist at NMAAHC. “You’ll find African American genealogists are quite excited about the Freedmen’s Bureau Project. It offers a tremendous potential for them to find their ancestors in this large group of federal records that may bridge the gap between freedom and slavery in the records.”
“We greatly appreciate the contributions made by our partners, by national and international volunteers, and by Smithsonian volunteers,” added Gentry. “Each indexed document brings us closer to reclaiming our ancestral heritage and historical past. We look forward to the completion of the project in 2016 and invite everyone with an interest in American history and African American culture to support our efforts to index the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau.”
The Freedmen’s Bureau, organized under an 1865 Congressional order at the conclusion of the Civil War, offered assistance to freed slaves in many ways. Handwritten records of these transactions include records such as marriage registers, hospital or patient registers, educational efforts, census lists, labor contracts and indenture or apprenticeship papers and others. The records were compiled in 15 states and the District of Columbia.
For more information on the project, visit DiscoverFreedmen.org.