The Dusty Genealogist
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Can You Read Your Great Grandmother’s Handwriting?

There has been a call from the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), part of the Smithsonian, in conjunction with Family Search International, for volunteers to help transcribe the Freedmen’s Bureau Records of more than 1.5 million images of records and photographs. This is in collaboration with the Smithsonian Transcription Center to transcribe these particular records. Please visit their website for additional information at <>.

The Transcription Center is a platform where digital volunteers can transcribe and review transcriptions of the Smithsonian collection. The Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project is the largest crowdsourcing initiative ever sponsored by the Smithsonian.

When completed, the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project will allow online access around the world to full text searches that provide access to images and transcription of the original records. The records will be keyword searchable, to include names, which will reduce the effort required to find a person or topic.

The records are being indexed by individual names found in the Bureau records. In Phase 1, the plan is to release records from Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.. In Phase 2, the remaining states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, and Florida will be released.

There is a link on the NMAAHC website titled, “Help Transcribe the Freedmen’s Bureau Collection.” This will lead you directly to the transcription information with tips on how to get started.

Why do we care? Because we are genealogists! This is one aspect of true genealogy in the modern era of computers. I don’t expect everyone to jump on this but please remember that we have access to our computers and genealogical search information because many, many people volunteered to transcribed information for computer access. Transcriptionists are the unsung heroes of genealogy.

They are the volunteers who actually read the information on the page. They decided what letters made up a word they saw on the page. I learned to write because my grandmother taught me. She learned to write in the script that was taught in the late 1800s. I have been reading genealogical records and not even thinking about them until someone twenty-five years younger than me asked, “You can actually read that?” I transcribed a will he was trying to read.

We have trouble distinguishing the written script of the 16 th and 17 th century. Often, we are reminded that similar names can be spelled in different ways. Part of that concept is that someone transcribed a name based upon what they thought the writer had spelled. The volunteer actually had to read the writing of the person who wrote it.

In the early days before computers, if you wanted genealogical records, you physically took yourself to the location where those records were physically kept. Then, because they were public records, you had the opportunity to look through those records until you found or did not find what you were looking for. If you were lucky enough to find a record, you made a photocopy of the record or paid for an official copy of the record.

Then there were the forward thinking people who spent the money to make microfilm copies of records. Computers had more advances in software and interphases. But all of this computer access required volunteers who actually went to the physical location where records were kept, dusted off the files, and touched each page of information so that copies could be made of the records for in-processing into the computer.

The original Freedmen’s Bureau records are preserved by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. It is a collection named “The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land” which is available for free viewing for family and historical research. It is also available to view free through <>. It is a collection you can browse online and make copies of records. It is not full search-by-name or word until the transcription has been completed, but you can still search each of the records for information you are seeking.

YouTube and <> have many visual and audio tutorials done by the National Archives and others as well as lectures on the Bureau’s records and what can be found through searching. National Archives has a series of videos on the U.S. National Archives site called “Know Your Records” to help learn and navigate all of the Archives’ records and “Access to Archival Databases for Genealogists” for additional help.

“The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land” was established by Congress in 1865-1872 with the purpose of helping and providing assistance to over four million former slaves and hundreds of thousands of poor whites in the South after the Civil War. This agency of the U.S. Department of War (because it was the only existing organization that could be assigned to the South) was established to deal with issues of provisions, clothing, and fuel, as may have been deemed necessary for the immediate and temporary shelter and supply of the destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen and their families after the Civil War.

Intended to last only one year, it became an important agency of the early Reconstruction assisting freedmen in the South. The Bureau’s powers were expanded to help African Americans and poor whites find family members who had become separated during the war. Arrangements were made to teach them to read and write which was considered critical. The Bureau encouraged former major planters to rebuild their plantations and urged freed slaves to return to work for them, while keeping an eye on contracts between the newly freed laborer’s and planters to establish a free market of laborers and employers, rather than masters and slaves.

Like many government efforts, it was very good in some respects and failed to make the mark in others. In education, the Freedmen’s Bureau, together with the American Missionary Association, directed and sponsored 25 institutions for higher learning for black youth including Howard University (named after the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau), St. Augustine’s College, Fisk University, Johnson C. Smith University, Clark Atlanta University, Dillard University, Shaw University, Virginia Union University, and Tougaloo College.

In addition to providing immediate food, clothing, medical care and legal representation, the Bureau assisted African American soldiers and sailors, as well as Southern whites, in securing back pay, enlistment bounties, and pensions. The Bureau performed marriages between former slaves, and recorded other marriages previously not recorded.

Hollis Gentry, a Museum Genealogy Specialist, said, “You’ll find African American genealogists are quite excited about the Freedmen’s Bureau Project. Each indexed document brings us closer to reclaiming our ancestral heritage and historical past.”

If you are planning a genealogy trip, Washington, D.C. is fascinating. Research travel accommodations and ask about hotel specials. Summer is hot, but wearing light clothing, comfortable shoes, drinking plenty of water, and remembering that the buildings are all air conditioned makes it doable.

The National Archives, the Daughters of the American Revolution genealogical library, The Library of Congress (which may contain copies of genealogical books which were copywrited and based on surname) and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (the ‘Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center is located on the Museum’s second floor) are only a few blocks apart and can be reached via metro or cab. Not to mention the many more Smithsonian museums available to visit free of charge.

Bio: I am a Certified Genealogist and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. I believe that the hobby of genealogy is fun, exciting, and very satisfying. Through researching genealogy, you may add skills, meet new friends, and gain new respect for those who have gone before you. You may reach me via email at ‘’ with questions or comments. I thoroughly enjoy the hobby and hope that you will too. Print your photographs of family, don’t just leave them in cyberspace. If you insist on leaving your family pictures in cyberspace, label them and mail them to your email or other locations. Label your photos with a first and last name, an approximate date, and a possible location if known. Please look for a new book from this author to be released in 2019.



By Marjory Regan

A brief bio of Marjory Regan: I am a member of the Williams Mills Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR) and a “Certified Genealogist’ Thank you for your questions, comments, problems and successes. Email me at I think genealogy is a fascinating hobby; I hope you will, too. Get Started. Do something small every day, it all add up. Label the photos! First & Last names and approximate date of the photo. Do it for an hour while watching TV.