The Valley of the Shadow

Freedmen's Bureau

About the Bureau | About the Register of Complaints | About the Cohabitation Records

About the Bureau

The Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau, was created by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865, just a few weeks before Abraham Lincoln's assassination. The Bureau was initially chartered to operate for just one year, but continued until 1868 under the care of commissioner General Oliver O. Howard, who was aided by assistant commissioners in every Southern state and by hundreds of local agents.

As its full name suggests, the Bureau's work combined care for millions of newly freed slaves and the administration of Southern lands seized by Union forces during the war. The Bureau was authorized to distribute much-needed food, fuel, clothing, and medical supplies to the freedmen; to regulate labor and contracts; to aid in the founding of schools and churches; to ensure justice in all legal cases involving freedmen; and, perhaps most promisingly for freedmen in 1865, to distribute abandoned and confiscated Confederate lands among former slaves for rental and eventual sale.

At the local level, the Bureau was usually bitterly opposed by white Southerners and firmly supported by African-Americans. Its work was hindered by local opposition, inadequate funding from the federal government, and the politics of Reconstruction on the national stage. The restoration of confiscated property to white Southerners under Andrew Johnson in 1866 required the displacement of tens of thousands of freedmen, undermined the work of the Bureau by eliminating its primary source of funding, and doomed the Bureau's initial policy of promoting black landownership.

W. Storer How arrived in Staunton, Augusta County, Virginia, in July 1865 to open his headquarters for the Freedmen's Bureau in the Shenandoah Valley. The office operated continuously until the closing of the Bureau in December 1868, tending to the needs of freedmen in Augusta and Highland Counties.

Initially, Staunton was the location of How's headquarters for the Sixth District, which comprised most of the counties of the central and northern Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. How, though, found Staunton inconvenient and moved his headquarters to Winchester in October 1865. Nevertheless, an agent (or Assistant Superintendent--later named Assistant Sub Assistant Commissioner) always remained in Staunton, answering to his Superintendent in the District Headquarters.

Five men served as Bureau Agents for Augusta County. Frederick Tukey, a civilian, served twice from August 1865 to May 1866, and again from January to April 1867. Lt. George T. Cook then served as the local agent from June to December 1866. Thomas P. Jackson, a civilian originally from England, enjoyed the longest administration, serving from April 1867 to March 1868. Jackson was replaced by Colonel John W. Jordan, the former Sub Assistant Commissioner in Farmville, Virginia, who served only a few months in Staunton, from March to September 1868. The last man to serve as an agent in Staunton was Roswell Waldo, another civilian who served from September to December 1868

Little is known about the personal lives of these men who served in Augusta County, but through the records left in the Bureau's files they all showed a dedication to improving the economic condition and social status of the newly freed African-American population of Augusta County Virginia, no matter how they came to Bureau service.

The Freedmen's Bureau in Augusta County faced the same problems as other offices across the South. Its most pressing concerns included serving as an advocate for the African-American population of the county in matters of employment, contract settlement, legal issues, education, and poor relief. In matters of employment, agents strove to ensure that contracts between freedmen and their former masters were fair and executed properly. Lack of legal justice proved to a significant problem in post-bellum Augusta County for former slaves, and often the Staunton agents found themselves embroiled in the local court system on behalf of the freedmen. The Bureau also tried to serve as a mediator between the black and white communities of the area in an effort to diffuse tempers and tensions that often arose. Knowing that an education would be the most important part of ensuring the freedmen's futures, Bureau agents spent much of their time setting up and supporting local schools. Finally, the local agents worked tirelessly to reunite freedmen's families torn apart during slavery, locating family members who had been sold away years before.

Throughout its short life, the work of the Staunton office was hindered by its limited budget, the staggering administrative burden shouldered by its agents, and the antagonism of local whites. Both the local agents and the freedmen fought through resentment and hardship to try and build a life for African-Americans in an Augusta County without slavery.

About the Register of Complaints

The two bound volumes that made up the "Register of Complaints" for the Augusta County Freedmen's Bureau is an invaluable resource that records some of the rich detail of the lives of newly freed blacks in the first years after the Civil War. The Assistant Superintendents of the Bureau used the Register (which they referred to as the Complaint Book) to record the complaints and concerns that freedmen and whites brought to the office, and often the subsequent actions taken. Unfortunately the two volumes are water-stained, making it difficult to decipher many words and phrases, but every effort has been made to make as complete a transcription as possible.

The majority of complaints concerned employment contracts and wages, as well as other financial transactions. Typical complaints involved either the employer's failure to pay the agreed upon wage, or the employee's failure to fulfill his or her side of the contract. Such cases contain a wealth of information about wage levels for men and women, and other forms of compensation such as clothing, food and shelter. Bureau agents helped to mediate these conflicts through the settlement of a monetary claim or the re-negotiation of the terms of labor. The register also contains entries related to property rental rates and terms, a source which casts light on the movements of freedmen in and around the county as they tried to settle down with their families and built stable lives.

Another issue that frequently surfaces in the register is that of crime. Bureau agents often served as legal advisors and representatives to freedmen, and the register records many of the details of crimes committed against, and by, freedmen. Such crimes range from accusations of petty theft and larceny to disorderly conduct, to serious violence. Agents usually evaluated the merits of a complaint before passing it on to the proper authorities, and their conclusions are sometimes preserved in the register. The cases preserved in the register seem to demonstrate that crime crossed racial boundaries just as often as it occurred within the black community.

The register is also an excellent source for investigating family life and personal relationships among freedmen. Assistant Superintendents took down requests to search for missing family members sold out of Augusta County before or during the war, and once found, the efforts to bring them home. The Register of Complaints contains many entries related to the formalization of familial relationships, and some of the conflicts related to marriage--such as spousal violence and infidelity

Aside from the three areas of employment, crime, and family, the register also touches on many other aspects of post-bellum life in Augusta County. These include efforts to relieve the poverty of the sick and elderly and to supply newly-created freedmen's schools, claims filed with the Federal government, and occasionally the administrative minutiae of the Bureau office.

About the Cohabitation Records

The Cohabitation Records, officially titled, "Register of Colored Persons, Augusta County, State of Virginia, Cohabiting Together as Husband and Wife," are a record of free African American families living in Augusta County immediately after the end of the Civil War. The records were created by the Freedmen's Bureau in an effort to document the marriages of formerly enslaved men and women that were legally recognized by an act of the Virginia Assembly in February 1866.

There are 896 couples listed in the register, paired with lists of the children (and their ages) the couple had together. The most important record in the register was that of a marriage between two freedpeople, who had often entered into marriage during slavery and therefore had lacked the legal recognition and protection of the state. The register also lists when the couple reported their marriage to the Freedmen's Bureau for inclusion in the register, their ages at the time of registration, birthplace of both husband and wife, their current residence, and the occupation of the husband. Additional comments were occasionally added by the Bureau agents who recorded the couple's information.

The Freedmen's Bureau agents in Augusta County registered these marriages from May 1865 until September 1866. These records were apparently copied and forwarded to state officials, while the original was kept on file at the Augusta County courthouse, where it remains today.

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