George Henry Roane: the new Freedmen’s Bureau databases on FamilySearch are incredible research tools

UPDATED: 15 July 2015.  Thanks to a distant cousin, whom I’ll refer to as Mia, more information about this story has come to light. Mia spent the day in the Library of Virginia ad made some amazing discoveries.

The digitized Freedmen’s Bureau records just keep throwing up surprise after surprise. Some of these surprises have answered some questions I’ve had over the years – like how some individuals in a locality were related to one another. Other surprise record finds have relayed experiences that were tragic, poignant and, occasionally, humorous. I can’t stress this enough – if you’re an African American researching your southern Emancipation Era ancestors…the Freedmen’s Bureau records and databases are tools you need to familiarize yourself with.

As a quick re-cap, the records held by the Freedmen’s Bureau’s national office – as well as its regional and local offices throughout the American south – were produced from 1865 to 1872. I’ve seen a handful of records pertaining to people who were 100+ years old when they were freed (meaning they were born roughly around 1765) who mention their parents and grand-parents by name. One record like that can push your family’s genealogy and history back to the 1690s and the first decades of the 1700s.

These databases don’t just cover freed slaves, either. They are treasure troves that also have records for blacks who were free men and women during the time of slavery.

I’ve heavily researched the Freedmen’s Bureau’s banking records database. These were the records produced when emancipated blacks opened up bank accounts with the Bureau. In numerous cases, the names of the account holder’s parents, siblings and children appear. This is invaluable information if that ancestor’s family were split up and sold to separate owners throughout the south. This information allowed me to connect tangent lines to my family tree.

I’ve stumbled across a new Freedmen’s database on FamilySearch.org which has offered some stunning finds. The database I’ve discovered is called the Records of the field offices for the state of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands: NARA, RG105, M1913, 1865-1872. True, the database I used is specific for Virginia (here’s the link https://familysearch.org/search/collection/1596147). For other southern states, please see the link provided at the bottom of this post.

What can you find?

Lists, ledger entries, notes, reports and letters related to:

  • Rations for freedmen and women who were ill, incapacitated, infirm/crippled and those without employment and incapable of providing for themselves (this is a dark aspect of Emancipation I’ll be covering in my next port)
  • Medical relief to both freedmen and white refugees
  • Supervised labor contracts between planters and freedmen
  • Administered justice involving freedmen
  • Petitions to and work with benevolent societies in the establishment of schools and poor houses
  • The opening of several hospitals for the sick and infirm, schools and places of worship

My 3x great grandfather, George Henry Roane (1796-1876) is going to kick things off.

GEORGE HENRY ROANE vs THE EXECUTORS OF MAJOR EDMUND CHRISTIAN’S ESTATE

Even though he was a recognized member of the aristocratic slave-owning Virginian Roane family, George was sold to Edmund Christian in Henrico County, Virginia – and not his son-in-law, John D Warren, as previously believed. Mia is hoping to find the deed record of George’s sale to Edmund Christian.  Both of us are hoping this will provide the elusive link to the Scotts-Irish Roane who owned him. It will, we hope, shed some light on which Scots-Irish Roane was his father (March 2016 update: we now know that William Henry Harrison Roane was George’s father via 2 DNA tests).

Language around slavery is tricky to use. Americans haven’t had an honest and open discussion about slavery, its ramifications, much less its aftermath. So forgive me if I use terms which may appear inappropriate.

George was thought of very fondly by his second owner, Edmund Christian. In a Codicil of his March 1851 Will, Edmund willed George an annuity of $30 per annum for the remainder of George’s life. 1851 – a decade and a bit before the civil war. In other words, George was still a slave when Edmund left him this annuity in his will. He received the annuity due to the manner in which he had served Edmund. I’ve yet to come across anything remotely like it.

In this will, George’s children are mentioned. I knew of three children: Patrick Henry Roane (my direct ancestor), Anthony Roane and Edmund Roane. Edmund Christian’s will provided three more names: Priscilla, George and Joseph. Mia’s message about the previously unknown children was an exciting piece of information – one I was so happy that she shared with. She shared it with me pretty much as soon as she made the discovery. The will also confirmed the name of George’s wife, Eliza.

You can read a digital copy of Edmund Christian’s will and codicil below (courtesy of cousin Mia) – click the thumbnail to see the larger image.

Upon Edmund’s death, as per the terms of his will, his daughter, Edmonia, became the mistress of George and his family. When Edmonia married John D Warren, the ownership of George and George’s family appears to have transferred to him.

The relationship between John Warren, his wife Edmonia Christian Warren, George and George’s family also appears to have been a close one. Both sides seem to have held the other in high esteem. The relationship was close enough for Patrick Henry Roane, George’s son, to name his only daughter after Edmonia Warren when his daughter was born in 1871.

From what I can gather from the court documents, Edmund Christian Sr’s son William, one of the executors, died insolvent. His son, William Christian Jr, was  left to handle his grandfather Edmund’s estate. George’s payments ceased. Whether George knew this or not is unclear.  He pursued the matter of his legacy through a petition lodged with the Freedmen’s Bureau’s Richmond Field Office.

It’s worth bearing in mind that, although free, those of African descent (including those who had always been free people of color) could not bring a lawsuit against someone of European descent. Not directly. An intermediary was required. The Bureau’s Richmond Office was George’s intermediary.

Here’s one record about the case. It’s the Freedmen’s Bureau record that sparked off this whole journey of discovery about George’s case:

image for George Henry Roane's lawsuit against Christian estate

Freedmen’s Bureau, Richmond Office, correspondence re: George Henry Roane’s suite against the executors of Edmund Christian’s estate. Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPLQ-RYC : George Ronn, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2414642.

My initial hunch that George won his suit was, in the end, wishful thinking. It transpired that he lost his case. The Codicil, which had bequeathed him the annual annuity, was deemed to be invalid. The documents are a bit hazy about why. It’s interesting that the defense counsel for the Christians didn’t use an insolvency argument.  That would have been the logical, the understandable, route to take. No, not a bit of it.  Instead, the Christian’s counsel went with something almost surreal: that the Codicil and annuity to George were only applicable if George were still a slave. In other words, that the annuity  had been Edmund Christian’s way of a moral reparation to a fondly remembered slave. Now that George was free, there was no longer a moral obligation to carry out the deceased’s wishes.

You can click on the images below (courtesy of Mia) to see the larger image.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Still, what a prized find! And it all began with the discovery of one digitized record.

I was curious about how much $30 from 1868 would be worth in 2014. The answer? Approximately $750.00. I’ve used a historic standard of living value of income or wealth as a comparison. A Historic Standard of Living measures the purchasing power of an income, or wealth, in its relative ability to purchase a (fixed over time) bundle of goods and services such as food, housing, clothing, etc that an average household would buy. I feel it’s the best economic comparator to use. No matter how you cut it, $30 was a nice chunk of money in 1868.

One hint when searching these databases…use every variation of names you’re aware of. For instance, when researching the Roane side of my family, I got the best results for the whole of the family when I searched on: Roane, Roan, Rone, Rhone, Rowan, Rowen and Rowand.

Here’s a link to other vital Freedmen Bureau databases: https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/African_American_Freedmen%27s_Bureau_Records

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