A Research Trip to the US National Archives


Over the holiday break, I visited the United States National Archives in Washington, D.C. for a short research trip. The Archives are home to a seemingly unlimited amount of documents and resources accumulated by our government over the past few hundred years, and because it is our government, we (read: citizens like you and me) have access to these resources for research purposes. The documents on hand range from legislation, census records, immigration and passport documents, tax records, and numerous other official documents relating to the US government. Researchers and the public use these documents for all sorts of research, ranging from academic studies to personal genealogical research. For the purpose of this trip, I was particularly interested in the collections of documents relating to The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau.

The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by the US Government following the Civil War, with the purpose of helping newly-freed African Americans establish themselves in the post-slavery era. The Bureau’s activities ranged from settling contract disputes between whites and blacks, building schools and colleges for African Americans, and registering marriages between African American couples. The Bureau was represented in all the former Confederate states, as well as the Union border states that still had slavery throughout the War. This included Maryland. These offices all produced a copious amount of paperwork, all of which is housed in the Archives, and made publicly available through microfilms.

The objective of this particular research trip was to identify any instances within this documentation that relate specifically to Dr. Brome and the African Americans who lived and worked on his plantation during and immediately following slavery. I had an advantage in that, thanks to the 1870 census and Dr. Brome’s list of slaves he lost during the War, I had names of all these individuals. Another advantage was that Maryland’s Bureau representation was small compared to other states, meaning that there were (relatively) fewer documents to sort through. Nonetheless, these types of searches can often end up being like hunting for a needle in a haystack, and this trip was no different.

A secondary, and more achievable, goal, was to also gain an idea as to what the climate in Maryland and St. Mary’s County was like immediately following the Civil War. Because the Bureau only operated until 1869, it provides a glimpse into a very specific and complicated period of time in the United States’ history, when the social structures had been turned upside down, and everyone had their own idea as to what it meant to be a free black. This tension played out in numerous ways, and the Bureau mitigated many of those instances. I was hoping to find some specific examples that would shed some light on how this played out in Maryland.

 Working in any archive is a delicate business. The documents you are handling are old, and archivists go to great lengths to both ensure that you are able to use them, but also that they will be preserved so that future generations can also use them. Also, these documents can be valuable, so theft is another concern. The US Archives is no different, and there are a number of rules that must be followed. Security is tight, and you must pass through a medal detector on entering, and have your bags checked when you leave. There are also rules about handling documents, pulling documents, and what type of writing utensils you are allowed to use (pencil only!).

In order to peruse the Freedmen’s documents, I used microfilm. This is a type of storage that allows hundreds of documents to be copied onto spools of film and viewed through a special viewer. It is beneficial for two reasons. First, it allows for the storage of lots of documents in a very small space. Second, it means that the original documents don’t have to be handled as often, because researchers can examine and copy the document on the microfilm.

I spent two days looking at microfilms, and didn’t have much luck finding anything relating to St. Mary’s Manor. Truthfully, I wasn’t expecting to find much, but I wanted to be certain. I did find one reference to a family that moved onto the plantation after the Civil War: the marriage record of John Bush and his wife, Ann. This gives us another piece of information about John and his family, who played an interesting role in post-slavery St. Mary’s City.

Read about John Bush and Education in St. Mary’s City.

I also found some interesting documents about the post-slavery climate in Maryland. Included among these is a letter detailing a race riot, and a fascinating list of marriages with commentary about the individuals who were getting married. In some cases, these comments heaped praise on the industriousness of the couple, in others, the notetaker spoke poorly of their prospects. I hope to share some blog posts about these in the coming months, as they give an interesting glimpse into a number of issues regarding race, gender, and the complex climate in post-slavery Maryland.

In all, the trip was worthwhile. I would recommend you take a chance to poke through the US Archives online collections, and if you happen to be in Washington, D.C. stop in for a visit. They have wonderful resources and are a public institution, meaning you have access to it all!

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