Researching African American Ancestors in Government Documents Part 2 : Land and Military Records
If you are conducting African American research you might wonder what records are available? Could land and military records reveal information about an African American ancestor? Those records created by the United States government in the years before emancipation, during the reconstruction era, and post reconstruction do pertain to African Americans and this article will give a brief overview of the history involved and what records could be searched.
Part 1 of this series focused on the U.S. Federal Census, Freedman’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank Records.
Land has always been a draw for emigrants to the new world. For those of African ancestry who were enslaved, their dream of land ownership was no different. Free people of color could own land before emancipation in some states, but they were in the minority and faced many obstacles. Land ownership by an individual of African descent was seen as a threat to the institution of slavery and state statutes were enacted in the antebellum period that impacted and in many instances prohibited land ownership.
There were some exceptions such as the African American, Marie Metoyer, of Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana who owned more than 2,000 acres of land as well as many slaves who worked that land. Isle of Canes by Elizabeth Shown Mills tells the story of four generations of Marie’s family and explores the French and Spanish influences on land ownership in Louisiana for free people of color. The article “Writing a Historical Novel and Author Interview: Isle of Canes by Elizabeth Shown Mills” offers insights into Marie’s life and story.
The Port Royal experiment was the first opening of land to formerly enslaved African Americans. When the Sea Islands of South Carolina were captured in November of 1861 by the Union Army, the southern planters fled and freedmen were invited to settle and purchase land at $1.25 per acre. With the help of the Union Army and missionaries from the north, schools and hospitals were also built. In the summer of 1865, President Andrew Johnson began the process of restoring the land to the previous white owners. However, not all white landowners returned and many of the black landowners remained. (1)
The Homestead Act of 1862 provided any adult citizen who was loyal to the United States 160 acres of federal land if they planned to improve it. This set the stage for enslaved African Americans to own land upon emancipation and the 14th amendment that gave them citizenship.
During the last stages of the Civil War, on 16 January 1865, General Sherman issued Special Field Order #15 upon the advice of twenty African American leaders. This enabled the army to seize 400,000 acres of land from Southern slaveholders along the coast from Charleston, South Carolina, through Georgia, to the St. Johns River, Florida. This land was to be distributed to freed African American families in parcels of 40 acres. This effort became known as “40 acres and a mule” although there was never a promise of a mule in the actual order. This could have come from the excess army horses and mules being turned over to the Freedmen’s Bureau and that bureau being responsible to provision the freedmen. By the end of 1865, Special Field Order #15 had been repealed by President Andrew Johnson and the majority of the land returned to the plantation owners. (2)
After the failure of Sherman’s Special Field Order, the Southern Homestead Act of 1866 was enacted by the U.S. Congress to assist the newly emancipated African Americans in land ownership. It differed from the 1862 Homestead Act in that only 80 acres of land could be patented. In 1866, the southern federal land states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi still had thousands of acres of land available for settlement. Much of this swampy or heavily forested land seemed unsuited for planting and had not been claimed.
After emancipation, northern politicians saw this land as an opportunity to give the landless an opportunity for land ownership and ban ex-Confederates from purchasing the land. (3) The land also could not be purchased for railroads or timber operations, only by homesteaders and for two years would be for a tract of 80 acres. For most of the formerly enslaved, the cost of the land was too high. Coupled with Black Codes that were enacted by southern state legislatures, the Southern Homestead Act did not provide as much of an opportunity for African Americans as hoped. However during this era, freedmen entered about 6,500 claims to these homesteads and about 1,000 of the these resulted in land patents. (4)
The Freedmen’s Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was established to help the new freedmen, and aid in their efforts to acquire land through these initiatives. The bureau officials acted as intermediaries between the freedmen and land offices and the result was the creation of many records related to the land. Part 1 of this series discusses the Freedmen’s Bureau Records and how to search them.
The homestead acts encouraged a westerly migration where federal land states had available land. The Freedmen’s Bureau officials assisted the search for land in the five southern states, but not all land commissioners could “find land” for African Americans. Gradually the pull of new lands in the west resulted in some all-black towns that offered a place of opportunity and hope for newly emancipated people. Some notable examples and links to the stories of these towns: Nicodemus, Kansas, Dearfield, Colorado, Sully, South Dakota, DeWitty, Nebraska, Empire, Wyoming, and Blackdom, New Mexico.
Where can you search for an ancestor’s homestead records? The Bureau of Land Management website has a searchable index for land patents that were successfully issued. If an ancestor is found in the index, the patent image can be viewed, but for a more complete record, the land entry case file should be ordered from the National Archives for many additional details.
For more help with federal land records see these articles:
Back to the Basics with Land Records: Part 1 : why search land records, the difference between state and federal land states, and how land is measured in both.
Back to the Basics with Land Records: Part 3 – Land Grants & Patents : the process of applying for a land patent.
Back To School: Those Valuable Homestead Records : more about the Homestead Act of 1862 and an example of two case files.
African Americans served in a variety of military engagements and generated the same types of government records as their white counterparts: pensions, bounty land certificates, compiled service records, and military personnel files. Following is a brief look at the major wars and the involvement of African Americans. For more in-depth study see these excellent resources: Military Resources: Blacks in the Military (hosted by the National Archives) and Military History of African Americans (a Wikipedia article containing numerous links to other articles and sources).
Colonial America and the Revolutionary War
Few African Americans contributed to military efforts in Colonial America as they were still enslaved or indentured servants. By the Revolutionary War, more had earned their freedom or escaped from slavery and this was the first conflict that saw a significant number of freed blacks recruited to serve in the militia. About 15% of the American troops consisted of African American soldiers.
War of 1812
The newly formed United States Congress passed four acts in 1792 relating to the military. The second Militia Act of 1792 stated that only free white able-bodied citizens ages 18-45 were eligible for militia service – thus excluding those of African ancestry. With the advent of the War of 1812, the question of blacks serving in the military was again raised. The Militia Act of 1792 prohibited African Americans from serving in the army and most state militias, but the navy had no restrictions. The navy suffered from a chronic shortage of men and African Americans were welcomed to aid in the fight against Britain.
Louisiana had all-black militia units raised from the freed people of color population. These units were the exception to the army’s ban on African American’s service.
African Americans served in the navy and in the Louisiana Battalion of Free Men of Color, but were relegated to servants of the officers in the army during the Mexican War of 1846.
At the beginning of the Civil War, African Americans served only in the Union Navy. The majority of the men were free blacks from the Northern states and Canada, but gradually their numbers swelled to include recently enslaved men. (5)
Since the Militia Act of 1792, blacks had not been allowed in the army, but recognizing the need for more manpower, on 22 May 1863, General Order No. 143 was issued and the Bureau of Colored Troops was established. Over the next two years the United States Colored Troops (USCT) grew to include 175 regiments made up of free blacks and freedmen.
At the beginning of the Civil War, the Confederate Army included a local militia unit consisting of free men of color from Louisiana. This unit was disbanded in 1862 and people of African descent, whether free or enslaved were recruited as laborers. At the end of the war, some black troops were promised freedom in return for fighting for the Confederacy but they never saw combat.
After the Civil War, African American soldiers who fought in the Indian Wars became noted as “Buffalo Soldiers.” They built roads, guarded the U.S. mail, and served in a variety of roles in the expanding western frontier.
In 1898, the United States was again embroiled in an international affair, this time with Spain. The Buffalo Soldiers were again called up to service. Both Volunteer Army Units and National Guard units consisting solely of African Americans were formed.
World War I
The United States entry into World War I saw many African Americans enlisting in the military. The units remained segregated and most did not see combat, instead serving in support roles building road, bridges, and entrenchments.
World War II
Segregation continued in the military throughout World War II. Many of the units became famous because of their valor such as the Tuskegee Airmen which eventually led to desegregation. President Harry S Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on 26 July 1948 abolishing discrimination in all United States military branches.
Segregation had been abolished by President Truman’s order of 1948 but the military had not yet desegregated the units. Racial prejudice and discrimination resulted in the mistreatment of the African Americans who served.
African American soldiers for the first time were fully integrated into the military units, fighting side-by-side with their white counterparts. Public perception that the black soldiers were receiving more casualties and deaths than white soldiers caused racial tension and riots in the United States.
The history of African Americans in military records is vast and if an ancestor is thought to have been involved in any way with the military, learning more about the conflict is key to gaining understanding. Some simple strategies can aid you in your search.
Strategy for Locating the Records
United States military records are comprised of the following basic groups: compiled military service records (CMSR), military pension records, bounty land records, and military personnel files. To locate an ancestor’s records do the following.
– Look for clues that the ancestor served in the military in home sources such as medals, newspaper clippings, discharge papers, etc.
– Search each U.S. federal census for clues of military service.
– Consider the time period and war that an ancestor might have served in.
– Research the location of the ancestor at the time of the war.
– Use the FamilySearch Research Wiki to learn about the various record collections that would apply to the war, time period, and locality.
– Use indexed collections first then order records from the National Archives.Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
(1) J. Jackson, “Port Royal Experiment (1862-1865)”, 23 June 2011, BlackPast (https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/port-royal-experiment-1862-1865/ : accessed 2 September 2020).
(2) Roy W. Copeland, “In the Beginning: Origins of African American Real Property Ownership in the United States,” Journal of Black Studies 44, no. 6 (2013): 646-64, JSTOR (http://www.jstor.org/stable/24572860 : accessed 1 September 2020).
(3) Paul Wallace Gates, “Federal Land Policy in the South 1866-1888m” The Journal of Southern History 6, no. 3 (1940): 303-30, JSTOR (doi:10.2307/2192139 : accessed 2 September 2020).
(4) Wikipedia contributors, “Southern Homestead Act of 1866,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Southern_Homestead_Act_of_1866&oldid=928906905 (accessed September 2, 2020).
(5) Joseph P. Reidy, Black Men in Navy Blue During the Civil War,” Prologue Magazine, Fall 2001, Vol .33, No. 3; National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2001/fall/black-sailors-1.html : accessed 2 September 2020).