Researching African American Ancestors in Government Documents Part 4: Southern Claims Commission
The United States created numerous documents where your African American ancestor may be mentioned. Thousands of the formerly enslaved as well as free people of color are named in the records of the Southern Claims Commission. What are these records and how can you access them? In part 4 of this series examining government documents we will examine this valuable record set.
Previous articles in this series:
What was the Southern Claims Commission?Following the Civil War, southerners loyal to the Union cause sought redress for the supplies seized by the Union Army as it moved soldiers through an area. The soldiers needed food, shelter, transportation, and ammunition – all confiscated by or given to the army. On 3 March 1871, an Act of Congress created the Southern Claims Commission (SCC) to oversee the process of hearing the claims, then processing those that were allowed. The Commission operated until 1880.
The records created by the SCC are vast and include claims and testimonies of witnesses who were often formerly enslaved people or free people of color. Over 22,000 claims were filed but only about 7,000 allowed. All claims, regardless of the final status have useful genealogical information and are available to search.
Only residents of twelve southern states could file a claim. Those states included Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. What if an individual had moved to another state but incurred losses in an approved state? They also filed claims so the records include claims from a total of 24 states.
Strict criteria had to be met for a claim to be approved. A person needed to prove the following: they had lost property, they were loyal to the Union cause during the War, and they had provided no assistance to the Confederate Army.
As can be imagined, there was an overwhelming response to the 1871 act. The United States government sent out special agents to gather evidence for these claims resulting in thousands of witness and personal statements of former slave owners and the formerly enslaved. Free people of color also filed claims as their property was taken as well by the Union Army. However, they had a challenging time convincing the agents that they truly had owned property.(1)
Records are available for all three categories of claim status: barred, disallowed, and allowed. What is the difference?
Barred claims are those where the process was never completed or rejected without consideration. These could have also had lack of proof or the claimant been shown to have ties to the Confederacy.
Disallowed claims were completed and included witness statements, property descriptions, and referrals for appeals. Despite the evidence, no money was authorized. This rich record set contains many records.
Allowed claims represent those where the claim process was completed and approved. These files can contain appeals, depositions, and testimony of witnesses. These provide the most information and are rich with details.
What can be found in these records?
Why bother searching the records of the SCC? For African American research, particularly in the years following the Civil War, every piece of evidence for an ancestor is critical in reconstructing families. A claim file may include the following. Notice that in totality, these files are a unique journal of this time and place.
-Detailed first hand account of events and circumstances
-Description of US troop action & movement – military history
-Descriptions of lost property – economic, living conditions
-Loyalty oaths – family history, slave owners, relationships
-Witnesses – names of neighbors, family members slaves
Eighty questions titled “Standing Interrogatories,” were asked of every person to determine loyalty. These questions were repetitive to test the truthfulness of the information and the answers became part of the claim file. The responses could reveal personal details for the African American witnesses and claimants such as whether a slave or free, the date of freedom, the slave owner, an occupation, if a property owner, how that property was obtained.
What if your ancestor is not named in the records? The FAN club principle of research applies here. Seek out records for anyone living in the known area. Search for friend, associates or neighbors of your ancestor. This gives a broad view of the community through the eyes of a diverse group: white slave owner, enslaved, free people of color.
For example, the FamilySearch digitized collection for Alabama approved claims includes this record awarding former slave Spencer Harris $160 because his horse and corn were taken in 1864 by General Hatch.
The entire file contains 38 pages and gives additional details that the horse was worth $130 and the 15 barrels of corn were worth $5 each. They were taken for use by the army in the spring of 1864 near Athens, Limestone County, Alabama.
Four witnesses, also of Limestone County were listed as Bob Harris, Dick Harris, Austin Malone, and Henry Malone. These are family or associates of Spencer Harris and offer additional avenues for research.
The Standing Interrogatory for Spencer Harris reveals the following:
-He was about 32 years old and was a slave.
-He farmed and chopped wood for the railroad.
-He bought the horse from some refugees from Tennessee, paid $75 of greenback money.
-His master’s name was Dudley Harris who is dead. His residence was near Athens, Alabama.
-Spencer lived on land bought from Tom Hill Malone, a white man now dead.
-The witnesses attested to the fact that they saw the horse and corn taken in the “daytime openly.”
Finding the Records
The FamilySearch Research Wiki article “Southern Claims Commission,” provides a detailed strategy for finding your ancestor in the records of the SCC as well as links to online record collections on Ancestry.com and Fold3.
In addition, search the FamilySearch Catalog with the keywords “Southern Claims Commission” to find records digitized by FamilySearch or at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.
Use all available resources. The St. Louis County Library has an excellent resource page and the National Archives page for “Southern Claims Commission Case Files,” explains many details about this record group.
In addition the valuable index Southern Loyalists in the Civil War by Gary B. Mills is available on Ancestry.com. This is a master index and lists all claimants in alphabetical order with the county, state, Commission number, office number, report number, date, and status. Searching for Spencer Harris, discussed previously, his listing shows an A that his claim was allowed. Also shown on the page are those claims with a B for Barred and D for Disallowed. With that information, the file can be located, viewed, transcribed, and used for further research.
The records of the Southern Claims Commission are a must for anyone researching an African American ancestor!
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
(1) Reginald Washington, “The Southern Claims Commission: A Source for African American Roots,” Ancestry Magazine, 1999, Jul-Aug 1999, Vol. 17, No.4, p. 30; Google Books ( https://bit.ly/345zaie : accessed 16 October 2020).