Valley of the Shadow
The Aftermath
Spring 1865–Fall 1870

Freedmen’s Bureau

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.

Read the Freedmen’s Bureau Register of Complaints.