African American accesses ancestral records thanks to Freemen’s Bureau initiative

Credit: Ron Rock
Credit: Ron Rock

History Channel supports Freedmen’s Bureau Project in commemoration of ‘Roots’ TV series.

Thanks to the global voluntary indexing effort of thousands, a southern California African-American man, having knowledge of only a few family names including his beloved grandmother’s, yet having a desire to find his roots, accessed the Church’s free website where he found multiple records of his ancestors.

His search culminated in his finding a 1700 ship’s manifest he believes to contain the name of his great-great-great-grandfather, the first man in his family to travel from Africa on a slave ship.

Following through on a friend’s suggestion, Rodgrice (Rodger) Vaughn of Murrieta, California, logged onto and began a computer journey that took him on an emotional roller coaster.

Florida-born, Mr. Vaughn, a former Marine who served two tours to the Western Pacific and currently coaches two youth basketball teams, said that seeing his ancestor’s name, Carolina Paulling, who stepped off an African slave ship into Port Charleston, South Carolina, was emotionally overwhelming.

“I’ve always had thoughtful dreams about tracing back my extended relatives,” he said. “I have been a historian. When I find my people and learn their names, I put myself in their shoes and try to imagine what they were like.”

Speaking of the man he believes is his great-great-great grandfather, Mr. Vaughn paused.

“In that small amount of time, I honestly felt as though I knew him personally and that we actually shared a long-lasting relationship,” he said.

In 2015, Church officials obtained copies of post-Civil War records created by the Freedmen’s Bureau, an organization that was formed in an effort to help 4 million freed slaves acclimate to society. The bureau solemnized marriages, provided housing, food, clothing, education and medical care. The Church’s initiative digitizes records with the help of volunteers so that people such as Mr. Vaughn can have access to these records free of charge.

In 2015, FamilySearch joined efforts with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum. Their goal is to take the raw historical records and have them completely indexed in time for the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture which takes place on Sept. 24.

Indexing can be inspiring as French Valley Ward member of the Temecula California Stake Pamela Ankeny will attest. She has been doing her family history for years but first began indexing in October 2014. That December, she was asked to be the indexing director for the Temecula California Stake.

“President Tracy Ham announced in April of 2015 that our stake’s goal was to index 1 million records before the end of 2015,” Sister Ankeny said. “I admit, there were some nights that I lay awake worrying that we’d aimed too high. What worried me was if the members of the Church would respond. That part, I couldn’t control but on Oct. 2, 2015, we had indexed 1,000,147 records. Then by the end of 2015, we had indexed 1,192,325 records. As of May 31, 2016, the Temecula California Stake has indexed 1,380,279 records.”

She said the stake’s recent goal was to extract and index 500,000 records for the Freedmen’s Bureau Project. “The handwriting can be difficult to decipher and it’s not always easy to find the information you need to extract,” she said. “To date, even with the more challenging Freedmen’s Bureau records, our stake has indexed 214,221 of these records.”

Members of the Rancho California Ward in the Temecula California Stake, Charles and Dayle Morgan, enjoy indexing the Freedmen’s records and have spent hundreds of hours working together on this and other projects.

“The Freedman records have been the most challenging because of the varied files,” said Sister Morgan “However, the Freedmen records are also the most rewarding as I read about the lives of these people. A whole letter may contain one or two names, but in finding those names, I read lots of interesting information about each one.”

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