Genealogy Notes: The Southern Claims Commission, a Source for African American Roots

By Washington, Reginald | Negro History Bulletin, October-December 1996 | Go to article overview

Genealogy Notes: The Southern Claims Commission, a Source for African American Roots


Washington, Reginald, Negro History Bulletin


"My name is John Monroe. I was born in Liberty County (Georgia). I was a slave but purchased my freedom of my master two years before the war closed. I paid $4200.00 for myself and my wife. I don't know how old I am, but I think about 36 years old. I live six miles from Savannah near the six mile post on the Atlantic and Gulf railroad. I am a farmer and cutter of wood .... My former master was R. H. McLeod. I am not in debt to him his heirs or estate in any way. He is dead now, but his wife and son live here in the city now ... no one has any interest in this acct. In any way besides myself."(1)

John Monroe is one of hundreds of African Americans - former slaves and free Blacks - who filed claims before the Commissioners of Claims, commonly referred to as the Southern Claims Commission. Established by Congress by an act on March 1, 1871, the commission reviewed the claims of Southerners who had "furnished stores and supplies for the use of U. S. Army" during the Civil War. A little more than a year later, Congress extended this to include property seized by the U. S. Navy. Citizens who filed claims before the three-member board were required to show proof of loss property and provide satisfactory evidence of their loyalty to the federal government throughout the war. Monroe, who sought payment for cattle, hogs, horses, a wagon, and other personal property taken by Sherman's army at Savannah in December 1864, testified that he had bought and paid for his property from earnings gained from his butchering business. Sold by McLeod to Col. C. C. Jones in the fall of 1863 because of "improper conduct," Monroe's claim was rejected by the commissioners because he failed to convince them how "a slave with a new master could accumulate all this property in one year."(2)

Aside from the importance of Monroe's claim, and the claims of other African American, the importance for the study of Southern social history is the extraordinary amount of personal data found in Southern Claims case files. Scattered among the thousands of pages of testimony, special reports, and affidavits is a wide range of information concerning the names and ages of former slaves, their places of residence, names of slave owners, plantation conditions, wills and probate matters, slave manumissions, slave ownership of property, slave and free black entrepreneurship, conditions of free blacks, and a great deal more on what it was like to live as an African American during slavery and the postslavery period. For the African-American genealogist whose ancestor filed a claim before the commission, the information could prove to be invaluable.

African Americans and the Claims Process

Supported by a staff of special commissioners who reviewed small claims in local areas and special agents who traveled from state to state gathering evidence in all claims, the commission collected claimants' petitions, interviewed witnesses, and secured any information it deemed pertinent to individual claims. Having no final jurisdiction on claims they reviewed, commissioners forwarded annual reports along with supporting documentation and their evaluation of each claim to the U. S. House of Representatives. The House would then vote to allow or disallow the claim and appropriate funds for payment. In almost every case the House concurred with the recommendations of the commission.

When the commission closed its doors on March 10, 1880, some 22,298 claims had been received, totaling $60,258,150.44; only a third of these claims, however, at a cost of $4,636,920.69, were allowed. Just how many of these claims were submitted by African Americans is not known; it appears that the commission did not maintain statistics on the number of claims they filed. Nonetheless, the records reveal that a small but impressive number of African Americans filed claims for the loss of a wide variety of property, including hogs, chickens, horses, cattle, mules, corn, potatoes, wheat, and other personal goods. …

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