Newspapers and television news stations carry stories or commentaries about gay marriage rights nearly every day now. The question of who can legally marry is once again a hot topic, as it was when the slaves were freed in the 1860s, and when the civil rights movement of the 1960s led to the decriminalization of interracial marriage.
Slaves could not legally marry because they were considered property, not people. They had no civil rights. Former slaves who obtained their freedom usually had the legal right to marry, but this depended on the time period and the areas in which they lived.
Although slaves didn’t have the legal right to marry, masters could allow them to hold a ceremony or simply declare themselves a couple.
All slaves became free during the Civil War. Individual states passed legislation that dictated how those who had been “married” as slaves could legitimize the marriage and the children born to it.
In 1865, the government formed the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, generally known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, and placed it under the War Department.
The bureau’s mission was to help the newly freed slaves become self-sufficient. Officials oversaw labor contracts, established schools and hospitals and represented the former slaves in legal matters and disputes.
But one of the bureau’s most important duties — as far as family historians are concerned — was helping the freed men to legalize the marital relationships into which they entered as slaves, and locate and reunite families of slaves who had been separated from each other because of slave sales.
Marriages of former slaves who tied the knot after the war are recorded in the county in which the license was issued — although for many years in most places the marriages were entered into separate log books and marked as “colored marriages.” So these Freedman’s Bureau records serve only to give us an official record telling us specific couples were making official and legitimate the relationships in which they had lived for a few or many years.
During the seven years that it operated, the Freedman’s Bureau created records that identify about 4 million former slaves. Some of the marriages legitimized with the end of slavery date back to the early 1800s. They are indeed treasures for descendants of these slaves.
The records contain all or some of the following details:
♦ The date the marriage was registered
♦ Names and residences of the bride and groom
♦ Age and color of the bride and groom
♦ Color of the bride’s and groom’s parents
♦ How many years the bride lived with other male slaves or the groom lived with other female slaves.
♦ Cause of the separation from earlier relationships
♦ Number of children with former companions
♦ Number of children with current companion
♦ Name of officiating minister
♦ Names and ages of children
The bureau’s original marriage records are housed at the National Archives in Washington, D. C., and in various regional archive facilities, and they have been microfilmed on five rolls, each available for $125.
But the good news is that these records also have been digitized by FamilySearch and are available at no cost at familysearch.org/search/collection/ 1414908.
The records include images of bound volumes and unbound bundles of loose papers. These records are indexed, but researchers also can browse by state.
An excellent article by Reginald Washington, originally published in the National Archives magazine Prologue, is online at archives.gov/ publications/prologue/2005/spring/freedman-marriage-recs.html
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at [email protected] She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.”