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Freedmen's Bureau Marriage Certificates
by Edwin B. Washington, Jr.

Introduction

The marriages documented in this appendix occurred during the period covered by Book 1 of the Gloucester County, Virginia, marriage register, but were not recorded there because of the social and political atmosphere preceding the War Between the States.  Our goal in publishing these records in conjunction with Book 1, is to present a more accurate account of the marriage activity among Gloucester County citizens during the 1860’s. Our efforts in this regard, are consistent with those of the United States Congress which, on January 24, 2000, passed HR5157, the “Freedmen’s Bureau Records Preservation Act of 2000.”  The following two paragraphs are contained in that legislation:

“The Archivist shall preserve the records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly referred to as the ‘Freedmen’s Bureau,’ by using--

(1) microfilm technology for preservation of the documents comprising these records so that they can be maintained for future generations; and…”

In August 1861, four months after the start of the War, Reverend Lewis C. Lockwood, an officer of the American Missionary Society (an abolitionist society, created in 1846 by the merger of several anti-slavery societies) arrived at Fort Monroe, Virginia, in which Camp Hamilton had been established as a haven for runaway slaves from Virginia and North Carolina.  Soon after his arrival, Rev. Lockwood began to perform marriages among the former slaves.  On October 10, 1861, he filed a report acknowledging that he had performed thirty-two such marriages.  The couples and their dates of marriage are listed in Section 2 of this appendix.

On March 28, 1864, Brigadier General Lorenzo Thomas, then Adjutant General of the United States, issued an order that the marriages of former slaves be recorded.  The following statement appeared on marriage certificates issued in Tennessee:

“This certifies that I have this day joined in lawful marriage, [husband] of [husband’s residence] and [wife] of [wife’s residence] in compliance with the ordinance of God, and by authority of the United States of America, vested in me, in accordance with No. 15, Special Orders of the Secretary of War, issued by Brig. Gen. L. Thomas, Adjutant General U. S. A., dated Natchez, Miss., March 28, 1864.”

On March 3, 1865, Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands within the War Department. One duty of the Freedmen’s Bureau was to continue this practice and become custodian of the marriage records (also called cohabitation records or certificates).  Persons researching African American genealogy and history in Gloucester County are somewhat fortunate that these records remain extant.  No other Virginia freedmen’s marriage certificates, except those presented in this appendix, were located within this record group at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Following the close of the War, the Virginia Assembly enacted two laws establishing procedures for recording the marriages of former slaves. It is evident from the absence of these records in Book 1, that Gloucester County did not follow through on either of these laws. The first law, enacted in 1866, established a state law to continue the policy established by the Freedmen’s Bureau, with respect to former slaves’ cohabitation as married couples.

“…Where colored persons have agreed to occupy the relation of husband and wife and shall be cohabiting together as such at the time of this act, whether the rites of marriage have been celebrated between them or not, they shall be deemed husband and wife and their children legitimate. When the parties have ceased to cohabit before the passage of this act in consequence of the death of the woman or from any other cause, all the children of the woman, recognized by the man to be his, shall be deemed legitimate.” 1

The second law, enacted in 1867, sought to retrieve copies of freedmen’s marriage certificates from the federal government and record them in the appropriate Virginia county courthouses.

“It having been represented to the Assembly that the United States authorities have collected statistics exhibiting the marriages heretofore solemnized between colored persons which ought to be preserved, and the Assembly being solicitous to preserve evidences for legitimizing the offspring of such marriages, the governor is instructed to obtain from the United States authorities registers of marriages between colored persons and have copies deposited with clerks of courts.” 2

These records, which appear in Section 3 of this appendix, were handwritten on strips of paper with no pre-printed information. For the most part, identifying titles, such as “Husband’s name,” “Wife’s parents,” “Husband’s occupation,” etc. were not included on the pieces of paper.  During the transcription of the records, titles were inferred, using Gloucester County marriage certificates of the era as a source for information most likely sought from the participants, as follows:

  • names of husband and wife (maiden name)

  • parents of each participant

  • marital status of each participant prior to ceremony

  • birthplace of each participant

  • place of each participant’s residence

  • husband’s occupation

  • number of living children born to the couple

The last piece of information, which does not usually appear on a marriage record (i.e., the number of living children born to the couple) must have been requested at the time, and distinguishes these records from other marriage records.  Within Virginia laws, there were several references to the children of former slaves “recognized by the father as his.”  In most of the entries, the number of children is listed with no explanation.  It is assumed that the information represents the number of children the husband acknowledged to be his.

Also, there are items of information that are noticeably omitted from these entries.  With few exceptions, they contained no dates (entries containing any form of date information, have been identified with “**”).  Freedmen’s marriage certificates found for the neighboring state of Tennessee, contained the date of issuance and an approximation of when the cohabitation began. And, with the exception of Rev. Lockwood’s report, none of the Gloucester records identify the authority that performed the ceremony and/or issued the certificate.

Although titles for the entries were inferred and the information is presented in a format consistent with the presentation of Book 1 entries, efforts were made to preserve the original spelling and misspelling.  In a concession to brevity, the birthplace and place of residence is omitted when the entry contains or implies “Gloucester County.”

Researchers wishing to personally examine the original entries, can locate the records at the National Archives and Records Administration, in Washington, DC as follows:

  • Record Group 105.2, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands

  • Records of the Washington Headquarters

  • Records of the Commissioner

  • Textual Records: Entry 44, Freedmen's Marriage Certificates 1861 - 1869

  • Box 3 of 3 (Tennessee, Virginia)

References:

1. Guild, June Purcell. 1936. Black Laws of Virginia: A Summary of the Legislative Acts of Virginia Concerning Negroes from Earliest Times to the Present. Whittet & Shipperson, 1996. Reprint, Karen Hughes White and Joan Peters, Lovettsville, Virginia: Willow Bend Books.

2. Ibid.

 

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Last Updated  Friday, 30 January 2004 06:20 PM