Marriage Registers of Freedmen
Fall 1973, Vol. 5, No. 3 | Genealogy Notes
By Elaine C. Everly
The records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in the National Archives include some unusual but valuable items—marriage certificates of recently freed slaves and registers and other records containing information about slave families. These items are quite fragmentary and they are by no means a complete record of family life before emancipation, but they have been useful to historians and sociologists who have examined them because data about the slave family is not generally plentiful.
The Freedmen's Bureau was created by Congress just two months before the end of the Civil War, placed under the jurisdiction of the secretary of war, and put in charge of all matters affecting the approximately four million former slaves. While the physical welfare of the freedmen was the first and major concern of Commissioner Oliver Otis Howard and the officers who assisted him in the eleven Confederate states and Maryland, Kentucky, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia, bureau officials were also interested in improving the quality of life for the freedmen. Thus, the bureau encouraged the establishment of elementary schools and institutions of higher learning and gave money and supplies to local governments and private groups who started schools. Howard also wanted to ensure that freedmen were legally married. In May 1865 he ordered his subordinates that "in places where the local statutes make no provisions for the marriage of persons of color, the Assistant Commissioners are authorized to designate officers who shall keep a record of marriages, which may be solemnized by any ordained minister of the gospel."1
In issuing his order, Howard was continuing a practice started earlier by superintendents of the government camps to which freedmen fled during the war. Many of these superintendents were ordained ministers who performed marriages, issued certificates, and kept records of the ceremonies in addition to issuing rations and clothing. No policy governed the practice, however, and no uniformity resulted in the way the marriages were recorded.2
Howard's order created no uniformity either. The semiautonomous bureau organizations in the states responded in differing ways, and therefore the quantity of the marriage records for each state varies considerably. In Alabama, for example, Assistant Commissioner Wayne Swayne ordered his officers to solemnize no marriage unless the probate judge of the county where the female lived had denied application. He did generally urge remarriage of all persons previously married without license or living together, suggesting "private" affairs celebrated "without festivities." When the state convention adopted a resolution validating all slave marriages, Swayne published the new regulation and issued no further instructions concerning the marriages of freedmen.3
Assistant commissioners in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas adopted courses similar to Swayne's; they instructed their subordinates to inform freedmen of state laws relating to slave marriages. There is no evidence, however, among bureau records in the National Archives that its officers in these states actively registered marriages or issued licenses and certificates.
In Arkansas, on the other hand, superintendents issued marriage certificates, occasionally performed the ceremonies themselves, and made regular reports to the assistant commissioner in Little Rock. Consequently, the Arkansas bureau records contain a relatively large quantity of marriage information. Assistant Commissioner John W. Sprague directed his subordinates "to keep and preserve a record of marriages of freed people, and by whom the ceremony was performed."4 Some officers interpreted Sprague's instructions more liberally than others. The register kept at Fort Smith shows no information about the individuals who were married beyond their name, age, and residence. The agent at Arkadelphia, however, also recorded the color of the persons marrying, the color of their parents, the number of years they had lived with another person, the reason for the separation, and the number of children by the previous union.
In Mississippi the bureau likewise took an active part in recording and solemnizing freedmen's marriages. Assistant Commissioner Samuel Thomas ordered his officers to issue both marriage certificates and forms to authorize ministers to marry blacks. If no minister was available to perform the ceremony, a bureau officer was to officiate. Thomas also gave detailed instructions for keeping registers of such marriages.5 Mississippi is the only state where marriage registers were consolidated in the office of the assistant commissioner; four of these are among the bureau records in the National Archives.
Other assistant commissioners adopted different policies. Maintaining that "the sacred institution of Marriage lies at the very foundation of all civil society," South Carolina's Assistant Commissioner Rufus Saxton issued "marriage rules" outlining the duties of husbands and wives and stating who was eligible to marry and to perform the ceremonies.6 Robert K. Scott, Saxton's successor, also appointed a superintendent of marriages to instruct freedmen about the obligations of married life. However, there are no marriage registers among the South Carolina records.
The bureau took no official steps to inform freedmen living in the District of Columbia about laws relating to marriage until April 1866 when the Reverend John Kimball was appointed superintendent of marriages and ordered to "regulate this important matter among the freedpeople."7 Kimball and his assistants canvassed Washington and the areas surrounding the city and explained that by an act of Congress of July 1866 all persons who recognized each other as man and wife were now legally married. They presented couples with certificates that carried the text of the law printed on the back. The issuance of some of these certificates is documented in a register that shows the names of the couples, their former residences, the dates of their marriages, by whom the ceremonies were performed, and the numbers of children.
In Tennessee, Kentucky, and Louisiana, officers were told to follow the state laws regarding marriage but to issue licenses if local authorities refused to do so. Kentucky bureau officials were also instructed to license black preachers to solemnize rites of matrimony, and couples who had been living together were directed to submit their cases to bureau officers who would then decide whether to issue certificates. Virginia superintendents were merely told to make a registry of persons who had been declared husband and wife by the state law of February 1866; only a few of these registers are among the bureau records in the National Archives.
Although the marriage records are fragmentary, they contain valuable information about slave families. Many slave couples had lived in monogamous unions even though they had not been able to marry legally. Marriages among whites were civil contracts to be duly enforced by state laws, but slave marriages—whether the couple had been united in a religious ceremony or had simply "come together"—were regulated only by the masters. Mansfield French, a bureau employee in South Carolina, believed the white planter class had actually discouraged slaves from forming stable unions, developing among them the "conviction that the institution of marriage was only a matter of convenience to the slave, and of pecuniary interest to the master." Freedmen told French that slaves did not cultivate affection for their spouses or children because "it only made the pangs of separation, which were liable to occur any day, the more insufferable." Yet French found among freedmen in South Carolina many examples of "ardent and enduring conjugal love" and several couples who had lived together happily as long as fifty years. French thought the emancipated blacks appreciated the right to legalize their marriages and reported that he had witnessed many public ceremonies in which groups of couples "solemnly promised to live in love and fidelity to each other until death should part them."8 Other Freedmen's Bureau records, such as the portion of the District of Columbia register shown on this page, confirm French's observation about the durability of slave marriages.
By the end of 1868 almost all of the bureau officers had been withdrawn from the states, and in 1872 the bureau was abolished. By that time all states had provided for the marriage of freedmen. Registering marriages and issuing licenses and certificates had been but a small part of the work of the Freedmen's Bureau, but the surviving marriage registers and returns of licenses and certificates issued by bureau officers and the missionaries and superintendents of freedmen who had preceded them are an important group of records.
Elaine C. Everly retired from the National Archives and Records Administration in 1999. She spent much of her long career as an archivist working with 19th-century military records. Her doctoral dissertation was on the Freedmen's Bureau in Washington, DC.
1. Headquarters, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Circular 5, May 20, 1865, Vol. 139, Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives Building (hereinafter cited as RG 105, NA).
2. See, for example, Registers of Freedmen at Camp Barker, D.C., June 1862 - Dec. 1863, Vol. 101 (D.C.), RG 105, NA.
3. Headquarters, Assistant Commissioner for Alabama, Circular 1, Sept. 7, 1865, Vol. 16 (Ala.), RG 105, NA.
4. Headquarters, Assistant Commissioner for Arkansas, Circular 3, June 24, 1865, Vol. 22 (Ark.), RG 105, NA.
5. Headquarters, Assistant Commissioner for Mississippi, Circular 1, July 3, 1865, Vol. 31 (Miss.), RG 105, NA.
6. Headquarters, Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, General Orders No. 8, Aug. 11, 1865, RG 105, NA.
7. Headquarters, Assistant Commissioner for the District of Columbia, Special Orders No. 31, Apr. 23, 1866, Vol. 26 (D.C.), RG 105, NA.
8. M. French to R. K. Scott, No. 6, 1866, enclosed in Scott to O. O. Howard, Nov. 1, 1866, S 559, Vol. 8, Annual Reports of Assistant Commissioners, RG 105, NA. See also John Blassingame, The Slave Community (New York, 1972), and Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution (New York, 1956), p. 341.