President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring the end of slavery in Confederate-held territory. In the months thereafter, Congress worked to ensure the proclamation was upheld and ultimately established a temporary branch in the War Department to aid the freed people in their transition from slavery to freedom. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, or the Freedmen's Bureau, created on March 3, 1865, oversaw the social welfare of the freed people within the former Confederate states. The Freedmen's Bureau assisted the formerly enslaved, providing access to education, filing compensation claims for military service, collecting and distributing land, and finding employment. In mid-1865 the Freedmen's Bureau began to register the unions of the formerly enslaved people. In 1866 the Virginia General Assembly passed the Legitimization Act that declared that all unions of “colored” men and women living together, or cohabitating, as husband and wife, were legal and ordered the registration of their marital and familial status. Commissioners for the Freedmen's Bureau were responsible for recording the marriages of freed people living in Virginia's counties and cities. The cohabitation records also documented their names, ages, children, the names of their former owners, and the length of time the couple had cohabitated as husband and wife.
Under slavery, the government did not recognize or legally protect slave marriages; neither did most slave owners. If an enslaved man and woman wished to marry, they had to ask for permission from their owners. While slave owners would allow their enslaved people to have marriage ceremonies, this did not mean the unions were considered legal or that slave owners recognized their marriages as binding. In some cases, couples who came from different plantations could only see each other on a designated visitation day, which was usually a Saturday. Enslaved families also lived under the constant threat of separation by sale. Slaves could be sold and separated during times of financial stress, after the death of the master or mistress, or by the will of the slave owner. Many slave owners used the threat of sale in attempt to control the enslaved.
Between 1815 and 1860, changes in agricultural production and continued western movement created a great population shift from the upper to the lower South. As a result, an increasing number of slaves were sold out of state, which forced the separation of many enslaved families. Thus, numerous enslaved children were raised by members of the slave community or extended family became their caregivers when enslaved children were separated from their parents. These substitute family arrangements helped to preserve strong familial obligations within the slave quarter. The reality of forced separation also made it necessary for enslaved African Americans to develop creative methods of maintaining communication over long distances. The interconnecting networks throughout different plantations weakened the slave community's dependence on the slave owner.
Freed couples registered their unions with the Freedmen's Bureau in large numbers in 1866. Some couples had been together for ten or twenty years when their marriages were legally recognized. Many couples reported being forcibly separated during slavery, but some were able to reunite after emancipation. Cohabitation registers document the fact that long marriages and two-parent households had been common under slavery. The Freedmen's Bureau also registered any children living with the couples, making the children legally legitimate and eligible to inherit property.
1. For many freed people the cohabitation record was the first legal record of their last name. Why would it be important for a person to legally record such information as his or her surname and the names of family members?
1. Why are cohabitation records so important to African American genealogists today?
Only about twenty-one Cohabitation Registers are known to survive in the custody of Virginia circuit court clerks, the Library of Virginia, or the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Surviving registers are very rare, but are significant records for reconstructing black family histories. They record not only genealogical information, but also in most cases are the only place such personal information as the surnames of the formerly enslaved people are recorded. These pages of the Augusta County record were found in the Augusta County Circuit Court Clerk's Office in 2007.
Berlin, Ira, Marc Favreau, and Steven Miller, eds. Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation. New York: The New Press, 1998.
Gutman, Herbert G. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.
Wicker, J. Tivis. “Virginia's Legitimization Act of 1866.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 86, no.3 (July 1978): 339–344.
Morgan, Lynda J. Emancipation in Virginia's Tobacco Belt, 1850–1870. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.