Reconstruction-Era Marriage Certificates of the Recently Emancipated 

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
July 14 2014 12:31 PM

Reconstruction-Era Marriage Certificates of the Recently Emancipated 

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

Here are three marriage certificates for formerly enslaved people, out of the many in the records of the National Archives. In their tallies of children borne and notes about separations through sale and military service, such certificates tell small histories of families’ lives under slavery. 

Two were issued under the auspices of the Freedman’s Bureau (the Bureau of Refugees, Freedman, and Abandoned Lands), the federal agency that assisted emancipated slaves in a broad range of post-war needs, including legal matters like settling emancipees on land, securing back pay for soldiers, and solemnizing informal marriages.

Advertisement

The Freedman’s Bureau’s policy on marriages had to take into account the shifting circumstances of life under slavery. Rules issued in August, 1865, for the Bureau in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, stipulated a course of action for prospective spouses who had been previously married, but had no idea what had happened to their partners. If such prospective spouses could

produce satisfactory evidence of having been separated from their companions by slavery for a period of three years, and that they have no evidence that they are alive; or, if alive, that they will ever, probably, be restored to them, they may be allowed to marry again.

In his reading of black Union veterans’ applications for pensions, historian Donald R. Shaffer found evidence that a good portion of emancipated former slaves chose not to get legally married, even once they had a chance to do so. Shaffer argues that tradition—“the belief of some former slaves in the sanctity of informal unions”—was strong, and the cost of the license could be prohibitive. Likewise, some chose to marry in their community churches, without bothering to receive government sanction.

1MarriageCert

National Archives.

My transcript of notes section: “Isaac had a 1st wife named Margarette. These parties have been separated by sale once and have again opened the marriage relation since the war.”

2MarriageCert

National Archives.

3MarriageCert

National Archives.

My transcript of notes section: “Stephen went off with Genl. Wilders command of US Troops in 1863 and was heard from at Louisville Ky soon after Hood’s raid to Nashville, probably went by the name of Sanders or Calhoun.” 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?