Researching African-American families requires a good deal of
ingenuity when it comes to locating records. Just imagine ... no surnames until
emancipation and then taking on an identifying name and often changing it. Add
to this almost always no legally recorded vital records. Determining anything
about black ancestry requires the researcher to divide what is known about the
family into the slavery era and then into the emancipation era.
instances word of mouth has kept the information alive as to the names of
masters of slaves. If researchers are lucky, they may find journals, diaries or
bills of sales that pertain to the slave-holding family and their slaves.
Newspapers often contain information on runaway slaves, but locating extant
newspapers can be detailed research.
In the location you suspect your
ancestor lived as a slave, check the county court records for any documents that
pertain to the master. Wills often contain provisions for slaves, usually as
chattel property being left to t he heirs. However, you may find some
manumission records that will prove helpful. There may also be sale bills
pertaining to slaves.
In the case of marriages, slaves were married as
the master saw fit. There may be a record of the marriage within the plantation
records, or if the master preferred they may have been married by a minister.
Normally legally recorded marriages between slaves are rare. The law and customs
varied by states and many states enacted laws that prohibited slave marriages.
They were often married by "jumping over the broom."
Never assume there
is no record of a pre-emancipation slave marriage. Always look for records of
the plantation in such places as historical societies, libraries (state and
local) and also check out the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections
(NUCMC). This is in larger libraries or some can be checked online at . Be sure
to enter locations and names in your search.
Two months after the end of
the Civil War the B ureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was created
by Congress. It is commonly referred to as the Freedmen's Bureau. This newly
formed bureau was under the jurisdiction of the secretary of war and officials
were commissioned in the eleven Confederate states and Maryland, West Virginia,
the District of Columbia and Kentucky. The bureau was interested in seeing that
freedmen were legally married. In May of 1865 it was ordered that "in places
where the local statues 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
There was no uniformity to any of the record keeping within
the states. Researchers should look first in county and state archived records
for cohabitation records. These can be found normally within marriage records
and if not found, ask if they are located in another jurisdiction.
Marriage records of the Freedmen's Bureau have been microfilmed by the
National Archives, M1875, RG105; Marriage Records of the Office of the
Commissioner, Washington Headquarters of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and
Abandoned Lands, 1861-1869, United States Congress and National Archives and
Records Administration, 2002. Field office records are available on microfilm
for Alabama, Arkansas, New Orleans, Georgia, Florida and the District of
Columbia. Assistant commissioner records for Mississippi (includes some marriage
registers) are also on microfilm M826. Some information and marriage records of
the Freedmen's Bureau can be found at The Freedmen's Bureau Online - Black
History at http://www.freedmensbureau.com/
The following are excellent articles pertaining to
African-American research, in particular marriage records and the Freedmen's
"Marriage Registers of Freedman" by Elaine C. Everly, Prologue,
Fall 1973, Vol. 5, No. 3
"Jumping Over the Broomstick: Resources for
Documenting Slave Marriages'" by Christopher A. Nordmann, Ph.D, CGRS
National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 91, No.3, September 2003,
As with any genealogical research, all types of records must
be studied, but African-American research can prove challenging because of the
lack of records, delayed records, changed surnames and no surnames. The evidence
often does not present itself in a traditional form.
This article was originally published by GenealogyToday.com.
Ruby Coleman is a genealogical author, professional researcher, lecturer,
instructor and free-lance writer. She has written articles on genealogical
computing for AntiqueWeek.
She is a contributing writer for Computer
Interest Group Newsletter of the Colorado Genealogical Society/Computer Interest
Group, Denver, CO and the Illinois State Genealogical Society publications. Her
special interest is in genealogical computing and genealogical research of the
Plains States with primary focus on Iowa and Nebraska.
2005 by Ruby Coleman -- All Rights Reserved. This article may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from the