African American slaves were generally denied the right to a legally recognized marriage, but following the Civil War an attempt was made to document and otherwise legalize the marriages of former slaves (or freedmen) and to recognize the children born of that union. These records, known as cohabitation records, provide information on couples who had lived together as man and wife prior to emancipation. According to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), most southern states "in some form or another legalized former slave marriages and recognized the children of such marriages as legitimate."
The earliest efforts of the federal government to recognize slave marriages began in 1864 "with military officers and civilians who supervised "contraband" camps where freedmen sought refuge during the Civil War. . . . Many of the 'pre-Bureau' marriage registers, along with other marriage records created by wartime superintendents, were later turned over to the Freedmen's Bureau when it was formed." The Freedmen's Bureau, established in 1865 was responsible for "the supervision and management of all matters relating to the refugees and freedmen and lands abandoned or seized during the Civil War. . . . including assisting ex-slave couples in formalizing marriages they had entered into during slavery," although collecting practices varied and for some states few if any such marriage records exist.
For those that do exist, however, the information is rich and, pre-dating the 1870 U.S. Federal Census, may be the first recorded information on slave families, including the names of individuals, their ages, where born, last known slave holders, approximate year of marriage or cohabitation, and possibly the name and ages of any children.
Generally found in the offices of the various counties, State Archives (for example, North Carolina) and through the National Archives, many of the Freedmen's Bureau Marriage Records collection and other cohabitation records can also be found online, through commercial, university and many private websites, indicated by county and state, some indexed.
Help us improve this frequently asked questions area. Please send us feedback or additional questions.