Back in 2007, I got married in the Brooklyn church that my parents were married in 46 years earlier. Surrounded by loved ones and friends, it was a very momentous day. When I think about my ancestors right after the Civil War, newly emancipated and facing an uncertain future, I imagine that an opportunity to legitimize their union must’ve been just as momentous.
During Reconstruction, the U.S. government established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) to help formerly enslaved persons throughout the South legalize marital relationships, find work, set up schools, reunite with lost relatives, etc.
My great-great-great grandparents Squire Martin and his wife Lucinda Nicholas are listed in the Augusta County, Va., Cohabitation Records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, where they registered their union and the names of their five children on June 15, 1866. The children’s ages ranged from 1 to 15. At that time, according to the document, Squire was working in “Iron Works” in Waynesboro, Va. After studying census and birth records, I learned that they’d had a total of eight offspring by 1872. One was my grandmother’s maternal grandmother, Alice. Another was Cassius (who I mentioned in a previous post about my Pennsylvania coal-mining kinfolk).
From The Valley of the Shadow (part of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia):
The Cohabitation Records, officially titled, “Register of Colored Persons, Augusta County, State of Virginia, Cohabiting Together as Husband and Wife,” are a record of free African American families living in Augusta County immediately after the end of the Civil War. The records were created by the Freedmen’s Bureau in an effort to document the marriages of formerly enslaved men and women that were legally recognized by an act of the Virginia Assembly in February 1866.
There are 896 couples listed in the register, paired with lists of the children (and their ages) the couple had together. The most important record in the register was that of a marriage between two freedpeople, who had often entered into marriage during slavery and therefore had lacked the legal recognition and protection of the state. The register also lists when the couple reported their marriage to the Freedmen’s Bureau for inclusion in the register, their ages at the time of registration, birthplace of both husband and wife, their current residence, and the occupation of the husband. Additional comments were occasionally added by the Bureau agents who recorded the couple’s information.
The Freedmen’s Bureau agents in Augusta County registered these marriages from May 1865 until September 1866. These records were apparently copied and forwarded to state officials, while the original was kept on file at the Augusta County courthouse, where it remains today.
For more information on Cohabitation Records, go to: https://wiki.familysearch.org/en/Cohabitation_Records