The Application for a Marriage License

Smith-Waters wedding

Smith-Waters wedding

This summer I discussed the little known records usually called Petition for Letters. I discussed how this record, when found, often names all known heirs of a deceased individual.

A similarly useful record is the Application for a Marriage License. We all seek out marriage records for our ancestors, and I have previously talked about the various kinds of records created at marriage and the need to understand how each one is different. The granting of a Marriage License indicates that the individual meets the state laws with regard to marriage.

They are frequently  found among the form records created for marriage, as seen in the first part of the Arkansas record below:

Arkansas Record

Arkansas Record

However, be sure to check if the Application for a Marriage License survives for your research localities. Sometimes, states required more information to be provided in the application that does not appear in the license itself. The example below, from Pennsylvania, provides not just ages and birthdates for the bride and groom, but also their parent’s names, and even requests the *invaluable* maiden name of the mothers:

Pennsylvania application

Pennsylvania application

I know that Pennsylvania and Ohio both had periods of time where parental information was required for marriage. A Pennsylvania marriage record proved key for my research when it uncovered the name of my 3rd great-grandparents. That is probably the only surviving document that names the couple; their daughter’s death certificate did not.

As always, remember that some of the most valuable records are not available online. Check your local courthouse or state archives to see if any Applications for Marriage License survive and what information they held. They might just hold the answer to unlocking more of your ancestry.

P.S.: On an unrelated note, I want to highly recommend Drew at http://www.pixlfixl.com/ for any picture repairs you may need. I had a badly damaged photo that was repaired beautifully–it is a rare photo of my grandmother and many of her first cousins, but it had terrible water and mold stains, beyond my ability to repair. The website is easy to use—upload a picture and you’ll receive a quote of what it will take to repair. I will definitely be using his services again in the future. Here’s the before and after (there are more examples in the gallery of his website):

Badly Damaged

Badly Damaged

Beautifully Restored

Beautifully Restored

Slave Distributions

One of the most important pieces of information those of us researching enslaved ancestors need to know is how the slaves are distributed after the owner’s death. If we’re lucky, there’s a will that tells us to whom each slave is bequeathed. Most of the time, there’s not. There are many wills that simply say to my “wife, child, etc., I leave all of my estate both real and personal….” If luck is on our side, we’ll find at least an inventory, but that won’t tell us which child got which slaves. For that, we need to find the estate distribution. For an estate that includes slaves, that document might include slave distributions. Here’s a good example I recently found in Montgomery County, MD. This is the portion of the inventory showing the slaves of Nicholas Griffith, who died in 1814:

N. Griffith

N. Griffith

There are 20 slaves listed with monetary values and no indication of families, which is common. In the same probate book, I found the distribution of Nicholas’ estate between his wife, who by law is entitled to 1/3, and his 6 children (I have cropped just the entry showing the slaves):

GriffithSplit1_clip GriffithSplit1_clip2 GriffithSplit1_clip3 GriffithSplit2_clip1 GriffithSplit2_clip2 GriffithSplit2_clip3 GriffithSplit2_clip4 GriffithSplit2_last

Sadly, the primary goal was to make sure each child received approximately the same value in property. Most of Nicholas’ children inherited 2 young slave children. I’d like to believe Nicholas’ widow, who inherited 7 slaves, had at least taken 29 year old Milly with 4 of her kids, ages 8 months to 9 years.

I haven’t researched this family, but the hope is that they lived near one another such that the families of slaves were not entirely broken. But as the probate, land and other sources demonstrate over and over again, very young children were very often sold away from parents, and couples were very often split apart .

 Look for these estate distributions when you are researching enslaved ancestors. They are difficult to find. I personally have many more cases where this information could not be located in records. Sometimes they can be found in original probate loose papers, so be sure to examine those where they exist.

I’ll also share another interesting thing I’ve seen a few times in probate records. Where testators willed that slaves be freed at certain ages, the birthdates were sometimes copied into the probate records so the appropriate date of manumission could be established. Richard Thomas came from a prominent and wealthy Quaker family, and they founded the town of Brookville. They were famous for having freed their salves very early on, and creating an enclave of free blacks, churches and school long before the Civil War.

How fortunate any researcher connected to this family would be. Thomas recorded the birthdates of his slaves in the probate book:

ThomasWill1_volH_clip Slave research, as I’ve said before, is not for the faint of heart and often feels like a game of chicken. But be a diligent researcher and rest assured that you may uncover something, if only a name of an ancestor long silenced and whose memory was lost to time. Even if I can’t find a birthdate or a family group, I always feel a sublime satisfaction at uncovered the name of an enslaved ancestor.

Readers, tell me: have you uncovered any slave distributions, and if so, where did you locate them?

Note: If you are in the Metro DC area, don’t forget to check out my good friend Tim Pinnick tomorrow at 1:00 at the Suitland Family History Center. He will be speaking on “Finding African-Americans in Historic Newspapers,” a subject that he is an expert on.

Slave Research in Tennessee Bibles

I contend that the Tennessee State Archives and Library (TSLA) is one of the country’s best, and the service I have received over the years from its dedicated employees has been magnificent.

They just finished digitizing and uploading hundred of bibles in their collection. I spent some time perusing through the files, which are organized by surname. Any family that finds these records is a truly fortunate.

I hope that more African-Americans will submit copies from their family bibles. But consider that there is another valuable way we can use existing collections: researching the slaveowning family. Some slaveowners recorded the births and deaths of their slaves in their bible records. I was surprised as I perused these bibles just how many did just that.

The  Frazier Titus family recorded the births from slaves named Emaline, Ann and Julia, and recorded the death of Harriet:

Titus

Titus

In 1870, Frazier relocated from Nashville to Memphis; just a few doors away is a black woman named “Emaline”—perhaps his former slave?

Titus 1870

Titus 1870

The James Wood bible includes entries noting the birth of three children of Judy. There is also a faintly visible message, called “Relative to the origins of our servants”. That section includes bible verses in Genesis and also about Hagar. This is a reminder that whites often used the Bible to support the idea that blacks were inferior and that slavery was ordained by God.

Wood

Wood

The George Hale (and Henry) family of Blount County, TN, included two pages (with the quaint title of “Servants”) of at least 3 generations of their enslaved people.

Hale

Hale

Lastly, the Overton family tracked the births of “Negro Mary’s” 3 children:

Overton

Overton

 

Seek out bibles at other state archives, and also in historical and genealogical societies as well as library and university manuscript collections. I know that NGS has a large collection of family bibles accessible by members. Readers, tell me, have you used bible records in your own research?

Freedmens Bureau Labor Contracts

Figure11Familysearch is rolling with Freedmens Bureau Records. They now have Field Office Records digitized for Alabama, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia! I have been looking at Alabama, which is one of my research states, and I am struck by several things.

Labor Contracts are one of the first categories of records that researchers should browse within Freedmen’s Bureau records, if they exist for that particular location. I posted awhile ago a suggested process to follow while searching these exasperating records. I have been searching through contracts in the city of Tuscumbia, Alabama. Most were for the calendar year of 1866. Contracts are very valuable because they were most often made between slaveowners and their former enslaved laborers.

After reviewing about a hundred of these agreements, I realize they tell us something more about the experiences of our enslaved ancestors.

There was no standard labor agreement; some were short where others went into great detail. What is apparent is that white planters were most interested in returning if not to slavery, than as close to slavery as possible. These agreements illuminate why it was so difficult for former slaves to achieve anything close to economic independence. Social equality was of course, off the table. What’s also clear is the devastation of freeing 4 million slaves who for the most part had no property of their own, were illiterate, and had no land when farming was the only skill most of them had. It was a recipe for disaster.

Slavery studies tell us also that freedmen wanted to get their wives out of the fields and refused to work as long and hard as they did during  slavery. Most agreements spell out that planters would provide the land, tools, animals, and seed, while freedmen would cultivate and gin the crops. Some planters paid the freedmen in cash, but most paid freedmen by giving them ½ or 1/3 of the crop. Agreements vary on who would provide clothing, medicine, and food. The restrictions on their behavior was what struck me most, as well as the ability of the planter to unilaterally cancel the agreement for supposed bad behavior.

Most added that freedmen were not allowed to either leave the plantation or have visitors without consent of their employer. What kind of freedom was that about? While freedmen tried to get more flexibility, planters all but forced them into year-long agreements instead of shorter timeframes. The language used in the agreements show the lengths some planters went to maintain not only their workforce but their absolute power and supremacy over that workforce:

  • Fred Sherrod, in addition to providing land, tools, animals, feed, cabins, meat and meal required the freedmen to  “commence work at daylight and work the entire day except for half hour for breakfast and dinner, to work six days out the week, and to work at night if necessary.”
  • D.W. Hicks added that freedmen would “abstain from all impudence, swearing or indecent and profane language to or in the presence of employer or his family.” Other planters added that freedmen had to be “respectful, obedient and submissive at all times.” That is a very interesting word choice…..submissive.
  • Kirk and Drake demanded in their contracts that there be “no general conversation to be carried on during work hours.”
  • Joseph Thompson wasn’t leaving any detail to chance. His lengthy agreements spelled out that freedmen would “do fair and faithful mowing, patching, hauling, plowing, howing, reaping, chopping, making rails, & boards, making and repairing fences, gates, houses, cribs, barns, shops, sheds, gin houses and all labor necessary for successful cultivation & management of plantation…Commence work at sunrise and stop at sunset reserving one hour in spring, fall and winter months and one and a half hours in summer for dinner…freedmen are not to leave the plantation w/o permission and they labor for Thompson at all times except the afternoon of  Saturday which is reserved to them for working their own patches…but…when the crop is behind or when any extraordinary occasions occur which requires their services on the afternoon of Saturdays it is to be rendered faithfully and cheerfully.” Thompson’s view of the freedmen is evident when he further states “anyone failing to work for any cause will be charged 50 cents/day and if any freedmen shall become habitually idle, worthless and troublesome then he or she will be discharged and sent from the plantation never to return.” He also noted that a journal would be kept of all start and finish times, quality and quality of work.
  • William Hooks may have been more progressive than other planters as he added in his agreements that he would see to it that “peace, harmony and good feelings prevail and equal rights are given.’ That was a rarity.

My guess is that these agreements reflect what the former slaves’ lives were like with that particular owner. By 1870, many of these former slaves would be still living near their former owners. They had few choices. William Ricks is shown below, from the 1870 Colbert County, AL census. His high real estate value suggests prior slaveownership:

1870 Wm Ricks

1870 Wm Ricks

Here is a portion of his labor agreement with several freedmen:

Freedmens Bureau contract

Ricks Contract

Many of his contracted freedmen (Jack Ricks and William Fort) are still living near him in 1870:

Freedmen

Freedmen

This was about the control of labor, plain and simple. It was also about trying to enforce dependence, and continued racial subjugation. That the US Government choose to perpetuate servitude and dependence at that moment in time is one of the greatest, in my mind, tragedies of U.S. History. Let’s not forget that many of the planters broke these agreements: Bureau Complaints are filled with refusals to pay the freedmen when the crop came in, violence against them, or just plain kicking them off the plantation after the crops were in.

Take a look at these valuable records. Seeing original historical documents still has a powerful impact on me, a strong emotional impact. They tell us much about our ancestor’s plight and the hardships that “freedom” brought.