by Ruby Coleman
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.
In some 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 the 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
Two months after the end of the Civil War the Bureau 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 gospel." 1
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
The following are excellent articles pertaining to African-American research, in particular marriage records and the Freedmen's Bureau.
"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, pp 196-216. 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.
"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, pp 196-216.
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.