Thursday, April 12, 2007

Slave Cohabitation Records (Caswell County, North Carolina)

Slave Cohabitation Records

Much of the following is from Archives Information Circular: Preliminary Guide to Records Relating to African Americans in the North Carolina State Archives, State of North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Office of Archives and History (1980, Revised 2002). See: Circular.

Black slaves were imported into North Carolina as early as 1694. As early as 1790, free blacks and salves constituted about twenty-five percent of the population of the state. However, very few records either in the counties or in state agencies can be identified as relating solely to African-American Carolinians. Unlike its laws, the records of North Carolina have never observed a color line, and with rare exceptions they have never distinguished between blacks and whites. In most instances, information about people of African descent is buried in data relating to the entire population. For example, marriages of free blacks prior to 1868 are documented in marriage bonds. There is no color line in wills or deeds, or in land grants, or in cases before the North Carolina Supreme Court. Therefore, few records series among the public records in the North Carolina State Archives that deal specifically with blacks. In the private collections even fewer papers relate to or were created by African-Americans.

County Records

County records do contain some information about black North Carolinians. Some of these records are: bonds, particularly apprentice bonds; court records, especially minute books of county courts of pleas and quarter sessions; estate records that include lists of slaves by name; land records that include the deeds of sale and deeds of gift for slaves that are recorded in deed books; tax records that list the number of slaves owned by the party that is being taxed; wills that bequeath slave or emancipate them; and warden of the poor records.

Other county records, however, do relate exclusively to slaves and free persons of color. They are: cohabitation records, marriage records, slave papers, and to a lesser degree, the miscellaneous records.

Cohabitation Records 1866-1868

Prior to 1865, slaves in North Carolina were not legally permitted to marry, although many of them lived together as husband and wife. Following the end of the Civil War, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation on March 10, 1866, which ordered former slaves to have their marriages recorded. Originally, the matrimony was to be registered before September 1, 1866, but in 1867 the deadline was extended to January 1, 1868. A twenty-five cent fee was paid in order for the marriage to be recorded.

Approximately 20,000 records of cohabitation have survived from fifty-two counties. The number ranges from three records in Mitchell County to about 1,900 in Craven County. They show the name of the man, the name of the woman, and they length of time they had lived together as husband and wife prior to 1866. The record also indicates before whom the statement was made. Cohabitation records usually are not indexed, and many of them were entered in random order in record books. In a few counties, however, they were filed on individual forms that are arranged alphabetically by name of man.

Cohabitation records known to the North Carolina State Archives survive for the following counties: Alexander, Alleghany, Beaufort, Bertie, Caldwell, Camden, Carteret, Catawba, Chowan, Columbus, Craven, Currituck, Davidson, Davie, Duplin, Edgecombe, Forsyth, Franklin, Gates, Granville, Guilford, Halifax, Hyde, Iredell, Johnston, Lincoln, Mecklenburg, Mitchell, Nash, New Hanover, Orange, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Person, Pitt, Richmond, Robeson, Rowan, Stokes, Surry, Union, Wake, Warren, Washington, Wayne, Wilkes, and Wilson.

Comprehensive Index: Somebody Knows My Name: Marriages of Freed People in N.C. County by County, Barnetta White McGhee, Ph.D (Iberian Publishing Co., 1995).

Note that Caswell County, North Carolina, is not included in the above list. What does this mean? For one thing it means that the North Carolina State Archives has no record of any Caswell County cohabitation records.

Does it mean that such records were never collected? Not necessarily.

Does it mean that such records were collected but lost or destroyed over the years. Again, not necessarily.

Because North Carolina state law required the marriages of slaves to be recorded and because Caswell County had such a large slave population, it is reasonable to conclude that cohabitation records were created for Caswell County. The question is: what became of them?

If they exist, the logical place to look would be in the Caswell County Courthouse. However, a recent inquiry made with the Register of Deeds produced nothing helpful.

Moreover, it is possible that the records were not preserved in an orderly fashion. Note the following, which while pertaining to Virginia, may be instructive:

The clerk at the Henry County courthouse was helpful, but puzzled when I told her I was looking for something called the cohabitation register. She had never heard of such a thing. I told her everything I knew about it. Just after the Civil War, black marriages in Virginia had been recorded in documents called cohabitation registers. Herbert Gutman [author of The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom] had found registers from four Virginia counties in the National Archives. The others had been lost or had never been taken in the first place. . . . For black families seeking their origins, the marriage register was often the best hope they had of penetrating what they called "the wall of slavery." . . . By studying these records carefully, a researcher could resurect extended families and find clues for pursuing the search further into slavery time itself. One problem was that the searchers had no idea what the records actually looked like. At another archive I had met an African-American scholar, Professor Barnetta White, who had spent years searching courthouses, libraries, and churches for marriage records. She told me that in some counties the record consisted of a pile of paper strips kept in a folder. In other counties the black marriages had been entered at the back of another ledger. Professor White said that when she went to a courthouse, she took every old ledger she could find, flipped it over, turned it upside down, and opened it. In some places the marriage record had ended up in the care of a local black church many decades ago, perhaps because the county clerk had been about to throw it out.

Source: The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, Henry Wiencek (1999) at 174-175.

Note that the Professor Barnetta White referenced above is the author of Somebody Knows My Name: Marriages of Freed People in N.C. County by County, Barnetta White McGhee, Ph.D (Iberian Publishing Co., 1995).

This reference to cohabitation records being discarded but saved by local blacks (such as a church) resonates with a story that has floated about Yanceyville, Caswell County, North Carolina, for some time. The source of the story is not known. It goes like this:

At some point when records at the old Caswell County Courthouse were in some manner being reordered, restructured, or rearranged, "all the old black marriage records were thrown in the trash." As the story continues, a black female custodian (or otherwise employed at the courthouse) salvaged the records and has them to this day. She was asked to share them with those interested in the history of Caswell County but refused. This could have been in conjunction with the move of county offices from the old courthouse to the new one.

Even if this story is true, were these slave cohabitation records? Some believe they were marriage of free blacks and not slaves.

That Caswell County slave cohabitation records did exist is suggested by the one that has been found, which is shown above.

North Carolina State Archives (Caswell County)

Title: Cohabitation Bonds and Records
Creator: Clerk of Superior Court; Clerk of Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions; Register of Deeds
Call Number:
Location: 2A.314-315
MARS Id: 220.66 (Series)
Other Ids:
Physical Description:
Other Copies:
Related Materials:
Scope/Contents: Volumes and boxes concerning the legal acknowledgment of preexisting "marriages" of former slaves under statute of 1866, including cohabitation bonds and record of cohabitation.
Index Terms
Subjects: Cohabitation; Freedmen; Marriage


1 comment:

  1. It is well know that Caswell County was heavily Klu Klux Klan. This is why the records are missing. There is nothing to contemplate on this issue.