First Wednesdays – Cohabitation Certificates

[This blog post was written by Debbi Blake, Collection Services Section Manager for the State Archives of North Carolina.]

With the abolition of slavery came many questions about the rights of freedmen, one of which was how to validate marriages. This was answered by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1866 with an act allowing formerly enslaved couples to register their marriages in the county of their residence. This act provided proof that such unions had existed, often for decades. In North Carolina, such certificates were called cohabitation records, most of which are housed in the State Archives of North Carolina. Couples were to appear before 1 September 1866, although it was later amended in order to extend the period until 1 January 1868. The overwhelming majority of couples came before the clerk of court or justice of the peace during the first targeted period of March to September. This stampede resulted in the thousands of certificates in the Archives.

Most certificates gave the names of the couple and how long they had been married and sometimes gave a date when the marriage took place. Some few counties have certificates that include the number and/or names of children born to the couple. Other counties included on the certificate the name(s) of the last slaveholder. There are extant cohabitation records for fifty-four counties, although some counties have very few. No records have been found for thirty-four counties, many having been lost in courthouse fires.

Bertie County Cohabitation Certificates, 1865-1866 [CR.010.606.1 - Miscellaneous Marriage Records, 1749-1914]

Bertie County Cohabitation Certificates, 1865-1866 [CR.010.606.1 – Miscellaneous Marriage Records, 1749-1914]

North Carolina is unique among the former Confederate states in that the law prompted the creation of over 22, 400 records related to slave marriages. Most other states proclaimed slave marriages legal without the need for registration, although some expected a new marriage ceremony be performed. The bounty of cohabitation records for North Carolina gives a clear indication of how important marriage and family were for formerly-enslaved citizens that they would rush to the courthouse during a short period of seven months to register their marriages.

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2 Responses to First Wednesdays – Cohabitation Certificates

  1. William Robertson says:

    Can you provide a list of the 54 counties for which you have cohabitation records? Is there an index of names?

  2. Ashley says:

    You can always use our online catalog MARS (http://mars.archives.ncdcr.gov) to see which counties have cohabitation records by doing a basic search for “cohabitation records.” Many of those materials are indexed down to the item level, meaning that the names of the individuals mentioned in the cohabitation records are listed and searchable. I also spoke briefly to our Search Room staff on other sources you could consult for this information and they suggested Somebody Knows My Name: Marriages of Freed People in North Carolina County by County by Barnetta McGhee White, PhD. It is a three volume reference book on this topic which includes an index and is available in the State Archives search room.

    We also have YouTube tutorials on how to search and navigate in MARS if that would be helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSQeMUz2oAg&list=PLDA29558E4DD7F67E

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