Tracing your roots: Were my married slave ancestors forced to live apart?

Geneaologist Henry Louis Gates takes a deeper look at matrimony during slavery.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Lindsay Fulton, NEHGS Director of Research Services | 1/28/2017, 10:12 a.m.
Geneaologist Henry Louis Gates takes a deeper look at matrimony during slavery.
Henry Louis Gates

A historical document that appears to legalize a marriage formed under bondage in 1858 suggests a heartbreaking scenario for one woman’s ancestors. Professor Gates and his team of genealogy researchers address the answers she seeks.

Dear Professor Gates:

I am trying to learn more about my enslaved ancestors Sandy Butner and Mary Jane Powe in Rowan County, N.C. I have attached the documentation showing when they were legally allowed to marry in 1866. Sandy was born in 1835 and Mary Jane was born in 1843. They began “cohabitating” as husband and wife in 1858. It appears that Sandy was owned by a Larson Butner and Mary was owned by A. J. Powe, but I need your help verifying this. —Latanya Mclain

The document that you sent us was a sad reminder of the fact that enslaved persons could not legally marry in any of the slave states or territories until 1865. As a result, prior to the end of the Civil War, unfree men and women would live in relationships that they considered to be marriage, even though those unions were not legally recognized. These relationships were even sometimes encouraged by the slave owners, since they would help ensure the institution of slavery and limit the number of runaways.

What Marriage Meant for the Enslaved

As Heather Andrea Williams, a National Humanities Center fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, describes in an article published by the NHC: “Many owners encouraged marriage … and sometimes gave small gifts for the wedding. Some owners honored the choices enslaved people made about whom their partners would be; other owners assigned partners, forcing people into relationships they would not have chosen for themselves.”

When an enslaved couple were married, they may have lived in the same residence with their children, or they may have lived in a so-called abroad marriage, according to Williams. Since you told us they had separate owners, we considered whether Sandy Butner and Mary Jane Powe lived in an “abroad marriage” relationship, where, according to Williams, “a father might live several miles away on a distant plantation and walk, usually on Wednesday nights and Saturday evenings, to see his family, as his obligation to provide labor for an owner took precedence over his personal needs.”

Of course, following the Civil War, black couples sought to formalize their relationships. According to Reginald Washington, writing for the spring 2005 issue of Prologue, after emancipation in 1865 the military undertook solemnizing these unions, followed by the Freedmen’s Bureau. Specifically in North Carolina, where your kin lived, a March 10, 1866, measure legalized ex-slave marriages.

“Once informed of the law, tens of thousands of North Carolina freedmen couples reported their marriages to county courts,” Washington wrote. The marriage record that you included with this question, which you told us came from the “archives for Rowan County, N.C.,” could be such a document. It formally recognized the relationship of Mary Jane and Sandy, which the couple had viewed as a marriage since Dec. 24, 1858.