Cohabitaion Registers in Virginia

After the mid-seventeenth century, enslaved people in Virginia and throughout the South were not permitted to enter legal marriages. Although slaves regularly entered non-sanctioned marriages, slaveholders also regularly disregarded those relationships and separated families at will. The Cohabitation Act of 1866 had its origins in 1864, when a constitutional convention met in Alexandria and prepared and put into effect a new constitution for what was known at the time as the Restored government, the government of the portion of Virginia that remained one of the United States during the Civil War. The Constitution of 1864 abolished slavery.

On December 6, 1864, in his first annual address to the General Assembly after the adoption of the new constitution, Governor Francis H. Pierpont made several recommendations for changing state laws as a consequence of the legal end of slavery in the part of Virginia over which his government had jurisdiction. “A perplexing question to the minds of many arises out of the marital relations which now exist among these freed people,” he informed the legislators. “The code of slavery disregarded the marital rights of slaves, yet they formed their matrimonial relations. Many of them have been separated by the arbitrary power of the master by selling husband or wife who were carried to distant parts.”

The governor recommended that the assembly pass a law recognizing as legal the marriages that enslaved men and women had entered into “according to the usages existing among them while in a state of slavery,” that such married couples as had been permanently separated by their masters be regarded as legally divorced, and that their acknowledged children be declared legally legitimate. The assembly did nothing on that subject during that session.

Slavery was effectively abolished in Virginia when the Confederate government collapsed at the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Army enforced the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Constitution of 1864 extended the Restored government’s authority throughout the state. Pierpont moved the capital of the Restored government to Richmond in the spring of 1865, and the assembly authorized election of a new assembly in October that consisted of representatives of all the counties and cities of Virginia. When the new assembly first met on December 4, 1865, the governor renewed his recommendations that the laws be changed for the benefit of the freed people and again asked the legislators to legalize marriages begun in slavery times and to make their acknowledged children legitimate.

“A law should be passed,” Pierpont urged, “requiring the clerk of each county or corporation court to keep a book, in which, at the joint request of a negro man and woman, who have heretofore been living as man and wife, he shall register their names and the date of their marriage … This registry should be considered a lawful marriage and legitimate the children of the parties, and impose on them all the obligations of husband and wife and of parents. A license should be required to be obtained by those desiring to marry, as in the case of white persons; but a separate register should be kept of all such licenses granted. I would recommend that a law be passed authorizing the courts to grant permission to colored ministers of the gospel to celebrate the rites of matrimony.”

Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina

If the family is the building block of society, it is also the keystone of historical understanding. Nowhere is this more evident than in the study of black people who were free in the slave societies of the Americas. Often the product of relationships between slaves and free people of various admixtures of African, Native American, and European descent, the free blacks’ familial origins and subsequent domestic connections determined their legal status and shaped, in large measure, their social standing. No one has made this point more forcefully than Paul Heinegg, who, during the last twenty years, has meticulously constructed and reconstructed the genealogies of free people of color in Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Delaware. Now, with this expansion of his earlier book on North Carolina and Virginia, Heinegg has extended his work to South Carolina. Taken together, Heinegg provides the fullest discussion of the familial origins of free people of color in the Anglophone colonial South.

Ira Berlin

slves in va








Family Search – Virginia African Americans

Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina from the Colonial Period to About 1820. Fifth Edition. Two Volumes



Virginia Slave Names – Unknown No Longer

This database is the latest step by the Virginia Historical Society to increase access to its varied collections relating to Virginians of African descent. Since its founding in 1831, the VHS has collected unpublished manuscripts, a collection that now numbers more than 8 million processed items.

Within these documents are numerous accounts that collectively help tell the stories of African Americans who have lived in the state over the centuries. Our first effort to improve access to these stories came in 1995 with publication of our Guide to African American Manuscripts. A second edition appeared in 2002, and the online version is continually updated as new sources enter our catalog (

The next step we envisioned would be to create a database of the names of all the enslaved Virginians that appear in our unpublished documents. Thanks to a generous grant from Dominion Resources and the Dominion Foundation in January 2011, we launched the project that has resulted in this online resource. Named Unknown No Longer, the database seeks to lift from the obscurity of unpublished historical records as much biographical detail as remains of the enslaved Virginians named in those documents. In some cases there may only be a name on a list; in others more details survive, including family relationships, occupations, and life dates.

Unknown No Longer does not contain names that may appear in published sources at the VHS or in unpublished sources located in repositories other than the VHS. On the other hand, those whose names appear in the database need not have lived their lives solely in Virginia, for our collections contain plantation records, for example, kept by Virginians who moved to other states, taking their slaves with them. In addition, if we know that an individual named in a post-Civil War document had been enslaved before 1865, his or her name will appear in the database.

It will take years to scour the millions of documents likely to contain the names of the enslaved. Rather than wait, we want to launch Unknown No Longer as a work in progress. In that fashion, we hope it will help promote access to our collections, even as we add to the list of names. As of September 2011, there are already more than 1,500 slave names in the database, a number that we hope and expect will grow rapidly as we continue to uncover the names of those who are unknown no longer.