Tag Archives: marriage

- The Mystic Chords of Memory: The Payne Family of Frederick County

Victorian wedding.

It’s often repeated that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[1] I’m starting to think I misunderstood that quote. It seems to be less about the literal repetition of an act, as I once believed, and more about repetition of evaluation. In other words, we react as if it were the first time every time.  Winston Churchill warned that this would usher in “the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views.”[2]

While processing different types of records, archivists often come across something that ties the past a bit closer to the present. It might be a graphic description of an adulterous affair in a nineteenth century court document that would make Perez Hilton blush, or a rant on bureaucratic red tape from early twentieth century governor’s correspondence that still rings true today. It is both surprising and oddly reassuring to read a historical document with subject matter that could have been pulled from today’s headlines. The story of the Payne family is just such a tale.

Joseph E. Payne, a prosperous Frederick County farmer, and his wife, Sarah, had eight daughters. The Paynes were one of the oldest families in the area and, according to some newspaper accounts, well respected. Joseph’s death in 1864 and the post-war economy struck a financial blow to the family. While … read more »

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- Love Letters in the Archives

Postcard image, undated.

While working on a project involving the Middlesex County Chancery Causes, I noticed a case that was filled with scandal and intrigue.  Middlesex Chancery Cause, 1907-033, Andrew Courtney vs. Mary Courtney is a divorce suit in which both parties accuse the other of adultery. Andrew claimed his wife ran off to Connecticut with a married man named Beverly Smith, and Mary responded by claiming that Andrew was guilty of adultery himself.

As evidence, Mary produced several letters written to her husband by various women, one of which included a lock of hair.  That letter, dated 30 August 1906 from a Miss Ginny Davis, proclaimed “Here is a peice [sic] of my hair look at it and think of me.”

While it is sad to think that some of the love letters that end up in the archives are the result of divorce suits and romance gone wrong in one way or another, it also proves the quest for love is something that is surely timeless.

The Middlesex Chancery Causes, 1754-1912, are available online through the Chancery Records Index on the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Memory site.  The lock of hair reference above has also been scanned.


–Mary Dean Carter, Local Records Archival Assistant… read more »

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- Sometimes You DO Find a Needle in a Haystack: The Augusta Co. Cohabitation Register

Augusta County courthouse, ca. 1910.

Cohabitation registers are among the most important genealogical resources for African-Americans attempting to connect their family lines back through the murky past to their enslaved ancestors.  The registers date from 1866 and provide a snapshot in time for the individuals recorded therein and provide a wealth of information that may otherwise be impossible, or at least very difficult, to uncover.  Historians are also interested in the registers because of what the registers might say about a particular community of people at a time when great changes had come about as a result of the Civil War and the end of slavery.  Locating the complete Augusta County Cohabitation Register took persistence, determination and luck.  The concerted effort of the circuit court clerk’s office and the Library of Virginia’s Local Records staff working together solved this nearly 150 year old mystery.

In 2007 Augusta County Circuit Court Clerk John Davis informed LVA staff that four cohabitation sheets had been discovered in his office . Officially titled the Register of Colored Persons of Augusta County, Virginia, Cohabiting Together as Husband and Wife on February 27th, 1866, a cohabitation register was the legal vehicle by which former slaves legitimized both their marriages and their children. The information about an individual person contained in the cohabitation register is literally priceless as it is often the first time … read more »

- A Wedding, a Death, and a Pension: Charles and Sarah Butler’s Story

Commemorative stamp based on painting, dated 1892, by J. Andr_ Castaigne (painting courtesy of the West Point Museum, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York).

Portsmouth, Virginia, occupied by the Union army, was the scene of a wedding in November 1863.[i]  The happy couple was Charles “Charley” Butler, a private in Company E, 1st Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops (USCT), and Sarah Smith.  Butler’s service record at the National Archives shows that he joined the Army on 17 June 1863 at Mason’s Island (now Theodore Roosevelt Island) in the District of Columbia, and that he was a nineteen-year-old farmer born in Prince William County, five feet seven inches tall, with “Very Black” complexion, “Black” eyes and hair, and “scars on right foot and breast.”  His next of kin was listed as a brother in Alexandria.[ii]  Sarah later stated that she and Charles “married by consent of our respective parents, being both free born.”[iii]  Sarah appears in the Norfolk County Register of Free Negroes in 1853 as a sixteen-year-old with “dark” complexion, height four feet eleven and a half inches, “born free in this county,” daughter of Nancy Smith.[iv]  Charles has not been located in antebellum records but may have been the son of Flora Butler, who was listed in the 1860 census as a 55-year-old free black washerwoman in Alexandria.  Living with her was 20-year-old blacksmith Alonzo Butler, who was presumably the brother mentioned in Charles’s service record.[v]

Charles had … read more »

- Henry County Cohabitation Register Update

Marriage ceremony of black soldier and a freedwoman at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Harper's Weekly, June 30, 1866.

The conservation of the original pages of the Henry County Cohabitation Register has recently been completed.  Previously, only a poorly and confusingly microfilmed version of this register was available for researchers and was the only option to be digitized for inclusion in the cohabitation register digitization project via Virginia Memory.  Thanks to the diligent efforts of Vickie Stone Helmstutler, the Henry County Circuit Court clerk, the original register pages were located in the courthouse and sent to the Library for conservation.  The conserved pages of the register were digitized and the digitized microfilm images have been replaced with images of the conserved original document.  We hope that researchers find these images a great improvement over the others, which were dark and difficult to read.

A comparison of pictures taken before and after conservation reveals the improvements made to the damaged original document.  Library of Virginia conservator Leslie Courtois dry cleaned the paper surfaces, humidified and flattened creases and crumpled edges, then repaired tears and losses with Japanese tissue and deacidified the document.

To get a better idea of what these conservation processes look like, please view the YouTube video made about conservation undertaken in 2011 on the cohabitation register from Montgomery County.  The Henry County Cohabitation Register is now in a stable and preserved state which will allow this very valuable record to exist for … read more »

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- Henry Co. Cohabitation Register and African-American Naming Practices

This visual representation of the names of the mothers found in the Henry Cohabitation Register illustrate the frequency of use by the size of the name.(Word images created using wordle.net)

The Library of Virginia has completed the digitization and transcription of the last of the cohabitation registers in its possession, the Henry County Cohabitation Register, 1866. Others have already been transcribed and are available in the cohabitation register digitization project via Virginia Memory. For African-American genealogical researchers, the names contained herein provide priceless clues to retracing their ancestors. Cohabitation registers imparted legal legitimacy to African-American marriages and children. This was also the first time many of these individuals would appear in public record under their own names.

Naming under the practice of slavery was fraught with power dynamics. The enslavers often gave names to the enslaved. The amount of input the family of the child would have in his or her name varied, but journals of slave-holders indicate they specifically assigned names to slave children on a regular basis.[1] Newly enslaved Africans were often issued a new name by their captors, causing their identities to become yet another site of colonization. Naming was a powerful tool for enforcing cultural assimilation and denigrating African cultural identity.[2]

When viewed simply as data, the set of names used for slaves seems to have been larger and more varied than the set of names used for free people. Slave names tended to fit within five categories: diminutive versions of English names (Jim, Bess), place names (London, Kingston), … read more »

- The Correct Answer Is, “I Do”

The Ebony Bridal -- Wedding Ceremony in the Cabin, engraving from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 19 August 1871. (Image used courtesy of Library of Virginia Special Collections.)

“It was a hot summer day on August 5, 1865, when George Kiner and Diana Bumgardner arrived at the courthouse in Augusta County, Virginia, to apply for a marriage license. They brought with them an order from Capt. John Collins, Provost Marshall, directing the court to issue the license as ‘they being in all respects entitled to such license.’ While there were other couples that day applying for marriage licenses, George and Diana were the only couple with such an order. This was indeed a historical event as they were the first African American couple to be issued a marriage license in Augusta County.”

-African American Marriage Index 1865-1899, Augusta County, Virginia

At first glance the story of George Kiner and Diana Bumgardner is one of love triumphing over the tragedies of slavery and war. But documents found in the Augusta County Chancery Causes reveal not a lovely wedding born of true love, but a shotgun affair with a groom forced to the altar at gunpoint. In his bill for divorce filed in the Augusta County courts in February 1866, George Coiner (the predominant spelling in court documents was Coiner, but Kiner and Koiner were also used) painted a less than idealistic picture of his wedding day. George Coiner, a former slave, was working in a field when two armed soldiers, one white and the … read more »

- Man Caught by Husband with Drawers Down, Killing Ruled “Eminently Proper”

Engraving from Harper's Weekly, 9 August 1879. (Image used courtesy Library of Virginia Special Collections.)

On the night of 4 August 1882, James M. Duesbury heard pistol shots coming from the nearby home of Christopher Goode and ran to see what the matter was. Goode, a resident of Richmond, Virginia, lived at 709 West Marshall behind what is now the Siegel Center near Virginia Commonwealth University. When Duesbury arrived at the home, Goode stated “I have shot a man; here he is lying down on the floor.” When Duesbury asked why he shot him, he answered, “I caught him on top of my wife.” Policeman Lewis Frayser arrived at the scene and found Winston Robinson “lying on the floor with his pants and drawers down to his knees”  and met Mahala Goode, the wife, in a dress that was “very much disarranged” and “bleeding very freely” from the gunshot wounds she accidentally received during the altercation.

In his testimony to police, Christopher Goode stated, “My God Master, I couldn’t help it to save my life, I shot him and couldn’t help it.”  Mr. Goode further elaborated, explaining that he had been “under the porch and heard them hugging and kissing” and heard his wife invite Robinson upstairs, but Robinson declined saying he “didn’t care about going upstairs” because “if the old man came there would be a fight and one or the other would be killed.”  When Goode heard them … read more »

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- Surry Co. Cohabitation Register Goes Digital!

The Ebony Bridal - Preparing the Wedding Garment, engraving from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 19 August 1871. (Image used courtesy of Library of Virginia Special Collections.)

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce the addition of Surry County to the cohabitation register digitization project.  This project, via the Virginia Memory website, aims to index, digitize, transcribe, and provide access to all known Virginia cohabitation registers and the related registers of children whose parents had ceased to cohabit.

The Surry County register contains some of the most delightful names that one may have had the opportunity to run across in a historical document.  Could one of these fine folks be an ancestor of yours? 


Surry County Cohabitation Register pages 20-21 which list Squire Charity and Nancy Drew.

  • Champion Blizzard
  • Mike Blow and his wife Anarchy
  • Champion Bird
  • Squire Charity
  • Nancy Drew
  • Cherry Birdsong
  • Jim Beets
  • Queen Anne Gray
  • Sharper Falcon
  • Sam Wisdom
  • Harry Honeycatt
  • Sucky Blue
  • Nancy Pooten
  • Jupiter Cheeseman
  • Indiana Charity
  • Robin Wren and his wife Amy Falcon
  • Cheeseman Smith
  • Moses Twine
  • Dolphin Morris
  • Harry Falcon and his wife Susan Hasty

Cohabitation registers are among the most important genealogical resources for African-Americans attempting to connect their family lines back through the oftentimes murky past to their enslaved ancestors. The registers date from 1866 and provide a snapshot in time for the individuals recorded therein and a wealth of information that may otherwise be impossible, or at least very difficult, to uncover. Cohabitation registers were the legal vehicles by which former slaves legitimized both their marriages and their children. The information … read more »

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- “This is a bad fix I am in…”

Order finding Sam, a slave, guilty of the murder of Francis Sheridan and sentencing him to be hanged by the neck until he be dead, Commonwealth vs. Sam (slave), 1856 August, Highland County Commonwealth Causes (Barcode 0007281802).

Three Highland County Commonwealth Causes (Barcode 0007281802) reveal a tangled web of conspiracy, murder, and secret affairs. The cast of players includes Elizabeth Sheridan, wife of the deceased; Mary Ann Wily, Elizabeth’s daughter from a previous marriage; Sam, a slave; and Ellen, a slave and Sam’s wife. Commonwealth vs. Sam (slave), 1856 August; Commonwealth vs. Ellen (slave), 1856 August; and Commonwealth vs. Elizabeth Sheridan and Mary Ann Wily, 1856 November concern the murder of Mr. Francis W. Sheridan by Sam, a slave hired by Sheridan from William Wilson. Sam’s wife, Ellen, was also charged with being “concerned in the murder,” while Elizabeth Sheridan and her daughter Mary Ann Wily were charged as accessories.  The cases contain assorted court documents including depositions and statements from various neighbors and acquaintances of the accused and the murder victim. 

A document entitled “Evidence in Support of Prosecution” offers a wealth of information.  Notes from the coroner’s inquest give revealing physical facts about Francis Sheridan.  He was described as a small man about the age of 21 or 22 years whose body displayed visible signs of trauma due to strangulation.  The report reveals that the body was found lying face down in a drain twenty or thirty feet away from the public road and gives a detailed forensic account of Sheridan’s bedroom, where the murder actually took place.… read more »

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