The staff at Montgomery County’s Circuit Court Clerk’s Office recently rediscovered the county’s cohabitation register, one of the most valuable records used for African American genealogical research. Its official title is The Register of Colored Persons of Montgomery County, Virginia, Cohabiting Together as Husband and Wife on February 27, 1866. Watch as this video tells the story of this register and its preservation at The Library of Virginia. Montgomery County is one of only 19 Virginia localities known to have a surviving cohabitation register. The video script was co-written and narrated by our own Sarah Nerney, Local Records Senior Archivist. Thanks also to Audrey Johnson of Special Collections, Leslie Courtois of Etherington Conservation, and videographer Pierre Courtois for their invaluable contributions to this video production. See a previous blog post about the Smyth County cohabitation register.
-Dale Dulaney, Local Records Archival Assistant… read more »
(The following editorial is reprinted here courtesy of the Smyth County News & Messenger. It originally ran 28 July 2010.)
HUMBLING CHAPTER OF OUR STORY
In some ways it is difficult to read. Just the title “Register of Colored Persons of Smyth County, State of Virginia, Cohabitating Together as Husband and Wife on 27 February, 1866″ speaks of discrimination so powerful that the institution of marriage between a man and woman was not recognized. As you read across the columns and come to “Last Owner,” the reality of slavery existing in Seven Mile Ford, Rich Valley, Marion and Rye Valley takes hold.
The names of those registered and their last owners resonate as familiar: Campbell, Carter, Fowler, Heath, James and Tate among many others.
As news of this register’s existence was announced this week, Circuit Court Clerk John Graham reflected, “When you see this document, you’re reminded that slavery was not just an institution somewhere in the South. It was a way of life right here in Smyth County. This remarkable document brings history home.”
Despite the challenges it presents us, this register is a national treasure of incalculable value.
Prior to this document recording and formalizing their marriages, which Virginia law didn’t recognize before the Civil War ended in 1865, the existence of many of these individuals had never been listed in a public … read more »
Genealogists researching enslaved African Americans face serious challenges. Records that exist for the free population do not exist for the enslaved since slaves were considered property and were prohibited from reading, writing, owning land, or even legally marrying. This is why Virginia’s few surviving cohabitation registers are so important.
The Library of Virginia recently conserved the Register of Colored Persons of Smyth County, Virginia, cohabiting together as Husband and Wife on 27th February 1866 at the request of John Graham, Smyth County Clerk of the Circuit Court. It is one of only twenty one cohabitation registers known to exist and is included in the Library’s cohabitation register digitization project. This project aims to digitize, transcribe, and make available via the Virginia Memory website the images of all known Virginia cohabitation registers and the related registers of children whose parents had ceased to cohabit.
Prior to the Civil War, Virginia law provided no legal recognition for slave marriages. What is certain and what documents like the cohabitation registers reveal is that slaves did marry and consider themselves to be married in spite of the lack of legal protection and recognition. In 1865, Commissioner Oliver Otis Howard of the federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau) directed the assistant commissioners of the states to order the county clerks to … read more »