Marriage of enslaved people (United States)

Last updated
Illustrations of the American anti-slavery almanac for 1840. New York, New York, Library of Congress Illustrations of the American anti-slavery almanac for 1840 (cropped).tif
Illustrations of the American anti-slavery almanac for 1840. New York, New York, Library of Congress

Marriage of enslaved people in the United States was generally not legal prior to the Civil War (1861–1865). African-Americans were considered chattel legally, and they were denied human or civil rights until slavery was abolished after the Civil War and with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Both state and federal laws denied, or rarely defined, rights to enslaved people. [1]


Slave codes

[Slaves] are men, but they must not read the work of God; they have no right to any reward for their labor; no right to their wives; no right to their children; no right to themselves! The law makes them property and affords them no protection, and what are the Christian people of this country doing about it? Nothing at all!

Francis William Kellogg [2]

Slave codes, were federal and state laws that controlled the legal status and condition of African Americans, started with legislation in 1705. They were treated like other forms of property, like farm equipment, cows, and horses. Slaves were prohibited into entering into any civil contracts and could not legally own or receive real or personal property. Anything that was possessed by an enslaved person was owned by their slaveholder. They were denied civil and political rights, and the ability to plan their own time and movement. It was illegal to teach enslaved people to read and write. [1] The Supreme Court supported the principle that enslaved people were not entitled to constitutional protection because, as chattel property, they were not citizens of the United States in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1856. [2]

In the North, marriages between enslaved people was legalized in some states. In New York, bondsmen and women were allowed to marry and their children were legitimate with the passage of the Act of February 17, 1809. Tennessee was the only slave state that allowed for marriage among enslaved people with the owner's consent. Instead of being chattel, Tennessee recognized the personhood of enslaved people, who had a legal status of being "agent[s] of their owners". [3]



Enslaved men and women entered into relationships with one another, based upon the knowledge that meaningful relationships were important to their survival. Initially, relationships were formed according to the customs of West Africa. [4] There was an expectation of love, affection, and loyalty. [5] "Marriage" between enslaved people reflected a chosen emotional bond and a committed conjugal relationship. Being in a quasi-marital relationship affected one's status in the community and helped define the nature of the relationship among those in black and white communities. [5] One of the strongest arguments against slavery is that it made it difficult to manage marital and family relationships. [4]

Unions involving an enslaved person or people were not legally binding. [6] Couples who were emancipated might have their marriage solemnized, which made their children legitimate. [7] Clerks were prohibited from issuing marriage licenses or recording marriages. In some places, ministers were prohibited from performing marriage ceremonies. [8] A long term relationship with an enslaved person was often called a marriage, but it was a contubernium or quasi-marital relationship. [8]

Unlike white couples, enslaved people did not have the protection of the law, the sanctity of the church, or the support the greater community to foment successful marriages. Because they were considered to be chattel, they had no legal standing. Their slaveholders made decisions about their lives, which meant that they did not have a sense of permanence when entering into a committed, intimate relationship. [9] Quasi-marriages were not sanctioned by the church, and thus were at odds with the teachings of the Christian church regarding the roles of wives, husbands, and children. [10] The longer that a couple and their children were together, the more likely it was that they would be separated. This was particularly the case after the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves went into effect on January 1, 1808, coupled with the cotton economy that drove the acquisition of enslaved people in the Deep South (at about the same time that tobacco farms in the Upper South transitioned to an economy based upon crops like wheat and corn that required fewer enslaved workers). [11] Interstate slave trade increased to meet the varying needs of planter's crops. For instance, sugar plantations primarily operated with enslaved males because the work was so strenuous. One third of first marriages were disrupted when partners were separated due to the domestic slave trade. Relationships also suffered when family members were hired-out to other slaveholders for the long-term. [12]


An 1899 illustration of a broomstick wedding ceremony. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library The Broomstick Wedding - 1899 (cropped).jpg
An 1899 illustration of a broomstick wedding ceremony. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

Within African American communities, couples who entered into unions were considered to be married. [13] Marriages could be established as simply getting the slaveholders permission and sharing a cabin. [14] If they shared vows, the wording had to be modified. The vow, "To have and to hold, in sickness and in health… til death do you part" was revised to allow for them being separated. For instance, "til death do us part" was revised to "til death or buckra (the white man) part you" or "til death or distance do you part". [15]

Rarely, domestic servants might have formal marriage ceremonies performed by a black plantation preacher or a white minister. After honoring the couple, a feast and dance might follow. Such events were rare in general and when they occurred were more likely held for house servants. [14]

Jumping the broom was a ceremony ritual conducted for an enslaved couple. The practices varied. In some cases, the broom was held about a foot off the ground and each partner jumped backward over the broom. Another practice was to have two brooms and each partner jumped over a broom while they held hands. The ritual helped couples feel "more married". [14]

Enslaver's control

Plantation owners controlled quasi-marital unions, and could decide the fate of husbands, wives, and children at any moment. [4] They decided whether families lived together, if they were sold away from one another, or if or when they could see one another. [13] [14] If the couples lived on different plantations, they were said to have a "broad" or an "abroad" marriage. [14] [16] Even though they committed to another, they were not necessarily allowed to live together. [17] Depending upon the distance, they might visit one another on the weekend or stay with each other nightly. For slaveholders, broad marriages could make it more difficult to manage productivity and control resistance, if they became increasingly independent. [14]

Enslavers might encourage marriages between black men and women on their plantation. A wealthy owner might buy the spouse of a broad marriage so that they would live together on their estate. [14] Slave holders learned that it was in their best interest for their enslaved workers to be married and have families. It meant that people would be mollifed and less likely to run away. [4]

Husbands, Wives, and Families sold indiscriminately to different purchasers, are violently separated-probably never to meet again, 1843, New York Public Library Slavery19.jpg
Husbands, Wives, and Families sold indiscriminately to different purchasers, are violently separated-probably never to meet again, 1843, New York Public Library

When a slaveholder gave permission to a couple to have a relationship, it was essentially providing approval to breed, which would increase the number of slaves that they own and make more money for the enslaver. [18] Enslaved women, whether married or not, were subject to rape by their owner, who benefited financially by fathering a number of children, with greater control as the biological father. [19]

Husbands and fathers

Some men and women lived with their children in nuclear families. In most cases, though, enslaved fathers did not live with their family. In many ways, enslaved couples assumed typically female and male roles within the relationships, except that since their children and wife were subject to the whims of slaveholders, men had less control in the care of their family than free men with free family members. [20]


Illustration of Uncle Tom and his baby from Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe Beautiful gems from American writers and the lives and portraits of our favorite authors (1901) (14749902065).jpg
Illustration of Uncle Tom and his baby from Uncle Tom's Cabin , by Harriet Beecher Stowe

According to the law ( partus sequitur ventrem ), children born to an enslaved women were the property of her slaveholder. [14] In many jurisdictions, once enslaved people in long-term relationships were emancipated or manumitted, their marriages were recorded and their children were deemed legitimate. [21]

She would take me upon her knee and, pointing to the forest trees which were then being stripped of their foliage by the winds of autumn, would say to me, my son, as yonder leaves are stripped from off the trees of the forest, so are the children of the slaves swept away from them by the hands of cruel tyrants; and her voice would tremble with deep emotion, while the tears would find their way down her saddened cheeks. On those occasions she fondly pressed me to her heaving bosom, as if to save me from so dreaded a calamity, or to feast on the enjoyments of maternal feeling while se yet retained possession of her child.

When he was 15 years of age, Henry Box Brown was separated from his mother, father, brothers, and sisters upon the death of his slaveholder. He was sent to work at a tobacco factory in Richmond, Virginia owned by the son of his former owner. Brown had believed that he was to be freed upon his enslaver's death. [23]

After the Civil War

Marriage of a colored soldier at Vicksburg by Chaplain Warren of the Freedmen's Bureau Marriage of a colored soldier at Vicksburg by Chaplain Warren of the Freedmen's Bureau LCCN2009630217 (cropped).jpg
Marriage of a colored soldier at Vicksburg by Chaplain Warren of the Freedmen's Bureau

The Thirteenth Amendment emancipated slaves, who were thus no longer considered chattel. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 defined the rights of freed people to own, sell, or lease personal and real property; enter into contracts; and to be entitled to basic human rights. They could also marry. [2] After the Civil War, states defined how to evaluate whether long-term couples were married and what rights they had as married couples within their jurisdiction. [24]

Thomas Nast, Emancipation, 1865, wood engraving print, King & Baird, printers, Philadelphia Emancipation - Th. Nast ; King & Baird, printers, 607 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. LCCN2004665360 (cropped).jpg
Thomas Nast, Emancipation, 1865, wood engraving print, King & Baird, printers, Philadelphia

After the end of the Civil War, freed men and women searched for family members that had been separated from them. In their search, they walked long distances and contacted a number of agencies. [4] [25] They followed the routes of former slave traders, contacted churches, and reached out to Freedmen's Bureau to locate their spouses that they might not have seen for years. [25] One of the key rights that freed men and women chose to exercise was the right to marry, resulting in a plethora of African American marriages soon after the end of the war. There were a few, though, that felt that they were being forced to marry by missionaries or were concerned about obligations that they might be unknowingly taking on. [4]

Major General Oliver Otis Howard was hired by President Andrew Jackson on May 30, 1865 to be the commissioner of the Freeman's Bureau, to aid in the Reconstruction of the District of Columbia, Confederate states and free states that bordered slave states.They worked in camps that were established by the military for former enslaved people. Associate commissioners were responsible hiring officers to record former slave marriages. Ordained ministers provided records of marriages that they had performed and solemnized other marriages. [14]

The Bureau recorded marriages and preserved marital records of former enslaved men and women in registers, certificates, marriage licenses, and other records. States and other organizations also formalized long-term relationships. [14] Ironically, blacks were prevented from obtaining legal marriages while enslaved, but they were "disproportionately punished" if they lived together without being married once they were free. Being married had become a moral and legal requirement for blacks in American society. [26] Unaware that there would be legal ramifications, some African Americans who had been in quasi-marriages were prosecuted for choosing a different partner to legally marry once they were free. [27]

Notable couples

Ellen and William Craft

Ellen and William Craft, fugitive slaves and abolitionists Ellen and William Craft.png
Ellen and William Craft, fugitive slaves and abolitionists

Ellen and William Craft were both born into slavery and were separated from their parents at a young age. They cared for one another, but they would not enter into a marriage that would mean that she would bear a child who would be born into slavery. They hatched a plan to runaway. Ellen had a fair complexion, like her father, so she dressed up as a male slaveholder who traveled with William, who played the role of her slave. They successfully fled slavery and lived as man and wife. [28]

Charlotte and Dick Green

Courtyard and interior structures at Bent's Fort Courtyard and interior structures at Bent's Old Fort, outside La Junta in Otero County, Colorado LCCN2015632789.tif
Courtyard and interior structures at Bent's Fort

Charlotte and Dick Green were integral to the successful operation of Bent's Fort on the Santa Fe Trail, but they remained enslaved until Dick was rewarded for his participation in the military party that was sent out to avenge the death of Governor Charles Bent of the territory of New Mexico. The Greens were freed by William Bent, brother of Charles, in 1847. They then headed east back to Missouri. [29]

Emeline and Samuel Hawkins

Sarah Ann and Benjamin Manson's marriage certificate from the Freedmen's Bureau Manson marriage certificate (cropped).jpg
Sarah Ann and Benjamin Manson's marriage certificate from the Freedmen's Bureau

Emeline and Samuel Hawkins, an enslaved woman and a freed man and sharecropper, considered themselves a married couple. They lived together with their children. Their two eldest children were sold away from the family in 1839. Samuel had tried unsuccessfully to purchase the freedom of his wife. Four more children were threatened to be sold away from the family. With Samuel Burris, Samuel Hawkins planned the escape of his family. The family made it to Byberry Township, Pennsylvania, where they changed their last name to Hackett. They were reunited with their eldest sons, Chester and Samuel, who were apprentices in the area. [30]

Sarah Ann and Benjamin Manson

Sarah Ann and Benjamin Manson were an enslaved couple from Wilson County, Tennessee. They lived as man and wife since 1843 and had sixteen children. They were legally married on April 19, 1866 and received a marriage certificate from the Freedmen's Bureau. The certificate was a symbol of their right to live together as a family. [14] [31]

See also

Related Research Articles

Concubinage Sexual relationship in which the couple are not or cannot be married

Concubinage is an interpersonal and sexual relationship between a man and a woman in which the couple does not want to or cannot enter into a full marriage. When there is an inability or social discouragement for the couple to marry, it may be due to multiple factors such as differences in social rank status, an existing marriage, religious or professional prohibitions, or a lack of recognition by appropriate authorities.

Jumping the broom wedding custom in some cultures

Jumping the broom is a phrase and custom relating to a wedding ceremony where the couple jumps over a broom. It has been suggested that the custom is based on an 18th-century idiomatic expression for "sham marriage", "marriage of doubtful validity"; it was popularized in the context of the introduction of civil marriage in Britain with the Marriage Act 1836.

Slavery in the United States

Slavery in the United States was the legal institution of human chattel slavery, comprising the enslavement primarily of Africans and African Americans, that existed in the United States of America from its founding in 1776 until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Slavery was established throughout European colonization in the Americas. From early colonial days, it was practiced in Britain's colonies, including the Thirteen Colonies which formed the United States. Under the law, an enslaved person was treated as property and could be bought, sold, or given away. Slavery lasted in about half of U.S. states until 1865. As an economic system, slavery was largely replaced by sharecropping and convict leasing.

<i>Partus sequitur ventrem</i> Former legal doctrine of slavery by birth

Partus sequitur ventrem was a legal doctrine passed in colonial Virginia in 1662 and other English crown colonies in the Americas which defined the legal status of children born there; the doctrine mandated that all children would inherit the legal status of their mothers. As such, children of enslaved women would be born into slavery. The legal doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem was derived from Roman civil law, specifically the portions concerning slavery and personal property (chattels).

The Haitian Revolution and the subsequent emancipation of Haiti as an independent state provoked mixed reactions in the United States. Among many white Americans this led to uneasiness, instilling fears of racial instability on its own soil and possible problems with foreign relations and trade between the two countries; among enslaved black Americans it fueled hope that the principles of the recent American Revolution might be realized in their own liberation.

Social death is the condition of people not accepted as fully human by wider society. It is used by sociologists such as Orlando Patterson and Zygmunt Bauman, and historians of slavery and the Holocaust to describe the part played by governmental and social segregation in that process. Examples of social death are:

Female slavery in the United States Overview of female slavery in the United States of America

The institution of slavery in North America existed from the earliest years of the colonial history of the United States until 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment permanently abolished slavery throughout the entire United States. It was also abolished among the sovereign Indian tribes in Indian Territory by new peace treaties which the US required after the war.

History of slavery in Kentucky Aspect of history

The history of slavery in Kentucky dates from the earliest permanent European settlements in the state, until the end of the Civil War. Kentucky was classified as the Upper South or a border state, and enslaved African Americans represented 24% by 1830, but declined to 19.5% by 1860 on the eve of the Civil War. The majority of slaves in Kentucky were concentrated in the cities of Louisville and Lexington, in the fertile Bluegrass Region as well the Jackson Purchase, both the largest hemp- and tobacco-producing areas in the state. In addition, many slaves lived in the Ohio River counties where they were most often used in skilled trades or as house servants. Few slaves lived in the mountainous regions of eastern and southeastern Kentucky. Those slaves that were held in eastern and southeastern Kentucky served primarily as artisans and service workers in towns.

Thomas Jefferson and slavery

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, enslaved more than 600 African-Americans throughout his adult life. Jefferson freed two of his slaves while he lived; seven others were freed after his death. Jefferson consistently spoke out against the international slave trade and outlawed it while he was President. He privately advocated gradual emancipation and colonization of slaves already in the United States, rather than immediate manumission.

Breeding of enslaved people in the United States Former prevalent economic practice in the US, especially after import of slaves was made illegal

The breeding of enslaved people in the United States was the practice in slave states of the United States of slave owners to systematically force the reproduction of enslaved people to increase their profits. It included coerced sexual relations between enslaved men and women, forced pregnancies of enslaved people, and favoring women who could produce a relatively large number of children. The objective was to increase the number of slaves without incurring the cost of purchase, and to fill labor shortages caused by the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.

History of slavery in Maryland

Slavery in Maryland lasted over 200 years, from its beginnings in 1642 when the first Africans were brought as slaves to St. Mary's City, to its end after the Civil War. While Maryland developed similarly to neighboring Virginia, slavery declined here as an institution earlier, and it had the largest free black population by 1860 of any state. The early settlements and population centers of the province tended to cluster around the rivers and other waterways that empty into the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland planters cultivated tobacco as the chief commodity crop, as the market was strong in Europe. Tobacco was labor-intensive in both cultivation and processing, and planters struggled to manage workers as tobacco prices declined in the late 17th century, even as farms became larger and more efficient. At first, indentured servants from England supplied much of the necessary labor but, as their economy improved at home, fewer made passage to the colonies. Maryland colonists turned to importing indentured and enslaved Africans to satisfy the labor demand.

History of slavery in Virginia Aspect of history

Slavery in Virginia began with the enslavement of Native Americans, during the early days of the English Colony of Virginia and through the late eighteenth century. They primarily worked in tobacco fields. Africans were first brought to Colonial Virginia in 1619, when 20 Africans from present-day Angola arrived in Virginia on the ship The White Lion. About that time, Native Americans were also captured and enslaved.

Treatment of the enslaved in the United States

The treatment of enslaved people in the United States varied by time and place, but was generally brutal, especially on plantations. Whipping and rape were routine, but usually not in front of white outsiders, or even the plantation owner's family. An enslaved person could not be a witness against a white; enslaved people were sometimes required to whip other enslaved people, even family members. There were also businesses to which a slave owner could turn over the whipping. Families were often split up by the sale of one or more members, usually never to see or hear of each other again. There were some relatively enlightened slave owners—Nat Turner said his master was kind—but not on large plantations. Only a small minority of enslaved people received anything resembling decent treatment; one contemporary estimate was 10%, not without noting that the ones well treated desired freedom just as much as those poorly treated. Good treatment could vanish upon the death of an owner. As put by William T. Allan, a slaveowner's abolitionist son who could not safely return to Alabama, "cruelty was the rule, and kindness the exception".

Slavery in Haiti Slave labor as a legal institution extant 1492–1804

Slavery in Haiti started after the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the island in 1492 with the European colonists that followed from Portugal, Spain and France. The practice was devastating to the native population. Following the indigenous Tainos' near decimation from forced labor, disease and war, the Spanish, under advisement of the Catholic priest Bartolomé de las Casas and with the blessing of the Catholic church, began engaging in earnest in the 1600 kidnapped and forced labor of enslaved Africans. During the French colonial period beginning in 1625, the economy of Haiti was based on slavery, and the practice there was regarded as the most brutal in the world. The Haitian Revolution of 1804, the only successful slave revolt in human history, precipitated the end of slavery not only in Saint-Domingue, but in all French colonies. However, this revolt has only merited a marginal role in the histories of Portuguese and Spanish America. This is a problem as it should hold a much more central place due to the fact that its contribution to independence in the Americas is indisputable. Moreover, it is to this rebellion in Haiti that the struggle for independence in Latin American can be traced to. However, several Haitian leaders following the revolution employed forced labor, believing a plantation-style economy was the only way for Haiti to succeed, and building fortifications to safeguard against attack by the French. During the U.S. occupation between 1915 and 1934, the U.S. military forced Haitians to work building roads for defense against Haitian resistance fighters.

Slavery in Cuba

Slavery in Cuba was a portion of the larger Atlantic Slave Trade that primarily supported Spanish plantation owners engaged in the sugarcane trade. It was practiced on the island of Cuba from the 16th century until it was abolished by Spanish royal decree on October 7, 1886.

History of slavery in Louisiana

Following Robert Cavelier de La Salle establishing the French claim to the territory and the introduction of the name Louisiana, the first settlements in the southernmost portion of Louisiana were developed at present-day Biloxi (1699), Mobile (1702), Natchitoches (1714), and New Orleans (1718). Slavery was then established by European colonists.

History of slavery in Florida

Native Americans were enslaved in Florida prior to the arrival of Europeans. The presence of enslaved Africans began under Spanish rule and continued under British, American and later Confederate rule. It was theoretically abolished by President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, but this had little immediate effect in Florida, where Union armies did not arrive as they did elsewhere in the former Confederacy.

Native American slave ownership

Africans were enslaved by Native Americans from the colonial period until the United States' Civil War. The interactions between Native American and Africans in the antebellum United States is complex. Maintaining institutions of slavery for profit relied largely on Africans enslaved by white American settlers and Native Americans both before and after the United States gained independence via the American Revolutionary War.

Slavery as a positive good in the United States

Slavery as a positive good was the prevailing view of white Southern U.S. politicians and intellectuals just before the American Civil War, as opposed to a crime against humanity or even a necessary evil. They defended the legal enslavement of people for their labor as a benevolent, paternalistic institution with social and economic benefits, an important bulwark of civilization, and a divine institution similar or superior to the free labor in the North. Proponents of enslavement as "a good — a great good" often attacked the system of industrial capitalism, contending that the free laborer in the North, called by them a "wage slave", was as much enslaved by capitalist owners as were the African people enslaved by whites in the South.

Sexual slavery in Islam

Classical Islamic law allowed men to have sexual intercourse with their female slaves. Medieval Muslim literature and legal documents show that those female slaves whose main use was for sexual purposes were distinguished in markets from those whose primary use was for domestic duties. They were called "slaves for pleasure" or "slave-girls for sexual intercourse". Many female slaves became concubines to their owners and bore their children. Others were just used for sex before being transferred. The allowance for men to use contraception with female slaves assisted in thwarting unwanted pregnancies.


  1. 1 2 Goring, pp. 302–304.
  2. 1 2 3 Goring, p. 305.
  3. Goring, pp. 314–315.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Hunter, Tera (February 11, 2010). "Slave Marriages, Families Were Often Shattered By Auction Block". NPR. Retrieved 2021-06-21.
  5. 1 2 Hunter 2017, pp. 6–8.
  6. Goring, p. 307.
  7. Goring, pp. 308–309.
  8. 1 2 Goring, p. 308.
  9. Hunter 2017, p. 12.
  10. Goring, pp. 310, 312.
  11. Hunter 2017, p. 20.
  12. Hunter 2017, pp. 26–29.
  13. 1 2 Goring, pp. 307–308.
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 "Sealing the Sacred Bonds of Holy Matrimony". National Archives. 2016-08-15. Retrieved 2021-06-20.
  15. Hunter 2017, p. 6.
  16. Hunter 2017, p. 14.
  17. Hunter 2017, p. 13.
  18. Goring, p. 310.
  19. Goring, p. 311.
  20. Hunter 2017, pp. 12–20.
  21. Goring, p. 309.
  22. Brown, p. 2.
  23. Brown, pp. 14–18.
  24. Goring, p. 314–347.
  25. 1 2 Hunter 1997, p. 39.
  26. Hunter 2017, p. 15.
  27. Hunter 2017, p. 16.
  28. Hunter 2017, pp. 12–13.
  29. Servant Couple Dick and Charlotte Green Created a Legacy at Bent ’ s Fort (PDF). Bent’s Fort Chapter Santa Fe Trail Association Newsletter. January 2013. pp. 6–7.
  30. "The People: Emeline & Sam Hawkins". Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs - State of Delaware. Retrieved 2021-06-24.
  31. "Marriage certificate issued by the Freedmen's Bureau". Retrieved 2021-06-24.