African American Genealogy Research: Using the new Virginia Death Index & 1866 Cohabitation Records in Tandem

I’ve been doing what I call ‘deep research’ for my early to mid-19th Century black ancestors and relations in Virginia over the past month and a bit. The tools I’ve been using is a combination of the Virginia, Deaths and Burials Index, 1912 – 2014, the Register of Colored Persons cohabiting together as Husband and Wife on 27th February 1866 (Virginia) and the Register of Children of Colored Persons whose Parents had ceased to cohabit which the Father recognizes to be his, 1866.

Sticking with my black Virginian ancestors and relations, I have around 3,000 individuals on my family tree who lived and died in Virginia between 1800 and 1870. Many of the women in my tree were without maiden names. For whatever reason, many of them were listed on their children’s’ marriage certificate under their married name. Too few cited the mother’s maiden name. SO this was something I wanted to address first. It was time their full names were known.

To achieve this, I began with…

The Virginia Death Index.

Virginia, Deaths and Burials Index, 1853-1917
Virginia, Deaths and Burials Index, 1853-1917 on Click for larger image

To start with, I did a very basic search on the Sheffey name. This brought up records for all Sheffeys who died in Virginia.

Virginia, Deaths and Burials Index, 1853-1917
Click for larger image

This basic search yielded some 400 previously unknown maiden names.

Virginia, Deaths and Burials Index, 1853-1917
Click for larger image
Virginia, Deaths and Burials Index, 1853-1917
Click for larger image

This was a massive result. Maiden names came to light in a variety of ways:

  • The death certificate of their children more than often gave the maiden name of the mother
  • I could easily identify a death certificate for a Sheffey bride if her name was distinctive – or the name of her husband was either given in full (e.g. his middle name was given) or was also distinctive. There are a lot of Marys who married William or Robert Sheffeys in my tree – so anything that could specifically point to which Mary ad William Sheffey a death certificate related to made attaching it to the correct Mary much easier.
  • A Sheffey bride’s death certificate more often than not contained the name of her parents – which again narrowed the field of possible matches quite considerably.

Which brings me to the other bonuses of working with these death index records:

  • More often than not, they contained the names of the deceased’s parents;
  • They contained the county of birth (as well as death) for the deceased;
  • They contained the counties of birth (if known) for the deceased’s parents.

This information is critical for researching enslaved black families in the US. Enslaved ancestors and relations were moved about as they passed from one family member to another, or were sold outside of the county of birth. This is a vital clue I will expand more fully in another post later on in the week.

Armed with 400 maiden names, I could begin to further understand marriage patterns for my Virginian ancestors and relations. For instance, before the research exercise, I only had 3 women from the Bolden family marrying into the Sheffey family in Wythe County, Virginia. Afterwards, I had 11 Bolden women marrying into the family. Which naturally makes me ask what was the connection between these two families? Were they owned by the same family/families? Were the families who owned them related? Friends? Close associates? Was there an even older instance of intermarriage between the two families in the 18th Century? And not all of these families were enslaved – a number of them were families of free people of color and had been so since the 1600’s. So many questions.

Sticking with the Sheffeys in Wythe & Smyth Counties in Virginia, the number of Ward women went from 8 to 13. The number of Clarks went from 16 to 27. Whether it was the Robertsons, Carpenters, Hills, Drews, Findleys, Sanders/Saunders, Mayos, Browns, Brooks, Jones, etc – the number of known individuals from these families increased…significantly.

Solving what made these families so attractive to my black Sheffey ancestors – and what made my ancestors so appealing to them – is a riddle I hope to answer .

One other bonus of these records was the unveiling of second or third marriages for a number of women. More than a few women in my tree seemed to have disappeared after the 1870 or 1880 census. There was a reason for this: their surname changed when they re-married. Armed with a new married surname, I could further trace these women who had seemingly disappeared from the official records.

So, my tree was made more complete with maiden names.

After a very broad search, I could then focus on rather specific searches for individuals. With so many already accounted for in the broad search, finding the correct death records for the individuals in my tree became more straightforward.

As far as the men in the tree were concerned, the bonus was revealing their middle name(s). Middle name(s) made it possible to pinpoint male individuals in other vital records. Which confirmed what I long suspected – the men in my family, regardless of family line, liked swapping between their first and middle names. In other words, William Ormand Bryce Sheffey could be found in Census records as William Sheffey, Orman(d) Sheffey, and Bryce Sheffey. Even better, his WW1 draft card showed all 3 names together. Which means I could pick up his trail from 1910, where I had ‘lost’ him, until his death in 1968.

Another bonus for the men was discovering that they had moved counties within Virginia. Like the women who remarried, I could pick up the men’s trail within the county of their death. They hadn’t disappeared at all – merely moved.

1866 Cohabitation Records

I’m going to stick with my Sheffey ancestors once more.

Armed with a more complete family tree, I decided to revisit the 1866 Children of Parents Who Ceased to Cohabit for Wythe and Smyth Counties to see if I could unveil any new discoveries.

Register of Colored Persons cohabiting together as Husband and Wife on 27th February 1866
Register of Colored Persons cohabiting together as Husband and Wife on 27th February 1866 (Wythe, Virginia) Click for larger image

There were Bolden family groups that I now knew to be relations. So I added to my family tree – although I am still researching how all of these Bolden family groups relate to each other. The same is true with the Sanders, Browns, Peoples, Harveys, Wards and other family groups with surnames I now knew to be significant.

I did the same with the 1866 Cohabitation Register, and again I made plenty of discoveries.

The image above is pretty indicative of the challenges faced in researching enslaved ancestors and relations in America. We have a William Bolden living in Wythe County in Feb 1866 – when this information was recorded. All of his children were born in Chesterfield County, VA. Presumably, he too was in Chesterfield, owned by some as yet known slave owner. His children, born in Chesterfield, were resident in Manchester County, VA at the time of this register. Note their owners. They were separated from their parents and owned by 3 different people, who may or may not have been part of the same slave owning family. It would be highly challenging to know these young people were related to each other without this register. That’s the importance of registers like this.

As it stands, I have some work to do in researching the Bolden family not only in Wythe County, but Chesterfield and Manchester Counties as well.

I don’t have all of the pieces to the puzzle. Nor do I know how some of these new puzzle pieces fit together. However, what I do know places these family groups into a new context. When I look at census returns for 1870 in particular, I can see the families my Sheffey ancestors and relations lived next to and near weren’t just neighbours…they were kin, either through blood or through marriage. There is an intricate mosaic of connections which paints a picture of a community crafted through kinship and familial relations. And this mosaic of community existed until the Great Migrations of the 1890s, the 1920s and the 1930s. And even then, these family groups didn’t strike North on their own, they went as part of extended family groups.

So to sum up…

This approach is a lot of work. My advice is to pace yourself. I’ve spent almost two months researching all of my black Virginia family lines using this approach. The payoff, however, can be incredible. It was for me.

The very last, and perhaps best, result was pushing quite a few of my enslaved relations lines back one more generation. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been overjoyed at being able to trace enslaved ancestors back to those born at the start of the 19th Century. I was even more overjoyed to discover a handful who had been born as early as 1770. I now have nearly 30 enslaved individuals born between 1740 and 1770. While this is a paltry sum compared to the number of enslaved ancestors I had who were born during that timeframe, it’s a start. It is a remarkable find.

If I can do it…so can you.


Virginia Death Index 1853 – 1917:

Virginia Death Index 1912 – 2014: not available online

1866 Cohabitation & Abandoned Children Registers (Library of Virginia Online):

One thought on “African American Genealogy Research: Using the new Virginia Death Index & 1866 Cohabitation Records in Tandem

  1. Thank you! I loved learning about the process you used to discover this. I’m looking forward to using the co-habitation records in my research.

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