Family marriages in the Reconstruction Era

I’ve been blessed with an ability to see and recognize patterns, trends and inter-relationships hidden within large amounts of data. This is a talent that stretches to extrapolating impacts, outcomes and underlying reasons or causes for these inter-relationships and trends. What does this have to do with family history and genealogy and family history? More than even I could realize when I first began this adventure.

Over the past few years, I have built up a family tree with some 9,000+ individuals spanning the US and Europe. Looking at the information I’ve compiled over the years, a family tree of this size lends itself to what can only be called data analysis; that process of ferreting meaning from a large database of facts to produce understanding and insight. In this instance, it’s insight into my various family lines.

One aspect of the data analysis process I’ve recently been grappling with is around the topic of marriage. Specifically speaking, marriages among my African American ancestors after the Civil War.  In the Reconstruction Era, what constituted a ‘good match’ for newly freed slaves as well as population of peoples of colour who were free long before slavery ended?  What were desirable traits in a marriage partner? Were these traits universal among the American black population – or were there regional as well as familial preferences? Now that’s a question which would probably form the basis of a PhD thesis or book!  I won’t be going into that kind of depth here.

Taking my Virginia-based Roane and Sheffey family tree, there are some initially really interesting answers to my central question. The vast majority of kin in both families were slaves. I’d always been led to believe that black families who had been free for any length of time preferred to marry within other free black families. The reading I’ve done on this subject stated that newly freed slaves didn’t get a look in when it came to marrying into these free families of colour (The following is indicative of the reading I’ve done on the subject:,+-interracial&source=bl&ots=T5yoZmp3r6&sig=S40Ogdj2DGV7m8t7pMyz9BIIJLM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Fg-3UZq6KsS50QXd8IDICQ&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false ).

This would have ruled my family out on paper. However, this wasn’t the experience of my Sheffey and Roane slave ancestors, including relations from the wider family groups, including the Carpenters, Bagbys, Richardsons, Browns, Greens and Byrds.  Newly freed Sheffeys married into long-established free black families like the Meltons, Drews and Stewarts in Virginia. Newly freed Roanes married into the Christian, Brown, Melton, Brooks, Thomas and Hilton families.

What made these ancestors desirable marriage partners?  I honestly can’t say. I’d dearly love to know. They had something that recommended them and didn’t hinder long-standing free black families from marrying them. Without the aid of a time machine, it all comes down to deduction mixed with conjecture.

Skin complexion doesn’t seem to be an overt factor for either the Roanes or the Sheffeys, regardless of whether they married into long-standing free black families or newly freed slave families. While images of the ancestors are hard to come by, resources like World War I Registration cards, documents reporting free blacks in county records and other documents which cite physical descriptions are invaluable. From these, I can see that skin colour seemed to be a non-issue for my Roane and Sheffey kin. Ancestors with light complexions married people with darker complexions and vice versa. So this is a factor that I’ve largely ruled out. It doesn’t fit the data.

Three things come to the fore with the Roanes and the Sheffeys of Virginia when it came to marriage during Reconstruction (in no particular order): land ownership, occupation and family connections. For me, these three factors boil down to two over-riding factors which are two sides of the same coin: stability and security. In truth, these are factors which still influence modern marriages. It’s something that we can readily relate to.

For example, below are images of my father’s maternal grandparents Leonard Wilson Roane and Julia Ella Bates:

Leonard Wilson Roane and wife Julia Ella Bates, Henrico County, VA
Leonard Wilson Roane and wife Julia Ella Bates, Henrico County, VA

If stereotypical behaviour is to be believed, I would have expected Leonard to have taken a wife with a similar complexion, if not a wife with a complexion lighter than his own. He didn’t. What he did do was marry the beautiful and poised daughter of a local landowner. I wouldn’t be surprised if Leonard’s connection to the white Roane family, as well as the success of his father,  Patrick Henry Roane, factored into David Bates’s considerations for the future security of his daughter Jane.

I clearly see the patterns of marriage for both families in Virginia as well as their descendants, including descendants who left Virginia. This influenced marriage choices well into the 1940s as evidenced by marriage records. On the one hand, my ancestors married into families they already knew. These were known factors either through life on the same plantation or through unions during slavery. In other words, these families were either known factors, secured through the bonds of shared experiences and amity. Or they were unions between different branches of the same family.

I can also see the appeal of marrying an established land-owner, skilled craftsman, entrepreneur or professional. Again, it’s all about security and building a stable foundation to achieve one’s hopes for the future.

However, this is only a partial answer. After slavery, there were a myriad of African American families the Roanes and Sheffeys could have married into.  These are families with an equally long history within the counties where my ancestors lived. These families would have known mine. I imagine the families saw each other each Sunday in church and at social gatherings. Yet, no marriages occurred between them. The Sheffeys and the Roanes had clear marriage preferences and criteria. The ultimate marriageability ‘X’ factor remains elusive.

I hope the answer to this ‘X’ factor question will emerge as I correspond with more newly found distant relations. At the moment, it’s a question that intrigues me and keeps me interested in finding out more.

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