Getting closer to the ancestors: Marriage Certificates

There are times when serendipity serves up a little something that’s extra special. An old marriage certificate doesn’t seem like a thing to get excited about. It’s just a piece of paper with some basic information on it after all. But here I sit with a broad smile on my face as I (once again!) peruse the document below:

James Zachariah Mitchell Sheffey Marriage Certificate

I am grateful to Anthony Q, a distant relation through marriage, who email me this marriage certificate. His wife is a direct descendant of James Zachariah Mitchell Sheffey (primarily known as Mitchell Sheffey) and the holder of this precious document.

As I mentioned in the post Mystery#1: Getting to grips with James Z Mitchell W Sheffey [Mitchell Sheffey] , Mitchell is quite the enigma. On paper, his life before the Civil War was unlike any other Sheffey of colour I’ve ever come across.  As I’ve said many, many times, I’m interested in putting flesh on the ancestors’ bones; in other words, turning a string of names and dates into a real person who lived, loved, breathed and had any number of hopes and ambitions for the future. The “A begat B who begat C who begat D” kind of genealogy has never held much interest for me. It’s kind of cool to be able to chat about my grandfather the racing jockey or my great uncle the buffalo soldier or my great-grandfather who heroically saved town buildings from the flames as parts of Wytheville burned in the Civil War. These are people I never knew existed before embarking on this journey.  The details may be tiny, almost insignificant, but it’s what make these ancestors real for me.

And when you have a relation as enigmatic as my 2nd Great Grand Uncle Mitchell, I’ll take anything I can get.

James Zachariah Mitchell Sheffey – Overview

Before emancipation, Mitchell was associated with a number of women who all bore him children. Of the five women known to have borne him children…it was Dicey Ward he married when slavery ended.

In one way or another, marriage is something many can relate to. [Forgive me if that sounds more than a little insensitive to those who don’t have the legal right to marry.  I can’t think of another way to phrase it]. I may have made the journey down the aisle twice in my life but I still remember the excitement of going to the registry office, being in thrall standing at the altar waiting for the bridge, the butterflies in the stomach, the sense of hope, excitement, anticipation and yes, a smattering of fear too. A zillion thoughts running through your mind about the past, the present and the future. I know I thought about who was going to drink too much at the reception and make a prat of themselves or who was going to recite a funny but inappropriate story during the toasts  😉  It’s this that puts me so in touch with Mitchell and Dicey. As newly freed people, what thoughts went through their heads on their wedding day? I can only imagine! The affirmation of a legal union before family and the community must have been palpable and powerful.

Just imagine knowing that your marriage partner was the person of your own choosing…and a person with whom you could expect to grow old and raise a family with without the fear of them being arbitrarily taken away, never to be seen again.  You’re just like everyone else. That notion, that ideal, is a powerful thing.

I may not have pictures of either of them, much less wedding photos, but this document puts me right there at the wedding with all the heady mixture of emotions which come as standard at weddings. It doesn’t get more ‘real’ than that.

Thank you Anthony for your generosity and for sharing the experience.

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