Using Cohabitation Records for Research

Monday, February 3, 2020

Marriage records are a very important vital record to family history researchers, but those enslaved ancestors who were married while enslaved often left no record of the marriage. Sometimes, the slaveholder recorded the marriage in their personal records; however, because of the records’ personal nature, they may still be with the family, or the records may not have survived. In 1866, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law that allowed formerly enslaved people to record their marriages with the county to make the marriage legally recognized. The resulting records were called cohabitation bonds. 

 names of groom, bride, and statement of how long they have been married

What are cohabitation records?

Cohabitation records are a great resource to prove the marriages of enslaved ancestors who were freed after the Civil War. So, what exactly are cohabitation records? The word “cohabitation” itself refers to a man and woman living together as man and wife without being legally married. Cohabitation records, specifically, are records filed with the county where the persons resided, in order to legalize their marriage that took place while enslaved.  The 1866 law allowed marriages to be recorded from 1866-1868. 

Which counties had cohabitation records?

Not all counties that existed at the time had cohabitation bonds. Out of 87 counties that existed by 1868, 33 counties have no cohabitation bonds at all, and the bonds for Caswell County are missing as well. In addition, the following counties did not have a separate record series for cohabitation bonds: Alamance, Anson, Ashe, Bladen, Burke, Cabarrus, Chatham, Cherokee, Clay, Cleveland, Gaston, Greene, Harnett, Haywood, Henderson, Hertford, Jackson, Jones, Lenoir, Madison, Martin, McDowell, Mecklenburg, Montgomery, Moore, Onslow, Polk, Rockingham, Stanly, Transylvania, Tyrell, Watauga, and Yadkin. Several of these counties had courthouse fires in the 1870s or later that would have destroyed any bonds they may have had. 

Where can I find cohabitation records today?

Cohabitation bonds were originally filed in their respective counties but have since been moved to the North Carolina State Archives. A wonderful resource we have at the NC Government & Heritage Library is an index of those cohabitation records in a 3 volume book by Dr. Barnetta McGee White, entitled Somebody Knows My Name. These 3 volumes are organized county-by-county in alphabetical order by husband’s name, with a wife index at the end of each county section, and a full index covering all 3 volumes at the end of volume 3.

Names indexed in Dr. White’s book have cohabitation records located in the North Carolina State Archives.  If you find your ancestors listed in Dr. White’s book, you can then contact the North Carolina State Archives to get a copy of the original cohabitation record.

Erin Bradford, Reference Librarian