Do Freedmen’s Bureau Records Show the Marriage of My Kin?

Tracing Your Roots: Post-Civil War records provide tantalizing clues to the marital life of emancipated ancestors.

Marriage record for Ben and Lucy Hoffman Records of the Field Offices for the State of Kentucky, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1872

Dear Professor Gates:

Many years ago, I located my maternal great-great-grandparents, Lucy Hoffman and Ben Hoffman, in census records for Mount Sterling, Ky. They are both listed in the 1870 census, with Lucy listed as being born circa 1803 in Georgia and Ben being born circa 1815 in Virginia. In the 1880 Mount Sterling census, only my great-great-grandmother Lucy is listed. (I assume that Ben Hoffman died during the interim period.)

On the death certificate of one of their daughters, Francis Hoffman Trumbo, Lucy Hoffman is recorded as “Lucy Gassett,” the name that came down to me through oral history from my grandmother (Anna Brooks Hawkins Murphy, born between 1884 and 1888). I am not sure why Lucy Hoffman is also recorded in census documents as Lucy Gassett.

Recently I discovered documentation of a Ben Hoffman marrying a Lucy Flensnoy in Freedmen’s Bureau marriage records from Mount Sterling. Although Lucy’s last name is different, all evidence points to this couple (one of only nine records of marriage unions recorded by the Freedmen’s Bureau of Mount Sterling) as my great-great-grandparents. Is there any way that you can verify if these records do indeed document their marriage? Karen LeRoy

What you have found is special documentation indeed. As Professor Gates wrote in a previous column, a wealth of information on newly emancipated black people was kept by the federal government during the years immediately following the Civil War by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau).

“In March 1865 … [the bureau] was established in the War Department to provide aid to thousands of emancipated slaves and poor whites living in the South and the District of Columbia. Between the years 1865 and 1872, the Freedmen’s Bureau kept track of a variety of records, including marriage, medical, school and census information,” he explained.

Before emancipation, marriage between enslaved persons had no legal standing or protection. Spouses could be separated or sold off at will by their slave owners. The National Humanities Center has an excellent description of how slavery affected couples and families that may help you understand more about the conditions under which your great-great-grandparents lived.

Naturally, many African-American couples wanted to have their informal marriages during slavery documented once it was legal to do so. The Freedmen’s Bureau marriage records are held by the National Archives, as are the agency’s other records.

“While there are other valued federal, state, private and published sources that help document ex-slave marriages, the Freedmen’s Bureau’s marriage records are arguably some of the most important records available for the study of black family marital relations before and after the Civil War,” according to Reginald Washington in a 2005 Prologue article republished on the National Archives website. “For the increasing number of African-American genealogists and family historians, this unique body of marriage records may hold the only formal proof of a slave ancestor’s marriage.”

So, congratulations! Based on the information that you submitted, it seems very likely that the Lucy Flensnoy in the marriage record is the same person as Lucy Hoffman in the census records, particularly because of the low number of marriages recorded in Mount Sterling by the Freedmen’s Bureau. According to the marriage record, Ben and Lucy had been living together as a married couple for 25 years, and their union took place on or around April 10, 1841. That would place this record documenting the marriage at about 1866. Since we know that your Hoffman family were living in Mount Sterling, Montgomery County, Ky., it is very likely that this record is for the same couple that appears in the census, since the records are so close in date.

What’s in a Name (or so Many of Them)?

As you mentioned, Ben and Lucy Hoffman were residing in Mount Sterling, Montgomery County, Ky., in 1870, and in 1880, Lucy Hoffman was residing there as a widow. In both records, the Hoffmans are residing with members of the Brooks family. You may want to investigate them further to see information on their family if you hit a wall researching members of the Hoffman family. We first wanted to focus on trying to learn more about the Flensnoy and Gassett connections to the Hoffman family.

It is good to collect as much information as you can about your family and their associates to use to compare with other records to determine if you have found a likely record for your family. You mentioned that the death record for their daughter, Francis Hoffman Trumbo, records her mother’s name as Lucy Gassett.

According to the death record for Mrs. Wm. Francis Tomibe (spellings are sometimes wrong in transcribed records, but you can find the original record available at Ancestry.com, subscription required), Francis was born in Bath County, Ky., about 1849. The record also states that her father was Ben Darsie born in Virginia and Lucy Gassett born in Georgia.

This adds yet another surname to investigate to determine why neither parent’s surname was recorded on her death record as Hoffman. It also suggests that the family has ties to Bath County, Ky., in addition to Mount Sterling.

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