A historical document that appears to legalize a marriage formed under bondage in 1858 suggests a heartbreaking scenario for one woman’s ancestors. Professor Gates and his team of genealogy researchers address the answers she seeks.
Dear Professor Gates:
I am trying to learn more about my enslaved ancestors Sandy Butner and Mary Jane Powe in Rowan County, N.C. I have attached the documentation showing when they were legally allowed to marry in 1866. Sandy was born in 1835 and Mary Jane was born in 1843. They began “cohabitating” as husband and wife in 1858. It appears that Sandy was owned by a Larson Butner and Mary was owned by A. J. Powe, but I need your help verifying this. —Latanya Mclain
The document that you sent us was a sad reminder of the fact that enslaved persons could not legally marry in any of the slave states or territories until 1865. As a result, prior to the end of the Civil War, unfree men and women would live in relationships that they considered to be marriage, even though those unions were not legally recognized. These relationships were even sometimes encouraged by the slave owners, since they would help ensure the institution of slavery and limit the number of runaways.
As Heather Andrea Williams, a National Humanities Center fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, describes in an article published by the NHC: “Many owners encouraged marriage … and sometimes gave small gifts for the wedding. Some owners honored the choices enslaved people made about whom their partners would be; other owners assigned partners, forcing people into relationships they would not have chosen for themselves.”
When an enslaved couple were married, they may have lived in the same residence with their children, or they may have lived in a so-called abroad marriage, according to Williams. Since you told us they had separate owners, we considered whether Sandy Butner and Mary Jane Powe lived in an “abroad marriage” relationship, where, according to Williams, “a father might live several miles away on a distant plantation and walk, usually on Wednesday nights and Saturday evenings, to see his family, as his obligation to provide labor for an owner took precedence over his personal needs.”
Of course, following the Civil War, black couples sought to formalize their relationships. According to Reginald Washington, writing for the spring 2005 issue of Prologue, after emancipation in 1865 the military undertook solemnizing these unions, followed by the Freedmen’s Bureau. Specifically in North Carolina, where your kin lived, a March 10, 1866, measure legalized ex-slave marriages.
“Once informed of the law, tens of thousands of North Carolina freedmen couples reported their marriages to county courts,” Washington wrote. The marriage record that you included with this question, which you told us came from the “archives for Rowan County, N.C.,” could be such a document. It formally recognized the relationship of Mary Jane and Sandy, which the couple had viewed as a marriage since Dec. 24, 1858.
To verify our hypothesis that Sandy Butner and Mary Jane Powe lived in an abroad marriage, we aimed to locate more information about their owners, whom you named as A.J. Powe and Larson Butner.
The last census to include information about enslaved persons still residing with their owners was the 1860 U.S. Slave Schedule (via Ancestry.com; subscription required). The schedules themselves did not contain detailed information about the slaves, who were considered property—only the ages and genders of the slaves and the slave owner’s name.
Because Sandy and Mary Jane likely lived in an abroad marriage, we assumed that the slave owners of Mary Jane and Sandy lived near each other. Interestingly, we found the probable slave owner of Mary Jane Powe, a man known by the name Albert J. Powe. He was the co-owner of 24 other people, listed as either black or mulatto, in Salisbury, Rowan County, N.C. One female enumerated in the household, a mulatto woman who was 19 years old, may have been an entry for your ancestor, since her age puts her within two years of the 1843 birth date you gave.
However, we were unable to locate a record for Larson Butner, or any other person by that surname, living in Rowan County in 1860. We turned to the 1850 Slave Schedule to see if we would have better luck. Just as the 1860 Slave Schedule showed, Albert J. Powe was residing in Rowan County in 1850. This time, however, we found one of his neighbors, named David M. Butner, as the owner of five slaves. Most importantly, one of the males enumerated in the household was a 16-year-old—a possible record for Sandy Butner, based on his age. When we looked further at David M. Butner, using the 1860 federal census, we found that he was living close to Albert J. Powe with his (probable) wife, Susan Butner, and his son, Henry C. Butner.
We returned to the marriage record that you sent us, and upon further examination, it appeared that what was transcribed as “Larson” may actually have been written as “Susan.” If Susan Butner was the owner of Sandy Butner, we believed it was possible that her husband died sometime between the enumeration of the 1850 and 1860 censuses, and she remarried. This would explain why we were unable to locate the Butner family in the 1860 census or the 1860 Slave Schedule.
We examined marriage records in Rowan County to locate the second marriage of Susan Butner. As we expected, we located a marriage recorded on March 20, 1858, for Susan Butner and John C. Deaton.
The new Deaton family was living together in Salisbury, Rowan County, in 1860 with a number of slaves: a female age 45, two males ages 23 and 21, and a young female age 9. Sandy Butner may have been the 23-year-old male living with the Deaton household in 1860.
Therefore, because of the timing of David M. Butner’s death between 1850 and 1858, it is possible that the enslaved persons previously owned by David M. Butner were bequeathed to Susan Butner at the time of his death. Because enslaved persons were considered property, your ancestor Sandy Butner may have been named in an estate inventory, will or administration.
To take this further and locate concrete evidence that Sandy Butner was owned by David M. Butner, and later Susan (Butner) Deaton, you should examine the probate records of Rowan County. Happily, there are several digitized collections specific to Rowan County, N.C., available for free at FamilySearch.
You could also examine deed records for Rowan County, since Sandy Butner may have been included in a deed after the death of his owner, David M. Butner. Those records are available on microfilm from the Family History Library.
However, it appears that we have located the neighboring slave owners for your ancestors Sandy Butner and Mary Jane Powe, who were likely involved in an abroad marriage.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Lindsay Fulton, director of research services for the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,
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