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.


Throwing the gates open: Doing a broad family name search on ancestry websites

Most of my family research activity is quite specific. I tend to spend a great deal of time tracking down specifics about an individual or a particular family group. My time is usually spent tracking down individual dates and county of birth, dates and county of deaths, marriage dates, maiden names of mothers, etc. However, just to shake things up from time to time, I’ll do a general search using the broadest search terms available.

Armed with an increasing list of mothers’ maiden names, I’ve started to do broad searches on marriages between two family groups. So how does this work? Page 1 in the document below is an example.

While is an amazing resource for intricate and detailed searches, I find (for me) that is an amazing resource for broad searches.

The surname Byrd/Bird was a name which cropped up in connection with the Sheffeys in Wythe and Smyth Counties in Virginia. I had spotted a few marriages between the two families from the 1870s through to the turn of the 20th Century. So I was naturally curious to see how many marriages occurred between the two families.

I decided to search for all the individuals born in Virginia with the surname Sheffey (no first names are used in this kind of search) who had a spouse with the surname Byrd (again, no first names used). The record shown above gives a glimpse (death certificates and baptism records provided more). You’ll also see that alternate spellings for each surname are returned in the search results (Sheffy, Bird, etc). Each record that this search returned also gave details about parents – Page 2 in the document above shows the mother of Dennis Byrd (Josephine Sheffey’s husband) was a Sheffey.

I could (and have) made the search even broader at times by omitting the state of birth. And the results were no less illuminating…showing direct marriages between the Sheffeys and Byrds between 1920 and 1935 occurring in Delware, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. And, as to be expected, there were also marriages between both families via their shared Richardson, Hill and Carpenter cousins.

It’s a brilliant family history exercise to do – but definitely one where you have quite a bit of time to process the results! The results from this search kept me busy updating the family tree for the best part of a week!

What’s in a maiden name? When cousins marry

In my previous post I covered the importance of accurately recording maiden names.  And this post is just one illustration of how important and/or interesting such information can be.

As I’ve mentioned in a few posts, the Sheffey family in Virginia was a tightly knit family group.  This is all the more impressive as it was certainly an extremely large family from the 1870s onwards. It was not unknown for cousins from different branches of the Virginian family to marry one another .  Or marry their extended relations within the Byrd, Hill and Carpenter families.

One such instance is my great-aunt Callie Sheffey who married William Turner.  Turner was actually a cousin, the son of Katherine Sheffey who married Robert Turner.  In other words, Callie’s mother-in-law was a Sheffey cousin from another branch of the Sheffey family tree. And herein is the basis of an interesting tale which illustrates just how strong the Sheffey family bonds were across decades.

It’s a story that goes back before the end of slavery.  Katherine was the daughter of Godfrey Taylor Sheffey and Angeline Ward. The records don’t tell us what became of Godfrey, where he was born (other than Virginia) or who his parents were. What we do know for certain is that Angeline and her children were moved from Wytheville, Virginia to Alabama. History would indicate they were the slaves of Dr Lawrence Brengler Sheffey, who moved from Virginia to Alabama in the same time period, presumably taking Angelina and her children with him.  So far, the records show he was the only white Sheffey from the Virginian Sheffey’s to move from Virginia to Alabama at this time.

At the end of the civil war, Angeline returned to Wytheville.  Many of her children returned with her, with some electing to remain in Alabama. Katherine was one of the children who returned to Wytheville with her mother. I can only imagine the joy that was felt within the family when those who were taken from them came back to them. Indeed, within a generation, these two family lines were united with the marriage of Callie to William.

These Turners and Sheffeys are related twice-over through marriage: one through Katherine Sheffey’s marriage to Robert Turner and again through Callie Sheffey’s marriage to their son, Wiliam.  Without the proper recording of both women’s maiden names, this family connection would have been either lost or overlooked.

A second instance involves the Sheffey and Byrd families.

Lena (or Senah – the joys of Census Records!) Sheffey married Dennis Byrd.  One of their sons, Stephen Byrd, married Josephine “Josie” Sheffey.  Josephine was a cousin form a different Sheffey branch than Lena/Senah’s.  This is another instance of a man with a mother and wife from two different branches of the same family. This would occur more than once between the Sheffeys and the Byrds and their mutual cousins the Carpenters. And again, these connections were possible through the careful recording of maiden names.

As a side note, these dynamics makes the information recorded in Census records even more interesting.  It brings Census data to life.  Looking upon list after list of names, I’ve seen generations of Carpenters, Sheffeys, Byrds and Hills living near to one another. What looks like a mere list of names actually demonstrates close familial bonds. It’s another small way of bringing history to life. It’s something I find absolutely fascinating.  And, considering few of my ancestors left any manner of written record, this is as close as I’m likely to get to their unwritten histories.