Slave Marriages

Most slave-owners encouraged their slaves to marry. It was believed that married men was less likely to be rebellious or to run away. Some masters favoured marriage for religious reasons and it was in the interests of plantation owners for women to have children. Child-bearing started around the age of thirteen, and by twenty the women slaves would be expected to have four or five children. To encourage childbearing some plantation owners promised women slaves their freedom after they had produced fifteen children. Several slaves recorded in their autobiographies that they were reluctant to marry women from the same plantation.

As John Anderson explained: "I did not want to marry a girl belonging to my own place, because I knew I could not bear to see her ill-treated." Moses Grandy agreed he wrote: "no colored man wishes to live at the house where his wife lives, for he has to endure the continual misery of seeing her flogged and abused without daring to say a word in her defence." As Henry Bibb pointed out: "If my wife must be exposed to the insults and licentious passions of wicked slave-drivers and overseers. Heaven forbid that I should be compelled to witness the sight."

A study of slave records by the Freedmen's Bureau of 2,888 slave marriages in Mississippi (1,225), Tennessee (1,123) and Louisiana (540), revealed that over 32 per cent of marriages were dissolved by masters as a result of slaves being sold away from the family home.

Primary Sources

(1) Annie L. Burton, Memories of Childhood's Slavery Days (1909)

If a slave man and woman wished to marry, a party would be arranged some Saturday night among the slaves. The marriage ceremony consisted of the pair jumping over a stick. If no children were born within a year or so, the wife was sold.

At New Year's, if there was any debt or mortgage on the plantation, the extra slaves were taken to Clayton and sold at the court house. In this way families were separated.

(2) Bethany Veney, A Slave Woman (1889)

Master Jonas Mannyfield lived seven miles from us, on the other side of the Blue Ridge; and he owned a likely young fellow called Jerry. We had always known each other, and now he wanted to marry me. Our masters were both willing; and there was nothing to hinder, except that there was no minister about there to marry us.

One day, there was a colored man - a pedler, with his cart - on the road, and Jerry brought him in, and said he was ready to be minister for us. He asked us a few questions, which we answered in a satisfactory manner, and then he declared us husband and wife. I did not want him to make us promise that we would always be true to each other, forsaking all others, as the white people do in their marriage service, because I knew that at any time our masters could compel us to break such a promise; and I had never forgotten the lesson learned, so many years before, in the blackberry pasture.

(3) Walter Hawkins, From Slavery to Bishopric (1891)

To enslave men successfully and safely it was necessary to keep their minds occupied with thoughts and aspirations short of the liberty of which they were deprived. Thus masters gave the slaves some holidays, which served the purpose of keeping their minds occupied with prospective pleasures within the limits of slavery. It was during these holidays that the young man could go wooing; the married man went to see his wife; the father and mother to see their children; the industrious and money-making could earn a few dollars: it was then that the strong tried their strength at wrestling or boxing; then the drinker drank plenty of whisky, and the religious spent their time in praying, preaching, singing and exhorting. Before these holidays their pleasures were in prospect, after they were pleasures of reflection; but for these holidays, which acted as safety-valves, the rigours of bondage would have been carried off by the explosive elements produced in the minds of the slaves by the injustice and fraud of slavery.

(4) William Box Brown, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown (1851)

I now began to think of entering the matrimonial state; and with that view I had formed an acquaintance with a young woman named Nancy, who was a slave belonging to a Mr. Leigh a clerk in the Bank, and, like many more slave-holders, professing to be a very pious man. We had made it up to get married, but it was necessary in the first place, to obtain our masters' permission, as we could do nothing without their consent. I therefore went to Mr. Leigh, and made known to him my wishes, when he told me he never meant to sell Nancy, and if my master would agree never to sell me, I might marry her. He promised faithfully that he would not sell her, and pretended to entertain an extreme horror of separating families. He gave me a note to my master, and after they had discussed the matter over, I was allowed to marry the object of my choice.

When Nancy became my wife she was living with a Mr. Reeves, a minister of the gospel, who had not long come from the north, where he had the character of being an Anti-slavery man; but he had not been long in the south when all his anti-slavery notions vanished and he became a staunch advocate of slave-holding doctrines, and even wrote articles in favour of slavery which were published in the Richmond Republican.

My wife was still the property of Mr. Leigh and, from the apparent sincerity of his promises to us, we felt confident that he would not separate us. We had not, however, been married above twelve months, when his conscientious scruples vanished, and he sold my wife to a Mr. Joseph H. Colquitt, a saddler, living in the city of Richmond, and a member of Dr. Plummer's church there. This Mr. Colquitt was an exceedingly cruel man, and he had a wife who was, if possible, still more cruel. She was very contrary and hard to be pleased she used to abuse my wife very much, not because she did not do her duty, but because, it was said, her manners were too refined for a slave. At this time my wife had a child and this vexed Mrs. Colquitt very much; she could not bear to see her nursing her baby and used to wish some great calamity to happen to my wife.

Eventually she was so much displeased with my wife that she induced Mr. Colquitt to sell her to one Philip M. Tabb, for the sum of 450 dollars; but coming to see the value of her more clearly after she tried to do without her, she could not rest till she got Mr. Colquitt to repurchase her from Mr. Tabb, which he did in about four months after he had sold her, for 500 dollars, being 50 more than he had sold her for.

(5) Henry Clay Bruce, Twenty-Nine Years a Slave (1895)

My parents belonged to Lemuel Bruce, who died about the year 1836, leaving two children, William Bruce and Rebecca Bruce, who went to live with their aunt, Mrs. Prudence Perkinson; he also left two families of slaves, and they were divided between his two children; my mother's family fell to Miss Rebecca, and the other family, the head of which was known as Bristo, was left to William B. Bruce. Then it was that family ties were broken, the slaves were all hired out, my mother to one man and my father to another. I was too young then to know anything about it, and have to rely entirely on what I have heard my mother and others older than myself say.

(6) Henry Bibb, The Life and Adventures of an American Slave (1851)

If my wife must be exposed to the insults and licentious passions of wicked slave-drivers and overseers; if she must bear the stripes of the lash laid on my an unmerciful tyrant; if this is to be done with impunity, which is frequently done by slaveholders and their abettors. Heaven forbid that I should be compelled to watch the sight