Were They Married Or Not?


Another interesting find in a Civil War pension file from the National Archives. This marriage license was in the pension file for Edward Peoples. The license was granted in 1866 in Tennessee. On first glance, it looks like a typical marriage license you can find in almost any court house across the country. But like many documents, when you take a closer look at it and put into historical context, you can see the story hidden in it.

The three small letters “col” written after both of their last names stands for “colored.” This in itself tells a lot. The pension file explains that they were both former slaves. This license was granted on 13 April 1866– almost a year to the date of when the Civil War ended and the slaves were granted their freedom. Many slaves called themselves husband and wife before the war ended, but as slaves, they had no legal right to marry. This marriage would have been illegal and invalid the year before this license was issued.

Another thing that stands out is the name of the groom. This license was found in the pension file for Edward Peoples, but the groom’s name on this license was Marcus Newson. Who was Marcus Newson? It turns out that Marcus and Minerva applied for a marriage license in 1866, five years before her marriage to Edward Peoples.

This license was included in the pension file to document Minerva's first marriage. Someone researching Marcus Newson may never think to look at Edward People’s Civil War pension file, but this serves as an example of why you should look at everything related to your family. You never know where you’ll find the next clue.

Toward the bottom of the certificate, “license not returned” was written. Minerva (the bride) and Marcus (the groom) both explained in the pension file that while they did apply for the license and lived together for some time, they decided not to go through with the marriage. They never formalized the marriage and they both went on to marry someone else several years later. Or so they thought...

This license was granted in April 1866 in Tennessee. Tennessee passed a law the next month declaring that “all colored persons” who were living together as husband and wife on 26 May 1866 were automatically granted married status. This was probably an effort to help the freed slaves formalize their marriages and to stop them from flooding the courthouse, applying for marriage licenses.

Because they lived together on 26 May 1866, and called themselves husband and wife (she even took his last name), Tennessee recognized them as a married couple. Therefore, when they split up and married other people, they did so while still technically married to each other. Both of them claimed that they did not know of the law and did not realize that they were still considered to be husband and wife to each other.

When Minerva applied for a Civil War pension based on her second husband, Edward People’s, service in the US Colored Troops, her application was denied. The pension bureau investigated her case and declared that because she never filed for divorce from her first husband (that she claimed that didn’t know she was married to in the first place), her second marriage was illegal, and therefore she had no right to a pension in his name.

The law that was passed in 1866 to help declare former slaves as married couples was ultimately used against Minerva over thirty years later. Were the pension bureau’s hands tied because of this marriage law that was passed in 1866? Or was this evidence of a system designed to work against African Americans? Or was it both? Whatever the reason, Minerva was denied the pension from the man she lived with as husband and wife for over 25 years.

 What stories are hiding in your Civil War ancestor’s files at the National Archives? Contact me and let me help you find them!

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