Monday, January 3, 2011

The First Black Marriages of Ft. Smith Arkansas Found in Freedman's Bureau Records

Among the many desires that slaves had once freedom came was to legally marry.  Many men were anxious to marry the woman they loved and have those marriages recognized by the community, the state and they could be considered husband and wife forever.  In the years after the Civil War, for the first time, courthouses recorded the marriages of those who had once been enslaved. Once ordinary life was restored in those communities affected by the war, black men and women rushed to have their marriages recorded. 

The city of Ft. Smith was no different. At the time the war ended, the city had been occupied by Union soldiers---the 57th US Colored Troops. All entrances to the city were guarded by these black Union soldiers, and one can only imagine the impression that many of these soldiers in their blue uniforms must have made upon the local women, who had never seen such a number of free men of color and in uniform no less. It is easy to say that courtships occurred and subsequently marriages followed.  

These marriages were recorded--but not in the Ft. Smith court house.  In fact--these marriages, predated the marriage records found in the Sebastian county Courthouse.

They were performed at the Ft. Smith Bureau of the Office of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. These marriage ceremonies were performed at the Ft. Smith Field Office by Chaplain Francis Springer.

I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a ledger several years ago, and was amazed to find the marriages performed by Francis Springer in 1865 to 1867.

In this image, Nelson Call and Maria (no last name) are married, and
John Shields and Elizabeth Wagner were married.

Isaac McDaniel and Gracie Hall were married by Springer,
as were Peter Harris and Elizabeth (no last name given).

The ledger consists of 17 pages of marriages performed.  Needless to say I was thrilled to locate them, and I have published the names of the marriages on my Arkansas Freedmen website.

Francis Springer is known to those who study the history of the community in and around Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Each one of the marriages that he performed, reflect his signature as the officiating officer. 

It it not widely known that he performed so many marriages at the Bureau. But the records are there, and I have a copy of the entire ledger.

The presence of these Union Army men, and their marriages to women from the community could explain how so many of the same soldiers came to also be buried in Ft. Smith National Cemetery.  Many remained in the western Arkansas area and made it their home.

I was thrilled to find these marriages and am happy to write about these weddings that occurred at the Ft. Smith Field Office of the Freedman's Bureau.

1 comment:

Robin R. Foster said...

What a really great find, Angela! Thanks for sharing the documents as well.