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What exactly is a marriage bond?

Time and again, whenever a marriage bond is referenced, the question comes up.

What happens if the two people named in the marriage bond don’t get married? Isn’t there some kind of court action or record that happens then?

These were the questions asked again this past Saturday at the North Carolina Genealogical Society’s fall seminar, where The Legal Genealogist was privileged to be the presenter in a series of discussions of the law and genealogy.

Mrr.BondAnd underlying these question is an understandable, but mistaken, notion as to just what a marriage bond was.

It seems, doesn’t it, as though a marriage bond should be evidence of an intention to marry — a reflection of an official “engagement.” A man who had proposed to a woman went to the courthouse with a bondsman, and posted a bond indicating his intention to marry the woman.

Right?

Um… not exactly.

I mean, yeah, okay, sure it’s true that you wouldn’t have gone and signed a marriage bond if you didn’t intend to get married, but simply “reflecting an engagement” or “indicating an intention to marry” is about as far from the real purpose of a marriage bond as it’s possible to get.

Remember that, for the longest time, the way folks got married was that marriage banns1 were read from the pulpit or posted at the door of the local church. Usually, banns were read on three consecutive Sundays or posted for three weeks.

For example, in North Carolina, as of 1715, couples had to have “the Banns of Matrimony published Three times by the Clerks at the usual place of celebrating Divine Service.”2 In neighboring Virginia, a 1705 statute required “thrice publication of the banns according as the rubric in the common prayer book prescribes.”3

That notice that two people were going to marry had one purpose and one purpose only: to make sure folks knew there was a wedding in the offing so that they had a chance to come forward and object if there was some legal reason why the marriage couldn’t take place.4 In general, that meant one (or both) of the couple was too young, one (or both) of them was already married, or the law prohibited the marriage because they were too closely related.5

When folks married without banns, however, particularly when they married some distance away from where they were known, there wasn’t the same opportunity in advance to have folks “speak up or forever hold their peace.” The bond then stepped into the breach.

What that bond actually was, then, was a form of guarantee that there wasn’t any legal bar to the marriage. Enforcing the guarantee was a pledge by the groom and a bondsman — usually a relative — to pay a sum of money, usually to the Governor of the State (or colony if earlier, or to the Crown if in Canada6), if and only if it actually turned out that there was some reason the marriage wasn’t legal.

The bond shown here, for example, for the marriage of my fourth great grandparents in Wilkes County, North Carolina, in 1816, was a promise by the groom Boston Shew and his brother Simon to pay the Governor of North Carolina five hundred pounds, but it provided that it was “Void on condition that there be no just cause to Obstruct Boston Shew — Intermarriage with Elizabeth Brewer.”7

The use of marriage bonds was common, particularly in southern and mid-Atlantic states, well into the 19th century,8 when most jurisdictions started relying on what the couple said in a written application for a marriage license.

And the laws about those… well… we’ll get to those some other day…


SOURCES
Note: Information in this post was originally included in a January 2012 blog post, The ties that bond.

  1. “Public announcement especially in church of a proposed marriage; plural of bann, from Middle English bane, ban proclamation, ban.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.merriam-webster.com : accessed 16 Nov 2014.)
  2. North Carolina Laws of 1715, chapter 8, in William Saunders, compiler, Colonial Records of North Carolina, Vol. 2 (Raleigh, N.C. : P.M. Hale, State Printer, 1886), 212-213; online version, Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, Documenting the American South (http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/), University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
  3. Virginia Laws of 1705, chapter XLVIII, in William Waller Hening, compiler, Hening’s Statutes at Law, Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the first session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: Thomas DeSilver, printer, 1823), 441; digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library (http://www.hathitrust.org/ : accessed 16 Nov 2014).
  4. See generally Susan Scouras, “Early Marriage Laws in Virginia/West Virginia,” West Virginia Archives & History News, vol. 5, no. 4 (June 2004), 1-3.
  5. Maryland by statute required marriages to follow the Church of England Table of Marriages, drawn up in 1560, that said when relatives were too closely related. Chapter 12, Laws of 1694; Maryland State Archives, Acts of the General Assembly Hitherto Unprinted 1694-1698, 1711-1729, vol. 38: 1; Archives of Maryland Online (http://msa.maryland.gov/ : accessed 16 Nov 2014). For that table, see F. M. Lancaster, “Forbidden Marriage Laws of the United Kingdom,” Genetic and Quantitative Aspects of Genealogy (http://www.genetic-genealogy.co.uk : accessed 16 Nov 2014.)
  6. See “Marriage Bonds, 1779-1858 – Upper & Lower Canada,” Library and Archives Canada (http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/ : accessed 16 Nov 2014).
  7. Wilkes County, North Carolina, Marriage Bond, 1816, Boston Shew to Elizabeth Brewer; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  8. FamilySearch Research Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/learn/wiki/), “United States Marriage Records,” rev. 18 July 2014.
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