A marriage bond doesn’t prove a marriage
And in the “it never fails” category, reader Dan Babish came up with the one thing The Legal Genealogist should have said in about marriage bonds… and didn’t.
In a comment posted this morning to the blog posted yesterday, he asked: “Absent any other contrary information, is the existence of a marriage bond inferential proof of a marriage?” And, he noted, “I’m thinking of earlier colonial times when church records, newspaper accounts, family bibles, etc. may not exist.”1
Easy answer: No.
But that’s not a complete — or even useful — answer by any means.
When we as genealogists speak of proof, we’re talking about the conclusion we’ve reached at the end of a process of research and analysis that begins — as all genealogical research must begin — with reasonably exhaustive research.2
The bits and pieces we rely on to reach that conclusion? They’re not proof by themselves; they’re evidence that — when combined and tested by processes of analysis, correlation and conflict resolution — may end up taking us to that conclusion.3
So that marriage bond isn’t proof that a marriage took place; it’s evidence that it did — but by itself isn’t enough to prove it. That’s particularly true since — then as now — we know all about folks getting cold feet and not showing up at the altar.
So if it’s not enough by itself, and in a case like Dan posits “when church records, newspaper accounts, family bibles, etc. may not exist” — can we ever get to the proof conclusion?
Sure. But we’re going to have to do lots of additional research and add in all the other facts we have.
A case in point: my fourth great grandfather Boston Shew executed a marriage bond in Wilkes County, North Carolina, on 18 September 1816. Co-signed by his surety, his brother Simon Shew, it was the usual 500 pounds, but “Void on condition that there be no just cause to Obstruct Boston Shew Intermarriage with Elisabeth Brewer.”4
There is no other direct evidence that Boston and Elizabeth ever married. As Dan says, no church records, newspaper accounts, family bibles. No death records of Boston or Elizabeth, birth or death records of their children, or anything else that says, outright, that that particular marriage ever took place.
But consider the following:
• In 1820, Boston was enumerated on the U.S. census in Wilkes County with one adult female — both adults in the 16-26 age range — and two children, one boy and one girl both under age 10.5
• In 1830, he was enumerated on the U.S. census in Wilkes County with one adult female — both adults in the 30-40 age range — and six children. One boy and one girl were age 10-15; one boy and one girl were age 5-10; and two girls were under age five.6
• In 1840, the family was in Grayson County, Virginia. Boston was shown as age 40-50; one adult female was shown as age 30-40. There were 8 children recorded: one girl age 20-30; two girls and two boys age 15-20; and two girls and one boy age 10-15.7
• In 1850, Boston and Elizabeth Shew and two of their children were in Cherokee County, Alabama. Boston was shown as a 60-year-old farmer, Elizabeth as age 60, with Elvira, age 20, and John, age 17. All four were shown as all born in North Carolina.8
Now the story is very different by 1860, when Boston shows up in Izard County, Arkansas, with a much younger woman and the start of a new family.9 But the combination of the marriage bond, the census records through 1850, and the name and birthplace of the wife on that 1850 census — taken together — gives us a proof argument that yes, indeed, Boston did marry Elizabeth.
So no, a marriage bond isn’t proof of a marriage. But it is evidence of one. And combined with other evidence may reach the level of proof.
Great question, Dan!
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Evidence, not proof,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 9 Apr 2019).
- See Dan Babish, comment, posted 9 Apr 2019, to Judy G. Russell, “Revisiting the bond,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 8 Apr 2019 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 9 Apr 2019). ↩
- See generally Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 2d edition (Nashville: Ancestry, 2019), 83-84 (Glossary, entries for “proof,” “prove”). ↩
- See ibid., “The Genealogical Proof Standard,” at 1-3. ↩
- Wilkes County, North Carolina, Marriage Bond, 18 Sep 1816, Boston Shew and Elisabeth Brewer; Call No. 304.63.1, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh. ↩
- 1820 U.S. census, Wilkes County, North Carolina, population schedule, p. 494 (stamped), Boston Shew household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 25 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M33, roll 83. ↩
- 1830 U.S. census, Wilkes County, North Carolina, p. 335 (stamped), Boston Shew household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 14 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M19, roll 125. ↩
- 1840 U.S. census, Grayson County, Virginia, p. 305 (stamped), Boston “Shoe” household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 20 Nov 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication M704, roll 555. ↩
- 1850 U.S. census, Cherokee County, Alabama, population schedule, 26th District, p. 6(A) (stamped), dwelling/family 75, Boston Shew household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 12 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 3. ↩
- 1860 U.S. census, Izard County, Arkansas, Franklin Township, population schedule, p. 349 (stamped), dwelling 150, family 148, Boston Shew household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 5 Oct 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 43. ↩