Select Page

About the best FAN Club evidence ever…

Reader Diane George ran into an issue that many genealogists encounter when looking at records of our ancestors.

She’d come across an 1895 Wisconsin newspaper article that noted that C. G. Crosse and J. E. Morton of Sun Prairie were sureties for H.F. Hamilton, the county surveyor, in the amount of $1,000.

“My great uncle, James E Morton, was a citizen of Sun Prairie,” she wrote. “He was also employed at the local Depot as a telegraph operator and agent. My understanding as a third party surety he as a citizen he is serving as an obligee. Does this mean if H. F. Hamilton as surveyor and public officer cannot faithfully discharge his duties my uncle is responsible for paying at least if not all the $1,000 bond?”

The Legal Genealogist salutes Diane: she has it pretty much right.

And she has a clue that’s one of genealogy’s real gems.

official bond definition

First off, let’s make sure we all understand what these bonds were.

A bond is defined as a “contract by specialty to pay a certain sum of money; being a deed or instrument under seal, by which the maker or obligor promises, and thereto binds himself, his heirs, executors, and administrators, to pay a designated sum of money to another; usually with a clause to the effect that upon performance of a certain condition (as to pay another and smaller sum) the obligation shall be void.”1

And the “by speciality” part simply means that this is a really serious kind of contract: it means “a contract under seal, … considered by law as entered into with more solemnity, and, consequently, of higher dignity than ordinary simple contracts.”2

The official bond is one of these contracts, entered into by an incoming public official: “A bond given by a public officer, conditioned that he shall well and faithfully perform all the duties of the office.”3

So the bond by Hamilton the surveyor was his contract, entered into with this high degree of solemnity, as he took on his public office, and it’s in effect a legal promise to do the job right or face a stated financial penalty — in this case, $1,000, which wasn’t chump change in 1895.

And it’s because the amounts in these bonds generally weren’t chump change that you get these folks who were sureties.

In the language of the law, a surety is “one who at the request of another, and for the purpose of securing to him a benefit, becomes responsible for the performance by the latter of some act in favor of a third person, or hypothecates property as security therefor.”4

So, in plain English, at the request of the official and in order that the official can take the job, the surety agrees to back up that official’s promise to do the job right by agreeing to pay up if (a) the official didn’t do the job right and (b) the official didn’t / couldn’t pay the amount of the bond.

In most cases, and certainly until corporate sureties came to be the norm at the beginning of the 20th century, no money ever changed hands with these bonds. That $1,000 was not put into a kitty to sit there until the official left office. Instead, it was just a promise, but secured with the backing of others so that it was pretty darned clear that the money could be paid, by somebody — either the principal or one or both of the sureties — if there was a problem.

So Diane has that article pretty much right: it absolutely does mean that if H.F. Hamilton as surveyor and public officer didn’t do his job right, her great uncle would have been responsible for whatever part of that $1,000 penalty the county couldn’t collect from Hamilton himself.

My one quibble would be with the word “cannot” in the phrase “if H. F. Hamilton as surveyor and public officer cannot faithfully discharge his duties.” The bond wouldn’t be enforced if, say, Hamilton died and so couldn’t do any more surveys, or he became sick and resigned. So it’s not really that he can’t do the job — it’s that he said he would and acted in a way that proved he didn’t. (Stealing public money, or taking bribes to play games with surveys, would be good examples of didn’t.) An exception of course would be if he was holding public money when he died and his estate didn’t pay it over.5

Now… why is this so important for us as genealogists?

Think about it.

Diane’s great uncle, James E. Morton, was a local telegraph operator. Not the Big Man in Town. Not the banker or the lawyer or the major property owner. And yet he was willing to stake $1,000 of his own money that Hamilton would do the right thing as surveyor. We need to ask ourselves: what does that tell us about the relationship between Morton and Hamilton?

Standing surety on a bond — any kind of bond6 — is one of the best pieces of genealogical evidence we can ever get. It’s is the functional equivalent of co-signing a loan: you don’t co-sign a $1,000 loan in 1895 for a stranger. This shows there was a FAN Club relationship: Morton clearly is in the friends-family-associates-neighbors group when it comes to Hamilton.7

Bonds are terrific genealogical resources when they’re properly understood. Here Diane did a good job of figuring out what this means for her research.

Standing surety on an official bond is a great clue, and about the best clue we’ll ever find to a relationship we definitely want to check out.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “The clues in official bonds,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 3 Mar 2022).


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 144, “bond.”
  2. Ibid., 1114, specialty.
  3. Ibid., 845, official bond.
  4. Ibid., 1142, “surety.”
  5. See, enforcing a bond in just those circumstances, “Olson Pays Up,” Portage (Wisc.) Daily Democrat, 20 Aug 1895, p. 4, col. 3; digital images, ( : accessed 3 Mar 2022).
  6. See, for discussions of sureties on marriage bonds, Judy G. Russell, “Revisiting the bond,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 8 Apr 2019 ( : accessed 3 Mar 2022). For probate sureties, see ibid., “The beer bust and the surety bond,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 28 Feb 2012, and “Please release me,” posted 11 June 2018.
  7. For more on the FAN club concept, a term coined by Elizabeth Shown Mills, see Elizabeth Shown Mills, QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle) (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2012).
Print Friendly, PDF & Email