The ties that bond

True or false:

A marriage bond was 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.

If you said true, all I can say is BZZZZZZT!!! Wrong answer.

1816 NC Marriage Bond

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 Virginia, a 1705 statute required “thrice publication of the banns according as the rubric in the common prayer book prescribes.”2 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.”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… that’s a tale for another day…


  1. “Public announcement especially in church of a proposed marriage; plural of bann, from Middle English bane, ban proclamation, ban.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 24 Jan 2012.)
  2. 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, 14 vols. (1819-1823; reprint ed., Charlottesville: Jamestown Foundation, 1969), 3: 441.
  3. 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 (, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
  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 (–1.html : accessed 23 Jan 2012.). For that table, see F. M. Lancaster, “Forbidden Marriage Laws of the United Kingdom,” Genetic and Quantitative Aspects of Genealogy ( : accessed 23 Jan 2012.)
  6. See Marriage Bonds and Licences, Library and Archives Canada ( : accessed 23 Jan 2012).
  7. Wilkes County, North Carolina, Marriage Bond, 1816, Boston Shew to Elizabeth Brewer; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  8. United States Marriage Records, FamilySearch Research Wiki ( : accessed 24 Jan 2012).
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23 Responses to The ties that bond

  1. Quite interesting! Thanks for your insight.

    Have a great day!
    Ruth Stephens
    Ruth’s Genealogy

  2. Jennifer says:

    I had always wondered what the purpose of the marriage bond was. Great post!

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  4. I also have a North Carolina marriage bond in my ancestry. The 1809 marriage bond was taken out by William Clement as he prepared to marry Mary Brasfield. William was a member of a local Presbyterian Church. Thanks for your additional insight into this document.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Hi, Mary! Lots of NC marriages were by bond. Of course, the one I really want (my 3rd great grandparents Martin Baker and Elizabeth Buchanan) is nowhere to be found… Sigh!

  5. John Gray says:

    I know this is old, but thank you for clearing this up. I was looking for such a bond for Constant Gray marrying Jane, Jinsey, Ginsey, Sale. Seems ther is one but ‘they” want money. I’ll keep looking.

  6. John Gray says:

    OOPS, meant to say also in Wilkes County, NC.

  7. Deirdre says:

    Thank you for everything you do, Judy!! Were marriage bonds generally taken out the same day as the wedding?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I don’t know that we can say they were “generally” the same day as the wedding, Deidre, but certainly it was likely to the close in time.

  8. Michele says:

    Hey, I read your article because ia m new to geaneology and was curious as to who a bondsman was. First off, I appreciate your article and found it very illuminating. Secondly, your examples, Boston Shew and Elizabeth Brewer- they’re my fourth great grandparents as well!! Sorry…crazy coincidence :)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That’s terrific! Hello, there, cousin, and let’s trade info! Email me please (legalgenealogist (at)!

  9. Rebecca Curtice says:

    I’m curious what happens with the money that is paid, to the governor? I just found a Marriage bond for my 3rd great grandparents in 1829 in Virginia…$150…just wondering where does that money end up?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      No money actually gets paid over unless and until the condition in the bond is found to exist, that is, a finding by a court that the marriage itself was illegal. It’s not payment of money by itself; it’s a promise to pay if and only if the marriage is illegal.

  10. Lisa G. says:

    Thank you, thank you! I just found a nearly identical document to yours for my paternal 4x great-grandparents. Theirs was on the day of their wedding in 1847 in Ashe County, North Carolina. I understood the gist of the document (can I just say how amazing it is to see handwriting from an ancestor that is 168 years old?!) and another descendant and I could not figure out why in the world our ancestor would owe $1,000 to North Carolina. This explains it perfectly as they married away from home essentially and the bondsman was the bride’s brother. Thank you so much for helping me clarify my family history.

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  12. Chip says:

    I have several of these in my tree but did not know what they were for. Thanks for answering this lingering question!

  13. Kathleen Moore says:

    Thank you very much for this post. I have just found the 1798 marriage bond for my 4th great grandparents and wanted to know exactly what it meant. This post was exactly what I needed since the groom’s “co-signer” had my bride’s last name but it didn’t say specifically it was her father. Online trees have put this as her father for years, and I think it’s because they assumed it because of this record.

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