When researching family histories, the genealogist often discovers a marriage bond. Sometimes there is confusion as to what a marriage bond actually is and how it reveals the existence of a marriage.

Think of a marriage bond as 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 (often the father or brother of the prospective bride), and posted a bond indicating his intention to marry the woman. The bond was an amount of money that the prospective groom would have to pay as a penalty if an impediment to the marriage was found. No money literally changed hands at the time of posting the bond. But if the groom was discovered, for instance, already to have a wife whom he had abandoned, the marriage could not go through and the man would have to pay (I’ve often seen bonds in the sum of 50 dollars or pounds, but the amount could be as high as $1,000).

Here are several facts about marriage bonds.

(1) The date on the bond is not the date of the actual marriage. Most marriages took place within a few days of posting the bond, but theoretically it could have been weeks or months before the actual marriage took place.

(2) The existence of a marriage bond for two people does not conclusively mean that the marriage took place. A high percentage of marriages occurred after the bond was posted, but in a small percentage of cases the marriage was not carried out. Reasons not to go forward with the marriage could be the sudden death of one of the parties, or both parties mutually deciding to cancel their marriage plans. In these instances, the bond penalty would not have to be paid by the prospective groom.

(3) Marriage bonds were most often posted in the county of the prospective bride’s residence or the county in which the wedding was to take place, if different from the bride’s residence.

(4) Marriage bonds were not used in all the states, colonies, or Canadian provinces. They were most common in the South. (Most of my own experience with researching marriage bonds is in Kentucky).

(5) Marriage bonds were supposed to be annotated with the date of the marriage by the minister or civil official after the marriage had taken place. This often was not done, due to poor recordkeeping in the county. (I personally have never found an annotated marriage bond.)

When researching marriage bonds, be sure to pay attention to who signed as the bondsman because this was often a relative of the bride. If the bond wasn't signed by the prospective bride’s father, it may be an indication that her father was dead. A brother of the bride may then have been the bondsman. Also, check to see if the bond was accompanied by a consent note. This would be written by a parent of the bride or groom and was often required if either was under the legal age for marriage.

Marriage bonds seem to be most common in the United States in the 1700s and early 1800s. Sometimes they are the only indication that a couple legally married. For that reason, genealogists often use the date of the marriage bond as the date of the actual marriage, because it is the only record found and the closest estimate of the actual date of a marriage. When using marriage bonds to document a union, just keep in mind the above information and remember that it is not absolute proof of an actual marriage.

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