Bonds That Bind: What's a Marriage Bond - and Why?

By Richard A. Pence

Pay attention, class! There is going to be a quiz.

Below is a marriage bond typical of the kind used in many areas of the U.S. in the late 18th and for much of the 19th centuries:

KNOW ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS, That we John Pence Jun. and John Pence are held firmly bound to His Excellency Robert Brooke Esq. Governor of Virginia, in the just and Full sum of one hundred and fifty dollars, to which payment well and truly to be made, to the said Governor, or his successors, we bind ourselves, our heirs, executors and administrators, jointly and severally, firmly by these Presents. Sealed with our seal and dated this 8th day of December, 1795.

The condition of the above obligation is such, that, Whereas there is a marriage suddenly intended to be Solemnized between the above bound John Pence Jun. and Eve Piper now if there be no lawful cause to obstruct the said Marriage, then the above obligation to be void and of no effect, otherwise to remain in full force and virtue. Sealed and delivered in the presence of John Bence (Seal) John Bentz (Seal)

Each of the statements below is either TRUE or FALSE. Please answer accordingly:

1. TRUE or FALSE: While both men used more traditional spellings of their surname (usually BENTZ), the fact that the clerk rendered their names on the bond as PENCE indicates that their surname had been legally changed.

2. TRUE or FALSE: Information in this marriage bond is evidence that the father of "John Pence Jun." was John Bentz, the bondsman.

3. TRUE or FALSE: The cost of getting married in Virginia in 1795 was $150.

4. TRUE or FALSE: The above bond constitutes a legal promise to Eve Piper by John Pence (Jun.) that he will marry her.

STATEMENT 1 is FALSE. Name changes were rarely planned or formalized. Furthermore, there were no spelling standards and thus no right or wrong way of spelling a name. It was common for a name to be signed differently from the way it was spelled in a document.

STATEMENT No. 2 is FALSE. While the surety for a marriage bond was often a relative of either the bride or the groom, there was no requirement that this be so. Nor was it necessary for the father of either party to "sign off" on the marriage unless one or the other of the parties was under age. As for the terms "Jr." and "Sr.," in common usage of this time these designations did not indicate a relationship. The terms were used to differentiate between any two men with the same name, with the older being called "Sr." and the younger "Jr." In this case, John "Jun." had as his bondsman an older first cousin, a man of some property and thus an acceptable surety.

STATEMENT 3 is FALSE. There may have been some small clerk's fee and perhaps a "gift" to the minister or justice of the peace, but the amount stated in a marriage bond would have been paid only if the condition of the bond was not met, as explained in the following section.

STATEMENT No. 4 is also FALSE. A marriage bond was NOT a promise to marry.

A bit of history may help us to understand the nature of the marriage bond. In early colonial America, "marriage banns" were usually the formal process leading up to the wedding. Notice of the impending marriage was read from the church pulpit or posted at the church door over a set period of time. The purpose of this was to allow those who knew the bride and groom to object if there was a legal reason why the marriage should not take place ("speak now or forever hold your peace").

There were three principal legal barriers: either or both were not yet of legal age, either or both were already married, or the bride and groom were too closely related to marry under the laws of the jurisdiction.

As America gradually became more of a frontier nation, often either the bride or the groom would not be well known in the community. To overcome this, the marriage bond soon replace the banns.

The groom and a suitable bondsman ("surety") would pledge an amount (usually specified by law) to an official (often the governor of the colony or state) as a guarantee that there were no legal impediments to the forthcoming marriage. The bond was "conditional" -- that is, the pledged amount would be forfeited only if there proved to be a legal reason the couple should not marry. If no such legal barrier existed, the bond would be null and void, even if the wedding failed to take place for some other reason. In many jurisdictions the bond remained in force for a year or two after the marriage and apparently would have been forfeited if any illegality came to light during that time.

Use of the marriage bond began to fade in the middle to late 1800s and by the close of the century most jurisdiction relied on "sworn" statements made in the application for the marriage license to guard against illegal marriages.

While the information that appears on marriage bonds is often what is abstracted into compilations of marriage records, it is by no means the only information about the marriage that may be available in the county. Take the case of Rhoda, the supposed daughter of John STEINBERGER and his wife, Elizabeth PENCE.

Rhoda appears as the oldest child of this couple on a list compiled by members of the STEINBERGER family who went to Bartholomew County, Indiana in the 1820s. She does not appear on lists compiled by STEINBERGER descendants who remained in Champaign County, Ohio. The Indiana list says she "married a SCHOONOVER." No record of this marriage could be found, but one day while scanning a list of "unknown" PENCEs I spotted a marriage between Henry SCHOONOVER and Rhoda PENCE in Champaign County, Ohio. A quick check of the records at the court house revealed that Rhoda was not of age at the time of the marriage and that "her mother, Mrs. STEINBERGER" had given her consent to the marriage. Thus it appears that Rhoda was born to Elizabeth PENCE before the latter's marriage to John STEINBERGER.

Recently I read a "testimonial" to the value of the Internet. It seems family researchers had been searching for "over 40 years" for the names of the parents of a particular set of great-great-grandparents. They knew when and where the couple had married, but that's where the trail ended, or so they thought. Then a kind soul who lived in the county in question visited the court house and there it was discovered that neither of the great-great-grandparents was of age when they married. Thus the consent of both sets of parents was needed -- and these were on file at the court house.

Obviously, then, it wasn't necessary to wait for the Internet to make this discovery. These family researchers simply failed to follow-up on what they had learned. They wrongly assumed that the information contained in a book which gave the marriage record of their ancestors was all that could be found in the court house. As a result they never bothered to write for a copy of the original (and complete) record, which had languished in the court house since 1843.

In these days of easy access via the Internet to record abstracts, we need to be constantly reminded of this lesson: What you find online is likely only to be an index to a more complete record. You need to get a copy of the original, for not only may the compilation have errors but also the original may contain far more information.

In the case of marriage records, in addition to the bond you will often find supporting information, such as the consent of parents. You also will usually find what is called the "minister's return" -- the person who performed the ceremony was required to report to the clerk that he had performed the marriage and when and where.

If you find a marriage bond without a return it doesn't necessarily mean that the wedding didn't take place (the minister may have neglected to report the marriage), but you will need to dig a bit deeper to make sure it did.

Finally, remember that the date on the bond is usually a day or two before the actual marriage. When you encounter instances where there are two dates only a few days apart, it is likely you are looking at the bond date and the wedding date.

FINAL QUIZ QUESTION: From time to time you will encounter a marriage record which says a man has married a woman who is described as "his ward." Your multiple choice question is:

When a record shows that a man married his ward, what of the following most likely happened?

a. He was an old lecher who had (finally?) decided to marry a young girl he had been raising.

b. Unable to find a suitable wife, he adopted a young orphan girl so he could later marry her.

c. He had watched the orphan he had been raising blossom into womanhood and fell in love with her, eventually convincing her to marry him.

d. None of the above.

The answer is probably (d). What apparently happened is this:

Jacob Suitor and Susan Lovely had fallen in love and wished to marry. But Susie had not yet reached the legal marrying age. Her father had died some years earlier and her mother refused to give her consent to the marriage.

Not to worry. Susie and Jake hightailed it to a judge at the court house and, since she was above the age of 14, she asserted her legal right to choose her own guardian.

Naturally, she chose none other than her lover-boy Jake! The judge dutifully complied with the request and the couple, along with Jake's brother Bill, then trotted down the court house hall to the clerk's office. There the two men executed a marriage bond and Jake -- now Susie's legal guardian -- also gave his consent for her to marry him.

As the saying goes, love will find a way. It appears our ancestors often were resourceful in their search for the route!

[Copyright 2002, Richard A. Pence. This article first appeared in MISSING LINKS: A Magazine for Genealogists, Vol. 7, No. 28, 14 July 2002.] /body>