One of the hidden gems inside court records are the aptly named “Bastardy Bonds” and Bastardy cases in general. Genealogy is a constant reminder that human beings have not changed. Anything that happens now also happened in the past, and one of the most common occurrences was having children out of wedlock (or in wedlock, just not with the mother of the child.)
I’m sure all of us have seen an ancestor who appears with a child on a census whose paternity is unknown. To keep these children from becoming burdens on the county dime, the fathers of these children had to post bond that they would care for the child. This is yesteryear’s version of child support, so to speak. Sadly, for a very long time, being born in that circumstance caused a fair amount of shame to be heaped upon both mother and child (though oddly, not the man. The words “bastard” and “illegitimate” in historic records still make me cringe when I see them.
The record below is a “bastardy recognizance” for Dennis Waters of Somerset County, MD in 1893:
The record notes the birth of a “female illegitimate child” that was born “the 6th of May last” to Kate Ward. If that child was your ancestor, you’d have an exact birthdate pre-dating the state birth records. The record also associates Wesley Hall and Levin H. Waters with Dennis, to secure the bond of $80. That gives us two people to add to Dennis’ “cluster”–they are likely close friends or family members. These records for Maryland were recorded (oddly) in the deed records.
Here’s a record from North Carolina, which has one of the best collections of this type. It is against William Baker in September 1892. Isabella Battle charges that he did “seduce and begat her with child under the promise that he would marry her”:
If Sank Summerlin was your ancestor, you’d be glad to have found this 1894 North Carolina case. It names all four of the children and provides their ages:
And lastly, this record showed that some men denied the charges. In this North Carolina case, the Walter Wallace lost and had to pay court fees, post bond and pay fines in addition to other charges. I wonder how they established paternity back then? It’s not like they had DNA test kits like we do:
I’ve seen these records in Maryland, Tennessee and North Carolina, but I’m sure they appear in the records of other states. Another thing I’ve always wondered is who brought the action? Was it the mother? Was it a local official? A nosy neighbor?
It reminds me of that old phrase, “Mother’s baby, daddy’s…. maybe.”