In the state of North Carolina, marriage licenses were not a requirement of every marriage until 1868. Before that time, several different records may — or may not — have been created, or kept.
Marriage bonds, in use from 1741 to 1868, are often misinterpreted as certain proof that a marriage actually took place. I sometimes see statements using the date of the marriage bond in this fashion: “Mary Jones and John Smith married on 1 January 1810.” That is inaccurate and potentially misleading. The date of the bond is nothing more than that: the date the marriage bond was taken out. The wedding could have taken place that day, the next day, days later, or even weeks later — or not at all. A bond is not absolute proof that the marriage occurred. The careful researcher should look for confirming proof from other sources, such as church records, newspaper announcements, wills and estates, or land records. Some marriage bonds don’t even name the bride. A marriage bond is just one piece of a puzzle that needs to be assembled. Anything involving human beings, even a newspaper, can be wrong. So, follow best practice, assemble as much information as possible from as many sources as possible, and record the exact details of the sources.
From 1699 to 1741, a marriage had to take place in the Anglican church, or in front of the Governor or one of the members of his Council, to be counted as a lawful marriage. Obviously, this presented difficulties to people of other denominations and to those living in areas away from the Governor and his Council, who conducted their sessions in Wilmington or New Bern or Edenton – all locations on the eastern coast.
In April 1741, “An Act Concerning Marriages” was passed, which extended the right to perform marriages to the county justices. But the justice had to have the permission of the minister living in his parish — if he had one in the area.
Following the evolving practices about marriage through the decades is a complex business, and so I will quote from a book that any serious NC researcher should have on his or her shelf. My copy sits at my right hand all the time. It is available through the North Carolina Genealogical Society website. Quoted from what is commonly called “the bible of NC research”:
“Before a couple could be married by either a minister or a magistrate they had to obtain a license or publish the banns. Licenses were to be issued by the clerk of the county court in the county where the prospective bride resided, but only after the intended groom had posted a bond in the sum of fifty pounds, payable to the King, bearing the condition ‘ that there is no lawful Cause to obstruct the Marriage for which the License shall be desired…’ Consent of parents or guardians was required if either party was under the age of twenty-one and not a widow or widower (a provision rarely, if ever, enforced). Servants could not marry without permission of their masters and mixed-race marriages were prohibited altogether. After posting the bond and receiving the license, the betrothed pair sought out a minister or magistrate to unite them in marriage. Those not wishing to bother with bonds and licenses could publish the banns. The procedure is described in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England:
First the Banns of all that are to be married together must be published in the Church three several Sundays, during the time of Morning Service, or of Evening Service (if there be no Morning Service), immediately after the second Lesson: the Curate saying after the accustomed manner,
I Publish the Banns of Marriage between N. of ______ and N. of ______. If any of you know cause, or just impediment, why these two persons should not be joined together in holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first/second, or third/ time of asking.
“If no objection was voiced after the third publication, the parish minister, clerk, or reader issued a certificate stating the banns had been published. With this certificate in hand, the couple could be married by a clergyman or a magistrate.
“The 1741 law, too, was often ignored. Complaining that ‘Presbyterian, or Dissenting Clergy, … have joined Many Persons together in Holy Matrimony, without either License or Publication; whereby … the Validity of Marriages may be endangered,’ the General Assembly passed a law in 1766 validating marriages solemnized by dissenting and Presbyterian clergy before 1 January 1767. Presbyterian ministers, but not those of other denominations, could thereafter perform marriages on the same basis as magistrates.”
[The exception for Presbyterian ministers probably was due to the large number of Scottish and Scots-Irish settlers in the state, which was due in large part to the recruitment efforts of Gabriel Johnston, who was royal governor of North Carolina from 1734-1752; he was born in the Scottish Lowlands.]
“Legislation in 1770 stiffened an earlier requirement that all marriage licenses be signed by the governor. Soon thereafter, the independent state of North Carolina, by ordinance in 1776 and law in 1778, empowered every regular minister of the gospel of every denomination who had the cure of souls (a pastoral appointment in a congregation) to celebrate matrimony. Justices retained their rights as before, but the penal sum of bonds was increased to five hundred pounds. Further, the law of 1778 decreed ‘the People called Quakers shall retain their former Rules and Privileges in solemnizing the Rites of Matrimony in their own Church….’
“Benjamin Swaim’s The North-Carolina Justice…, a summary of laws in effect in 1839, touched many interesting points (pp. 312-315):
All regular Ministers of the Gospel of every denomination, having the cure of souls, and all Justices of the Peace of this State, are … authorized and empowered to solemnize the rites of matrimony, according to the rites and ceremonies of their respective churches, and agreeable to the rules [of the law] …. The Clerk of the County Court where the woman resides, on application, is to grant license, first taking bond and security.
The publication of bans [sic] must be made three Sundays during divine service or immediately after, by a Minister or reader duly qualified; who is to give a certificate of publication when required…. Quakers are to retain their own peculiar rites and ceremonies as to marriage.
No white person is permitted to marry an Indian, negro, mustee or mulatto, or any person of mixed blood, to the third generation.
All the personal property that the wife has in possession at the time of the marriage is vested absolutely in the husband; and he is liable for all her debts, whether her property be sufficient to pay them or not.
The age of discretion is fixed at fourteen years old in males, and twelve in females. If they marry younger they may disagree to the marriage when they arrive at these respective ages, and it therefore becomes void to all intents and purposes. Or if one party only be under the age of consent, and the other of full age, the party of full age is bound and the infant not. Relations of the third degree, whether by consanguinity or affinity, may lawfully marry, but not nearer than the third degree, counting, not from, but through the common ancestor, so that first cousins may lawfully marry, although the father and the mother of each party were reciprocally the brother and the sister of the parents of the other party.
“An untold number of the marriages, however, failed to comply with the letter of the law, even though they were morally valid and generally accepted as legitimate. People followed their own customs, marrying as they pleased, when and where they pleased, aided or at least unhindered by ministers and magistrates who were undaunted by the law’s prescribed penalties. Normally, such marriages were not matters of public record.
“In all the procedure of filing marriage bonds, granting marriage licenses, publishing banns, and issuing certificates of banns, only the marriage bond was a public record; only the marriage bond was required to be preserved. The bonding system was in effect from 1741 to 1868, when the use of bonds was discontinued. Marriage bonds were originally filed with the clerk of the county court. When that office as abolished, also in 1868, they were transferred to the care of the register of deeds in each county. Half a century ago nearly all bonds were placed in the State Archives, where they remain, arranged by county and then alphabetically by grooms’ names. Although each move possibly overlooked a few bonds, so that stray ones do turn up in courthouses occasionally, the researcher should expect all surviving bonds to be in the Archives.”
Raymond A. Winslow, Jr., “Marriage, Divorce, and Vital Records,” in North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local Records, edited by Helen F. M. Leary, C.G., F.A.S.G.; p. 151-55.
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Original marriage bonds for Guilford County are kept at the North Carolina State Archives. A researcher can go to the Search Room there, and look the bond up in the index, and then give the attendant a call slip. You can pay to have a photocopy made, or you can use a digital camera without flash to take a digital image of the bond. If you are unable to travel to Raleigh, you can hire a researcher to find the bond and obtain the desired copy or image, or you can order a photocopy to be sent to you by mail. NC residents can use the online order form to request a copy; out-of-state residents have to pay a research fee and send their order by mail. The marriage bonds have been microfilmed, and the Archives compiled an index in 1978. However, that index will not show any accessions since that time. The most up-to-date information will be available through the North Carolina State Archives MARS finding aid:
Marriage licenses from 1868 to 1930 have been microfilmed. The originals are kept at the Register of Deeds in Guilford County. The bottom portion gives the date and place of the marriage. Back to Raymond Winslow’s excellent chapter:
“Although marriage licenses have been issued in North Carolina for nearly two and a half centuries, hardly any were preserved until 1851. A law ratified that year required all justices and ministers performing marriages to return the licenses to the county-court clerk who had issued them, along with certificates showing that the rites of matrimony had been solemnized. An act of 1868 transferred the power to issue marriage licenses to the registers of deeds and made the license the only public record of marriages. Such it has continued to be to the present. A more extensive law passed in 1872 tightened the state’s marriage regulations, providing that no marriage could be performed without a license signed by the register in the county where it was intended the marriage should take place. This law also fixed the marriageable age for males at sixteen and females at fourteen and required parental consent for parties under eighteen. Today the marriageable age is eighteen for both sexes, although persons between sixteen and eighteen can marry with consent, and unwed mothers between twelve and eighteen can marry putative fathers.”
Raymond A. Winslow, Jr., “Marriage, Divorce, and Vital Records,” in North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local Records, edited by Helen F. M. Leary, C.G., F.A.S.G.; p. 158.
Marriages for Guilford County
If you would like to obtain a digital image for a bond or license that is not shown or listed, Rick Saunders, a professional genealogist, has offered to help with that at a reduced rate for those who make a donation to Guilford County Genealogical Society. Contact him for further details.
I encourage people to obtain original images and double-check information found in any abstracts or compilations. Nothing is as good as the original document or an image of it. However, there are some incomplete marriage databases covering available through Family Search:
I do not plan to spend the time uploading a comprehensive list of marriage licenses from 1868 forward, so this is your best online resource for that time period. You can view the images using microfilm ordered through your local library or FHL branch.