Rites of Passage

By Linda Greenberg

Students of genealogy generally spend a lot of time looking for records that document and describe past relatives.

We look for Birth, Baptism, Marriage and Death Certificates. They mark important rites of passage. In addition, law suits, land sales and newspaper articles leave an informative paper trail.

I Do: In the 21st century the legal process for “tying the knot” is not expensive or lengthy. One can marry in a church or at city hall; in either case the couple obtains a document that attests to the lawful union of two people in a particular place and date and may provide information about parents and witnesses, usually family or close friends.

In Colonial times, from the 17th through the 18th centuries, tying the knot was not quick or easy. Marriage banns were the usual way of announcing an intended wedding when there was a church in the community. The banns would be read or posted at the church for a specified time (often three weeks). The purpose 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. A legal reason might be that one or both were not of legal age, one or either was already married or the bride and groom were deemed too closely related to marry under the laws of the jurisdiction.

As settlers in the Colonial British colonies moved from towns to the countryside, bought land and became farmers, people became scattered and churches few and far between. Itinerant ministers would make the rounds in a county over a month and often marry couples along the way. In these rural counties, where people did not see each other on a weekly basis, banns were less useful. To overcome this, a marriage bond took its place.

The bond – a financial promissory note — affirmed that there was no moral or legal reason why the couple could not be married. It also affirmed that the groom would not change his mind. If he did and did not marry his intended, he forfeited the bond (money). The bondsman or surety was often a brother or relative of the bride and sometimes a relative of the groom.

Using 21st century language, we could say that when the couple was not known in the community or couldn’t be crowd-sourced a bond was substituted.

In the example below of a marriage bond from Monmouth County, New Jersey, the bond was written in the name of the governor and entailed 500 pounds, a huge sum of money in Colonial times.

Also, note that the bride, Elizabeth Roberts, an unmarried woman, was called a spinster. And, Walling and Collings signed their names. If they had been illiterate they would have “signed” with their mark. Lastly, the bond was not a substitute for a marriage license. John Walling stipulates that he had obtained a license for himself and his intended. A license was not expensive. (The type in italics and underlined was filled in by Thomas Barrow on a pre-printed form. In the original an s was often written as an f.)

Know all Men by these Presents,

That we John Walling and Joseph Collings both of Middletown are

Holden, and do stand justly indebted unto His Excellency

Jonathan Belcher Esq. Governnor of

New Jersey in the Sum of Five Hundred Pounds

of current lawful Money of New Jersey; to be paid to his

said Excellency Jonathan Belcher Esq.

his Successors or Assigns; for the which Payment, well

and truly to be made and done, we do bind ourselves,

our Heirs, Executors, and Administrators, and every of

them, jointly and personally firmly by these Presents,

Sealed with our Seal: Dated this twenty first

Day of March Anno Domini One Thousand

Seven Hundred and Fifty Seven.

The Condition of this Obligation is such,

That whereas the above-bounden John Walling

Hath obtained License of Marriage for himself

Of the one Party, and for Elizabeth Roberts

of Middletown above and Spinster of the other Party:

Now, if it shall not hereafter appear, that they the said

John Walling and Elizabeth Roberts have any lawful

Let or Impediment, of Pre-contract, Affinity or Consanguinity, to hinder

Their being joined in the Holy Bands of Matrimony, and afterwards

their living together as Man and Wife; then this Obligation to be

void, or else to stand and remain in full Force and Virtue.

Sealed and Delivered in

The Presence of John Walling (s)

Thos. Bartow (s) Joseph Collings (s)


John Walling and Elizabeth Roberts did marry.

Jonathan Belcher was Governor of New Jersey from 1747 to his death in 1757.