English law in the American colonies could get a bit florid on the topic of illegitimate children. A bastard child (or ‘bastarda’, if female) could become a ‘special bastard’ by the subsequent marriage of its parents. And if that couple had another, legitimate, son, that son was known to the law as ‘filius mulieratus,’ and the first or bastard son in turn became the ‘bastard eigne.’
The North Carolina colony, starting in 1736, used a tool called the bastardy bond to protect the Crown from being responsible for the support of children born out of wedlock. Bastardy bonds placed the ultimate burden of support for a bastard child upon the father should the mother become unable to provide proper support.
Otherwise, the child would become a ward of the local poor house and be an expense to the government. This English bond system was carried forward when North Carolina became a state in 1789.
As you might expect, the presence of bastardy bonds followed westward settlement right into Appalachia. Hamburg Township, for example, in today’s Jackson County, was settled in 1827. A September, 1853 bastardy bond from that county read: “Ordered that the Sherriff bring into this court on tomorrow during court hours an orphan child (illegetamant of Sarah Dills) named Andrew Jackson” Andrew Dills appointed Guardian, Phillip Dills security.
So how did bastardy bonds work? Typically the process started with public knowledge or a complaint that an unwed woman was with child. Sometimes the process was started after the fact. A warrant was issued and the woman brought into court.
She was questioned under oath and asked to name the child’s father. If she named the father, another warrant was then issued to bring him before the local justices of the peace, and he posted bond to appear in court to answer the charges on a particular date. If found guilty, he would then have to post bond for support of the bastard child. This document was the bastardy bond.
If the woman refused to name the father, she, her father, or some other interested party would post the bond.
In some cases the mother and the alleged father posted the bond together. If the woman refused to post bond or name the father, she could be sent to jail. Where support subsequently became necessary, the court would issue a judgment for collection of the requisite amount from the father and/or his bondsmen.
Bastardy cases seldom came up for trial. Usually the reputed father came into court, admitted the charge, and gave bond for the support of the child according to law.
In 1933, North Carolina’s General Assembly repealed the legislation requiring that bastardy bonds be filed, though state archives continued to store records pertaining to bastardy bonds until 1957.
There’s only one mention of bonds in the current North Carolina General Statutes, Chapter 49, Bastardy:
“At the preliminary hearing of any case arising under this Article it shall be the duty of the court, if it finds reasonable cause for holding the accused for a further hearing, to require a bond in the sum of not less than one hundred dollars ($100.00), conditioned upon the reappearance of the accused at the further hearing under this Article.”
Suspect Relations, by Kirsten Fischer, Cornell University Press, 2002