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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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by George Stevenson, 2006

Bastardy, as a legal term, designates the civil condition of a child born under illegitimate circumstances. Under English common law, children born out of lawful wedlock were classed as bastards. In the eyes of the law they had no parents, no kindred, and no ancestors. They were not, then, entitled to a surname except such as they won for themselves by reputation, and they were heirs-at-law of no one. Although the early history of North Carolina furnishes occasional examples of illegitimate children who achieved fame and fortune, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the great majority of them were apprenticed at a tender age to a master and condemned to a lowly existence.

In North Carolina, whose legal foundation was in common law, bastards ordinarily assumed the surnames of their birth mothers, but they otherwise suffered all of the common-law disabilities. Bastard children were thus disadvantaged from their birth. Bastardy proceedings were held to determine the probable paternity of an illegitimate child likely to become a charge on the public and to oblige the putative father to support the child. From as early as 1700, the mother of an illegitimate child could voluntarily appear before two justices of the peace and name the father of her child in a sworn statement, or she could be summoned by them and interrogated as to the father. By force of the mother's sworn testimony, the man was usually adjudged the putative father and was compelled to enter into a bond with sureties, called a "bastardy bond," to support the child at a set amount. Or, if the man resisted the nomination, he could be bound over to a full session of the county court, but even there the matter was, for more than a century, summarily dealt with. Many a young man "went west" rather than submit to the proceedings.

In 1814 an amendment to the bastardy law made the mother's sworn testimony prima facie evidence rather than conclusive evidence, granted the putative father a trial by jury, and required the proceedings to be brought within three years of the child's birth. (An act of 1850 strengthened the sworn testimony of the mother by making her evidence presumptive rather than prima facie.) Gradually the minimum age to which the child had to be supported was raised to 10 (the age stipulated by the bastardy act of 1933), then to 14 in 1937, and to 18 in 1951.

In 1917 the General Assembly enacted a provision that automatically legitimated all children of parents who married each other either before or after the birth of the child. Legitimation by private act, by court order, and under the 1917 law entitled a child to the use of the father's surname and made him or her heir to, but not through, the father. By an act of 1955, legitimated children were made heirs-at-law to and through both mother and father, and were thus given complete families. Under the law, children born under illegitimate circumstances whose births are not legitimated by court order or by marriage of their birth parents remain without kindred and without ancestors.

Additional Resources:

Camin, Betty J., and Edwin A. Camin. North Carolina bastardy bonds. Mount Airy, N.C.: B.J. and E.A. Camin.1990.

"Guilford County, NCGenWeb: Bastardy Bonds." Guilford NCGenWeb (accessed October 15, 2012).




I've got a quick few questions regarding a bastardy bond document, potentially about one of my ancestors. The particular document is, what I believe to be, a warrant from Surry county, NC in 1790 for a Margret Turner who was accused of bastardy. On the back of the warrant there are several dates listed on which the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions met, from August 1790 to May 1792, each with "not found" written under them. My understanding is that this means they weren't able to find Margret. Would this indicate that she had left the county or potentially state? Was it typical for people to just not show up and the court to mark them as "not found"? I would think it would be difficult to hide a woman and baby for several years if they stayed in the same county.




Thank you for your comment. I am sending your comment to our reference librarians who can assist you. 

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library


In my research I have found a bastardy bond for an ancestor. The year is either 1847 or 1849 and the county is Stokes. On it the mother is listed and it states she "refuses to declare the father from becoming chargeable to the said county." There are also two men with a different surname from the mother on it as well and I suspect they were brothers as one is a "Junior" and they don't share the same first name so I wouldn't think they would be father and son. The older one was married and the younger was not. It also appears that the younger moved from NC to Indiana sometime before 1860 as he was on the 1850 NC census and then is on the 1860 and 1870 census in Indiana. The bastardy bond states the mother and both men "are held and firmly bound unto the said state in the sum of five hundred dollars." I suspected that the younger had his older brother help pay the amount. Would it be a safe assumption to say the younger man is the father?

Thanks for any help!


It is a possibility, but possibly they could have been related to the mother. I suggest digging further to see. 

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library 


Searching for possible bio father of my grandfather, Dilling E Butler born April 1, 1888 in Lake Toxaway NC to Elizabeth (Betty) Butler. My father nor Grandfather never knew their paternal linage. I wondered if either Elizabeth or Son Dilling were on a Bastardy bond record for Transylvania county or other county in NC? Elizabeth's father was Moses Butler and his Father was also Moses Butler whose record is clear from fighting in the war of 1812. Any help would be appreciated or direction where to search further. Thanks, Mike


We have a book on our digital site for an index to Bastardy Bonds from Betty Camin, however, it does not include Transylvania County. the link to the book is at just in case you are interested. One problem with Transylvania County is that bastardy bonds end in 1880 (all counties vary). You could check with the Transylvania County Superior Court Civil Action Papers. Even though bonds stopped in 1880 - possibily missing - there could still be a court order. If you need more information, I suggest you email the reference department at the Government and Heritage Library. Go to

Etin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library


Researching Hardy Hicks/Hix ( 1810-1886) in Franklin County North Carolina, except noone on the census for 1810 or 1820 claim him as a child. He links to Asa Hicks whose daughter, Linney (1811-1889) he married. How could I find if he is listed on the bastardy bonds.


Dear Dianne,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia. I recommend contacting the State Archives of North Carolina ( for more information about researching their collections.

Francesca Evans, Government & Heritage Library


Who were these bastard children usually apprenticed too? Was it usually a family member?


Hello, I've done a lot of research on apprentice bonds. Illegitimate children were often marked as "base born" in the apprentice records and yes, sometimes it was family - the father occasionally, an uncle, grandfather, etc., but they could be bound to otherrs in the community as well. 

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library

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