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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).




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


Thank you for your above information on Bastardy Bonds. I see a possible listing in the North Carolina county Bastardy Bonds that I am interested in from 1793 to 1810 and see the mother's name, the date and then 3 columns for bondsmen. Could the bondsmen be the father? In another document that is handwritten about a grand jury presenting the children of some women, (my interest being one of the women), there is a man listed after each woman on one page and the men are listed under the term "informant" but on another page that is similar and handwritten with the same women listed, it looks like the men are grouped together and are part of the jury. One of the men is also one of the informants in the other list. Does any of the lists of men's names mean that they could be the father?
Thank you


Hi Susan

Thanks for posting.  I am forwarding your question to our reference department for review.

Carla Morris, Government and Heritage Library


Are there Bastardy Bonds for early or Pre-Perquimans North Carolina for the decade of the 1680's?. It could be when the Proprietors re-named certain North Carolina legal titles or during the time of the evolution of Albemarle Precinct to Perquiman. My long sought inquiry regards the relationship of early medical man John Hamersley (Homersley) (1683-1745)to Lydia Laker (1662-1733) daughter of Deputy Gov. Benjamin Laker (1636-1701). The birth of John Hamersley would have preceded Lydia's marriage to Georg Bleighton Sr (1663-1702) on 31 Jan 1689.


Dear Elmo,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and especially for taking the time to share your question.

I have forwarded this to reference services at the Government & Heritage Library at the State Library of NC. A refernce librarian will contact you shortly to help with this.

Good luck with your research and best wishes,

Kelly Agan, Government & Heritage Library

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