Illegitimacy in the United States

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Illegitimate Children[edit | edit source]

An illegitimate child is when the mother and father were not married at the time of the child’s birth. Other names for illegitimate children are natural born, bastard, and base-born. The less common words used were spurious, imputed, reputed, and misbegotten.[1]

An illegitimate child could be very well hidden, as the family did not want the public to know that the children was illegitimate. An illegitimate child often used the mother’s surname and was frequently prohibited from inheriting property.[2]

How to Recognize an Illegitimate Child[edit | edit source]

Certain scenarios will be easier to spot than others. The idea of illegitimacy usually comes from oral histories. It is a good reason to speculate and research further if a story is passed down that an ancestor was either adopted or illegitimate.

An illegitimate child can be recognized in birth records and when they seem out of place in the census records.

An example of possible illegitimacy is when there’s a household in the census with all sons aged 22, 20, 18, 16, 14, 13, and 2. This should cause a red flag, especially if the mother is beyond child-bearing age and there were no daughters that might be the potential mother.[3]

In the 1850 census, Sally Blair would have been over the age of 40 to have Roswell Blair in 1844. There is also a nine-year age gap between Mildred and Roswell in this census to signal that Roswell may be illegitimate if his mother was not one of the other females in the household.

1850 Randolph County NC p 363.jpg

In the 1860 census, Roswell is listed as Roswell Elliott instead of Roswell Blair. It’s possible that someone could quickly assume that Elliott was Roswell’s middle name and he would still have the surname of Blair. But as the census is analyzed carefully, there is no ‘ditto’ marks for Roswell concerning his last name. Sallie, Parker, Cynthia, and Mildred all received ‘ditto’ marks for their last name. It is important to analyze relationships when no relationships to head of household were given.

1860 Randolph NC p 65.JPG

Through additional research, Roswell was indeed an illegitimate child, and Nathan Blair took Roswell Elliott in when he was young.

Records to Search and Strategize With[edit | edit source]

Birth and Death Records[edit | edit source]

Depending on the time period and where your ancestor was born in the United States, the birth record would list who the mother was. It is also possible that it would include the word “illegitimate” alongside the birth information. It is more likely that the father’s name would not be included in the birth record if the child was illegitimate.

Death records are similar to birth records, as it is not likely that both parent’s names would be listed. They would leave the father’s field blank or list “unknown”. This signals that the child was possibly illegitimate. It’s not expected that the informant would know who the father was if the child was illegitimate.

Church Records[edit | edit source]

Although church records are not always available, church records are another good indicator to find out more information on whether your ancestor is illegitimate if government records were not created yet. Check what records are available for the location you’re searching. Certain phrases could be found in christening records that reveal their illegitimacy.

Examples: “Baptized William Smith, son of Sara Smith and the reputed son of William Brown.”

This means that William Brown admits the child is his (or it has been proved to be his.)

“Baptized William Smith, son of Sarah Smith and the imputed son of William Brown.”

This means that William Brown does not accept the child as his.[4]

Just like vital records, the church records may not list the father’s name, which would indicate illegitimacy. Another clue that a child is illegitimate is if the child has the mother’s maiden name given in the record instead of the father’s surname.

Quaker records specifically can be very forthcoming about an illegitimate child. This is because the person will be disowned and no longer part of the Quaker’s religion if they have an illegitimate child. The women’s monthly minutes are a good place to find these records if you know your ancestor was a Quaker. Birth records were not as consistent as Quaker monthly minutes, but both places should be searched.

Court Records[edit | edit source]

There are various court records available that could indicate more information about an illegitimate child. There is no one specific record type that will guarantee to have the information about the father. It depends on what information was given to the recorder. Since there was no book set aside for illegitimacy, the records concerning the child could be found in the FamilySearch Catalog under minute books, civil action papers, miscellaneous, bastardy bonds, apprenticeship, orphan, probate, and guardianship records.

Another way to find court records is to go to your local public library and log onto to see what records are available for the area you are researching. All of the court records mentioned might be retrieved though Interlibrary Loans. Interlibrary Loans provide a quick way to order books and other physical materials from participating libraries around the world.

Collections Examples:

Genealogical selections from the acts of the Louisiana legislature, 1804-1879
Tennessee 1778-1914: a collection of items including illegitimacy, adoption, etc.

Bastardy Bonds[edit | edit source]

Bastardy bonds are not always available depending on the area but can be a good resource. A bastardy bond is defined as “a promise to pay a certain sum of money given by the father of an illegitimate child to ensure that no public monies would have to be spent on the child. Sometimes the mother would post this bond, but this was very infrequent.”[5]

In other words, the father was paying for the child’s support for a certain length of time, so the county would not be responsible for the child’s upkeep.[6] But not all fathers filed and paid the bonds. These bonds can be found in the FamilySearch Catalog under various title names such as: court, miscellaneous, loose papers, etc. It is likely for them to be entwined with other court records, as it was uncommon for the court to have a separate book for these records.

North Carolina has extensive records of bastardy bonds for each county.

Collection Examples:

North Carolina 1736-1957 Bastardy bonds and records
North Carolina bastardy bonds

Other states have bastardy bonds, but they are not as extensive. To see what is available on the FamilySearch Catalog, a keyword search of “bastardy bonds” can be used to indicate which counties kept these records. To narrow down the search even more, include the state or the state and county that you are researching in to see what is available. These bonds are not yet indexed.

The bastardy bonds are not likely online for every county. They may be found in person at the county courthouses, if still preserved.

There are record collections (some digitized) and books found on FamilySearch for Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and West Virginia:

Cleburne County, Alabama 1884-1950 Miscellaneous loose files
Chatham County, Georgia 1890-1950 Miscellaneous bonds (bastardy etc)
Tattnall County, Georgia 1801-1870 loose papers
Jefferson County, Tennessee Maintenance (bastardy) 1807-1857)
Nineteenth century Tennessee: adoptions, legitimations, and name changes
Pendleton County, West Virginia 1866-1925 bonds (including bastardy)

Apprentice Records[edit | edit source]

An apprenticeship consisted of a contract between two parties, one of which is usually a minor (the “apprentice”) who is bound to the other person (the “master”) to serve him for a stated period of time, during which the master agrees to teach the apprentice an art, skill, or trade while providing complete maintenance. The agreement may include a grant of money, clothing, and/or property upon completion of the term.

These records are a possible way to learn more about your ancestor if they were the apprentice. Depending on the area, each apprentice record could be different. Ideally, they would list the names of the parents or guardian. If the child’s named parent is the mother, then the child could likely have been born out of wedlock.[7] The guardian might also be a relative of the apprentice. The record might give an indication of who the ancestor was living with at the time.

These collections may be found in the FamilySearch Catalog, under various titles such as business, court, and public records. To see what is available on the Catalog, a keyword search of “apprentice” or “apprenticeship” with the state you’re researching as the “place” category will narrow down your research. By doing this you will not get apprenticeship records outside of the United States.

Google can also be a beneficial way to see if they are available in the area you’re researching. Certain cities and counties may have these records on their own websites for the public to use.

Collections Examples (indexed and non-indexed): - Apprentices in Education and Work
United States, Freedmen's Bureau Labor Contracts, Indenture and Apprenticeship Records, 1865-1872
District of Columbia 1812-1893 Indentures of apprenticeship
Washington County, District of Columbia 1802-1811 Indentures of apprenticeship recorded in the Orphans Court
Burke County, Georgia 1867-1919 Indenture and apprenticeship records
Allen County, Indiana 1824-1912 Business records including apprenticeships
Todd County, Kentucky 1820-1888 Indentures of apprenticeship
Carroll County, Mississippi freedmen apprenticeship records
New Madrid County, Missouri 1810-1910 apprenticeship bonds containing names of heirs
Fredericksburg, Virginia Apprentice Records

Additional Resource:

Your Guide to Finding and Using Apprenticeship (Guild) and Indenture Records for Genealogical Research

Orphan Records[edit | edit source]

Depending on the circumstances and time period of the parents, an illegitimate child could end up in orphan records. If the father does not help financially or is not in the picture, the mother could have had a hard time supporting her children. If she could not keep up financially, the mother might abandon her children, and they would be placed in an orphanage.[8] If the child’s parents died when they were young and had no family, they could have been placed up for adoption.

Guardianship Records[edit | edit source]

Sometimes family members can be appointed to be the child’s guardian, and it will be included in guardianship records in the county. But there are also times when a child is taken in by a family, and no guardianship record was made. Guardianship records can be resourceful but may not plainly state if a child was illegitimate. The record will need to be further analyzed and used with other records to learn more about the child’s parents.

Newspapers[edit | edit source]

Newspapers can be searched to find obituaries of the people who took the illegitimate child in. It is not a guarantee, but it is possible that it may mention that a person raised their niece or nephew. Finding the obituary of the supposed illegitimate child would be beneficial to see what information is given about them.

Probate Records[edit | edit source]

Since illegitimate children often did not obtain inheritance, there is a possibility that the child may be mentioned in wills that they were a natural or base-born child.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

It is important to use multiple records to learn if someone was illegitimate. Using indirect and direct evidence will help conclude the legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of a person. Sometimes it is not plainly stated, but oftentimes analyzing each record and using them together will make one capable of making a conclusion. It is not likely that your ancestor will be found in all these records. In some cases, the record coverage may be very low and may not have any records to look through. Looking for information about the illegitimate child’s parents can be very hard. The answer may not be found online or in a microfilm. The records that are needed may be in the courthouse in the county that you’re researching in and will not be available online.

Additional Resources[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Donna Przecha, "Illegitimate Children and Missing Fathers,", accessed July 03, 2018,
  2. Sherri Abromavage, "Bastardy Bonds in General,", accessed July 03, 2018,
  3. "Illegitimate Ancestors," Who Do You Think You Are Magazine, accessed July 03, 2018,
  4. “Illegitimacy," Moonfleet Family History, accessed July 03, 2018,
  5. Sherri Abromavage, "Bastardy Bonds in General,", accessed July 03, 2018,
  6. Ibid.
  7. Lisa Lisson, "How To Research Your Illegitimate Ancestors," Are You My Cousin? October 21, 2017, accessed July 07, 2018,
  8. Linda Gordon, "Single Mothers and Child Neglect, 1880-1920." American Quarterly 37, no. 2 (1985): 174. doi:10.2307/2712897.