Civil law was put in place in the Cumberland Settlements very soon after the first settlers arrived. A constitution, the Cumberland Compact, was signed by many of the settlers. Justices were appointed from the established stations or forts to oversee legal matters. The first marriage known to have taken place in what is now Davidson County was the union of James Lieper and Susan Drake in 1780. The ceremony was performed by James Robertson, as head of the "government of the Notables." Robertson likely issued a license to the couple. There was no regular minister in the settlement until the arrival of Thomas B. Craighead, a Presbyterian minister, in 1785.
Marriage bonds were probably issued by the court in Davidson Co., beginning with the county's formation in 1783. The earliest date of an extant bond for Davidson County is December 13, 1788.
The bond was a guarantee or promise that the couple had a legal right to be married. That is to say, the couple was of age, that neither was already married to someone else and that there was no other reason why they could not be married according to law. In the early days, the bride was required to be a resident of the county in which the marriage license was applied for.
The bond was usually signed by the groom and by another person who had obligated themselves to pay the bond if it became necessary to do so. This person, often a relative of the bride or groom, sometimes a friend, has been commonly referred to as the bondsman. There is sometimes, more than one bondsman and there are instances in which the groom did not sign the bond, only the bondsman. The bond was not to be paid unless the couple's marriage was in violation of law. There was most likely a fee for the license but the amount is unknown.
In the early marriage records for Davidson County, there is often only a bond and no license, as the person performing the marriage was not compelled by law to return the license to the court. In about 1816, the licenses began to be returned to the court with regularity. Davidson County marriage bonds and licenses do not give names of parents of the couple. There is sometimes a letter of consent attached that was signed by a parent but this is a rare find. Birthdates are not given on the records. Beginning in 1838, TN law required each County Clerk to record the issuance of a marriage license and the return of the license, in an official "marriage book." In the early 1900's the ages of the couple and a place of residence began to be recorded in the marriage books.
Below is a transcription of a marriage bond for my ancestors George Sugg Allen and Ferebe Pharaba Russell from Davidson County records from the year 1803. The bondsman, Andrew Lucas, was married to Pharaba aunt, Nancy Gower. The language sometimes varied but the substance was the same.
Know all ye men that the I Andrew Lucas of the county of Davidson and state of Tennessee, are held and firmly bound unto the governor of the said state, for the time being, in the sum of 1250 dollars, to be paid to his said excellency, his successors in office, or assigns. To which payment well and truly to be made, we bind ourselves, our heirs, executors and administrators, each and every one of us and them, both jointly and severally, firmly by these presents.
Witness our hands and seals this 21 day of Nov 1803
The condition of the above obligation is such that whereas George Allen has this day prayed and obtained a License to Marry Ferebe Russell now if the said Ferebe Russell be an actual resident of the aforesaid county, and there shall not hereafter appear any lawful cause why the said Geo Allen & Ferebe Russell should not be joined together in holy Matrimony, as husband and wife, then this obligation to be void and of non effect, otherwise to remain in full force and virtue.
Andrew Lucas (Seal)
Below is a scan of a Davidson County marriage license from 1789. The original marriage bonds and licenses are in the holdings of Metro Nashville Archives. The marriage book are also in the archives collections.