The electronic preservation of historic data is possible today thanks to the efforts of a 75-year-old WPA project that collected records from courthouses across the state, abstracting and cross-indexing the information they held. Hoke Norris described the project in 1937.
A blushing bridegroom appeared before the clerk of court here in December, 1797 to secure his marriage bond. With him he brought his bondsman to furnish the 500 pound sterling bond required to guarantee that neither the bride nor the bridegroom would leave the other waiting at the church door and that the members of neither family would prevent the consummation of the proposed union in marriage.
The process was simple, as simple as the modern purchase of a marriage license. Then, too, there was a printed form to be filled in, though it did not require the listing of the ages of the bride and bridegroom nor the names of their parents, as do present-day licenses.
Taking his quill in hand, the clerk of court filled in the blanks with his Elizabethan script and handed the bridegroom the following completed "marriage bond":
"Know all men by these present, That we Micajah Wall and Pasgall Robertson in the state aforesaid, are held and firmly bound unto Tignall Jones, Esquire, Chairman of the Court of the County aforesaid, in the just and full sum of five hundred pounds, current money of this state, to be paid to the said chairman, or his successors or assigns: To the which payment well and truly to be made and done, we bind ourselves, our heirs, executors, and administrators. Sealed with our seals, and dated this 27th day of December anno Dom. 1797.
"The Condition of the above obligation is such: That whereas the above bounden Micajah Wall hath made application for a license for a marriage to be celebrated between him and Levinah Redding of the county aforesaid: Now in case it shall not appear hereafter that there is any lawful cause to obstruct the said marriage, then the above obligation to be void, otherwise to remain in full force and virtue."
The small piece of paper was handed the bridegroom, and he left, probably happy in the thought that the last hurdle before marriage had been cleared.
One hundred thirty-nine years later, in a corner of the Hall of History, a National Youth Administration employee picked up the marriage bond, now yellowed and faded with age, abstracted it, listing the names of the bride and the bridegroom and providing a cross index so that the descendants of the blushing youth can easily discover when he married their many times great-grandmother.
This marriage bond is one of between 300,000 and 400,000 which a corps of NYA workers is listing and cross-indexing so that millions of descendants, if they so desire, could determine when and where their ancestors were married. The thousands of bonds come in from all counties in the State, though D. L. Corbitt, chief library assistant of the State Historical Commission, who has charge of this work, said by no means all of the slips of paper that made marriages legal had been secured from courthouse attics, basements, closets and vaults where, with other county records, they have been aging and collecting dust all these many years.
The period covered by the marriage bonds is 1740 to 1868, when the new State Constitution went into effect and changed the mode of the State's expressing its approval of marriage. With each marriage bond was issued a certificate, to be signed by the minister or the justice of the peace officiating at the wedding.
Now, the license itself is signed by the officiating minister or magistrate and returned to the register of deeds.
The preliminary work on the marriage bonds and other State and County archives is being done by 15 NYA and WPA workers who, stationed in the basement of the Supreme Court building, unfold, sort and label them and other county records which the Historical Commission is continuously collecting and has been collecting since 1907. Upstairs, on the second floor in one corner of the Hall of History, there are about 20 NYA workers whose job is to list the names of the bride and bridegroom on cards and then to cross-index them.
The index will be kept for reference by genealogists, biographers and historians, and the marriage bonds themselves will be preserved.
Marriage bonds are by no means the only type of record the Historical Commission is gathering. Dark corners in the history of the State and of the South, too, are being illuminated with the discovery of records which have been hidden since they were placed away and forgotten.
One type of record is the Negro cohabitation certificate, of which the Commission has a large number. Mr. Corbitt brought out a large box filled with these papers, issued to legalize the "common law" marriages of Negro men and women after they had been emancipated. Corbitt fished one certificate from the box and read:
"State of North Carolina. Edgecombe County. On this the 15th day of May 1866, personally appeared before me G. W. Hammond, a justice of the peace in and for said county, Nelson Parker and Manerva Vick, residents of said county, both of whom were lately slaves, but now emancipated, and acknowledge that they have cohabitated as man and wife for 22 years. No. (Number of) children 7." The certificate bore the signature of the justice of the peace.
The WPA also has provided workers to visit each county in the State to make a list of its records, noting the type and condition of the ponderous tomes and the number of cubic feet or inches they occupy.
The commission has 1,500 volumes of county records, many of which are large calfskin volumes, ragged and worn and yellowed with age.
The basement of the Supreme Court Building has the appearance of a country department store. One wall is lined with shelves bearing boxes of varying sizes which contain county records recently acquired, sorted and labeled.
Part of the WPA and NYA workers are employed with unfolding, sorting, and tying this mass of material into small bundles as it flows in from counties recently awakened to the fact that unless some provision is made for their records, the books and papers which record their court proceedings, their births and their marriages and their deaths -- the cold statement of fact on which hinges happiness or sadness -- unless such records are preserved, they will be lost.
Nor is the Historical Commission, of which Dr. C. C. Crittenden has been secretary since July, 1935, neglecting contemporary happenings. Already catalogued and filed away are handbills, newspaper stories, pamphlets and speeches which this year came from the most amazing gubernatorial contest in the history of the State.
"If we didn't do this, who would?" Mr. Corbitt asked. "Probably no one else would. It would be decidedly wrong to wait until, say 2036 and then try to collect all this material, as we are doing now for last century and the century before that.
"There's one thing that works to our disadvantage in preserving modern records. Neither the paper nor the ink is as good as our forefathers used. This modern paper and ink couldn't withstand all that the old records have been through -- water and fire and the ravages of years. Modern records couldn't be preserved, as we are able to preserve old records, by soaking, washing, drying, and pressing them and then placing over them a protective covering of crinoline"
Mrs. J. M. Winfree is in charge of manuscript repairing, and is able to make yellowed, frayed and faded paper take on the appearance of a suit of clothes freshly from the cleaners and pressers, so clean and evenly pressed is it.
The records flowing in from the counties are court minutes, wills, inventories of estates, guardian accounts, trial and appearance dockets, -- all of which are being helped by WPA workers along their way from their nooks in county courthouses to their niches in the Historical Commission archives, there to be preserved for posterity.
The Commission has acquired records of the courts of pleas and quarter sessions which, until 1868, were the organs of both justice and administration in the counties. The justices of the peace who composed the court were in the counties what the modern county commissioners are. There are also records from State offices and collections of personal papers.
All this material is making the Historical Commission archives more complete. Already it is known as the best in the South and one of the best in the nation. Corbitt said its possessions have more than doubled since he joined the commission staff 13 years ago.
Out of his work is coming a history of the counties -- a book which will reveal to fast-forgetting North Carolinians that the last two counties in the State to be formed were Avery and Hoke in 1911, the former having been carved from Mitchell, Watauga and Caldwell and the latter from Cumberland and Robeson, and that changes have been made at least through 1927, when part of Yadkin county was sliced off and given to Forsyth. The book, which is to be published by the Historical Commission, will be of interest to lawyers and county officials as well as to historians.
One never knows, Corbitt said, what he will find when he begins studying a yellowed, tattered record. Once he found the earliest extant copy of the North Carolina Gazette, an early newspaper published in this State, because a clerk of court pasted together copies of the paper to form the backs of his records. Other discoveries just as valuable have been made in just as surprising places.
The oldest bound record of any county in the possession of the Historical Commission is a Perquimans County precinct court minute book dated 1689.
The newest record may be the front page of day before yesterday's newspaper recording the comings and going of the State's officials and the latest murders.
Between the two you have almost the complete history of North Carolina.
Caption: The NYA and WPA workers ... were working along as usual one day when without any warning, one of them came across the original marriage bonds issued when the original Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng, married the Yates sisters in Wilkes County, where the twins, who became famous through their tours with circuses and shows, made their homes. The two faded, yellow papers reveal that the twins applied for the bonds on April 13, 1843, and that the father of their brides, Jesse Yates, posted the $1,000 bond required for each marriage. -- the News & Observer 1/17/1937