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Genealogy: Resolving questions of illegitimacy

A document identifying Hardin Hulsey as an illegitimate child was found in the Georgia Surveyor General Department records.
A document identifying Hardin Hulsey as an illegitimate child was found in the Georgia Surveyor General Department records.
Published Sep. 1, 2016

Whose business was it if our ancestors were illegitimate children?

Did the government need to know? What about nosey neighbors, or us descendants who never even knew those involved?

The answers are yes, yes and yes.

So let's take a look at where to find records of these events that many families kept secret and hoped to take to their graves.

In Colonial and early America days, the government got involved by passing bastardy laws and holding bastardy courts to compel fathers to support their illegitimate children so that the community (i.e. tax money from nosey neighbors) didn't have to cover the costs.

There are many records in which we will find evidence of these bastard children. Some are barely hidden and with lots of clues, while some are specifically and directly stated. Some may leave us guessing that certain children "probably" were filius nullius, the legal term for a "child of no man."

The most obvious places to look are local court documents that actually are labeled "Bastardy Court" records. Any complaining party — yes, even that nosey neighbor — could bring the matter before a court.

Sometimes the mother herself reported the matter by giving a sworn statement accusing a specific person and giving details of the relationship. The alleged father would be brought before the court, which required the man to post a bastardy bond. If evidence supported the accusation the man could be forced to pay support.

Generally courts ordered a father to pay a fee annually until children were "beyond the nurturing age," about the age of 7. Some states required the men to pay until the children turned 14 and could be apprenticed to learn a trade and support themselves.

In 1865, the widow Rebecca Stalcup of Roane County, Tenn., appeared in court and pointed a finger at Jesse Matlock as the man "who had begotten her with child which she had delivered in October 1862." Matlock denied his paternity, but the court ruled in Stalcup's favor. The whole untidy mess is spelled out in the Roane County Court Minute Books as "The State in the Relation of Rebecca Stalcup vs. Jesse Matlock."

And Stalcup apparently was a spunky lady. She named her child Abraham Lincoln Stalcup just to spite Matlock, who was a Confederate soldier, or so family lore tells.

Sometimes the mother refused to name the father so the courts had no one from whom they could get support for the mother who couldn't care for the child. In such cases the government could take the child and bind him out as a servant to a family in the community. Records of such bondage also can be found in local court records.

Occasionally, records will appear in unexpected places. For example, while digging in 1883 land records for information on prominent Pickens County, Ga., resident Stephen Kirby, I found a deed in which he gave land to Adaline Colby "in consideration of the fact that Adaline is the mother of said William Davis, whom I recognize to be my son."

This deed is the only record I have found that identifies William's father as Stephen Kirby. There were no clues or evidence of this child in Kirby's extensive estate file, but then illegitimate children rarely were listed in such documents.

When American Indians ceded their lands to Georgia, the state distributed the property to its citizens through a land lottery. Revolutionary War veterans, widows and orphans were allowed extra draws in those lotteries. For the 1827 lottery the state legislature stated "illegitimate children shall be considered and placed on the same footing with orphan children."

So my second great-grandfather, Hardin Hulsey, got the standard draw that most qualified citizens got and then he got an extra draw because he was illegitimate. The document that awarded him 202.5 acres clearly identifies him as such.

State legislatures often enacted private laws in order for fathers to claim and then legitimize their bastard children.

For example, in 1819 the Georgia Senate and House of Representatives enacted that "Bramleigh Bedgood, an illegitimate child of Mary Bedgood and R.W.W. Wynne, be and is hereby made and declared legitimate so far as to entitle her all the rights and privileges which she would have had, had she been born in lawful wedlock."

For us genealogists, it is important to acknowledge that our ancestors were human with plenty of foibles and to recognize clues in the records we find. By including these imperfections in the histories we write, we give these men and women true dimension and get to know them as they really were.

Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to Sharon Tate Moody at