The concept of mail-order brides was first seen on the American frontier during the mid-1800s. The huge emigration of men to the Western U.S. resulted in a disproportionate ratio of men to women in such places as Washington, Arizona and especially California during the Gold Rush. While most men found financial success out west, they missed the company of a wife.
Back east, for women who were not of the privileged classes, finding a husband could be difficult particularly after the Civil War when thousands of young men died in battle and thousands more moved west. To make ends meet, many went into domestic service or nursing at an early age and were unable to take part in the courtship rituals allowed middle and upper class. Ingenuity and perseverance were needed to find a worthy mate if the most desirable qualifications – money and social standing – were not in abundance.
It was unusual for women to travel alone, so if you find records of a female ancestor traveling east to west without a male companion around the Civil War period it could have been to meet a prospective spouse. But how did they find each other?
· Matrimonial News – Men wrote letters to churches and advertised in publications such as “San Francisco-based Matrimonial News”, a newspaper that promoted honorable matrimonial engagements and true conjugal facilities for men and women. In spite of the occasional mismatch or short-lived union, historians believe that mail-order brides produced a high percentage of permanent marriages. The reason cited is that the advertisements were candid and direct in their explanations of exactly what was wanted and expected from a prospective spouse. If requested, the parties sent accurate photos of themselves along with a page of background information. Often, when the pair met, the groom-to-be signed an agreement, witnessed by three upstanding members of the territory, not to abuse or mistreat the bride-to-be. The prospective bride then signed a paper (also witnessed) not to nag or try to change the intended! Go to: www.trailend.org/wed-expectations.htm.
· Mercer Girls – Toward the end of the Civil War, women from Massachusetts were encouraged to move west. About the same time, Asa Mercer of Seattle, WA began recruiting young women by advertising for schoolmarms (though everyone knew marriage was one of the draws due to a shortage of eligible men back east). The “Mercer Girls” paid their own passage of $250 which provided transportation and lodging. When they arrived in the territories, they were put up by families who were glad to have young women as teachers and citizens. Though few in number, the Mercer Girls are well-documented and were depicted in the TV series Here Come the Brides. Go to: http://www.mercergirls.com/.
· Busy Bee Club – Distressed by shootouts over eligible Black females, six Tucson, AZ wives formed the “Busy Bee Club” in 1885 to arrange mail-order brides for young Black miners by contacting Black churches and newspapers in the east.
· Good Reads – “Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier”; “I Do! Courtship, love, and marriage on the American Frontier”; “Black Women of the Old West”.