Sunday, August 4, 2013

Courting in the Old West

              We often hear conflicting stories on a woman’s desire to marry during the Victorian Era. Marriage was a woman’s only means of security, a home of her own, and children. So, with these privileges, came many hardships—being tied to the home, bearing and caring for five to seven children, endless household tasks, and in a sense, being a servant to her husband. Therefore, many women, though desirous of the joys of marriage, had ambivalent feelings regarding the establishment.

              Men, however, had a different outlook on the subject. They viewed marriage as a positive enterprise. Marriage meant sex, pampering, and maid service. For the man trying to ranch or farm, marriage meant someone to help him work the land as well as cook, care for the home, and any children born to them. Often the man was a widower and married just to provide his children with a mother. Love wasn’t a prerequisite. A couple was lucky if respect grew into affection.

             Though we realize the above was probably true for the majority of couples, there had to be exceptions. If not, how would writers be able to write those wonderful western historical love stories, the ones with strong, independent women and tough men who weren’t afraid to show their softer side? True, many women had cruel husbands who saw their wives as baby machines and servants, and often abused them. But I believe there were just as many men who adored their wives, who wanted a wife to work alongside them as an equal.

              So, how did men and women meet, get acquainted, fall in love, and marry on the frontier in the 1800s? Many met at church, church socials, weddings, corn husking bees, barn raisings, and other socials that usually involved food, music, and dancing. Courting in the old West usually took place at an older age for girls than it did back east. Women were usually in the early twenties when they married. Men married in the middle to late twenties.

               Public displays of affection, like kissing at corn husking bees, were more acceptable in the old West than in the east, especially during the earlier part of the century when women were in scarce supply. For dates, the couple took walks, took the buggy or wagon out for picnics, took horseback rides, hayrides, cuddled in the hayloft, and danced at socials.
             For men in areas with few women, there were subscriptions to heart-and-hand clubs. The men received newspapers with information about women they could correspond with. Often photographs were included. Over a period of correspondence, the man might convince the woman to join him in the West and marry. Other men found their spouses as picture brides. They might see the picture of a friend’s sister or cousin and invite them to join them in marriage.

              There was also the early custom of bundling, whereby the courting couple were each bundled into a blanket or sack tied at the neck and allowed to share the same bed. Often times a long board was placed down the center of the bed. This allowed the two to talk all night and some cuddling but no sexual intercourse. The custom was more common in the New England states though practiced some in the west.

              In 1849, Eliza Farnham encouraged women to travel to California to meet men and marry. Since only two women accompanied her, Eliza’s efforts weren’t considered successful. Later, Acer Mercer organized two different trips to take women to Washington to become brides to the men living there. Do you remember the 1968-1970 television show Here Comes The Brides? Three brothers risk their logging business to bring 100 women to Seattle to live for a year and hopefully become wives and remain to help settle the territory.

             One of my favorite musicals is Seven Brides for Seven
Brothers.  Adam, the oldest brother, reads The Rape of the Sabine Women, to his younger brothers inciting them to kidnap their brides from town. When researching the story, it's made clear that no actual rape took place. During the founding of Rome by Romulus, the Romans needed wives and tried to negotiate with the Sabines. When they made no progress, they abducted the women and promised the Sabines the women would live in honorable wedlock, share their property and have civil rights.

             History is loaded with stories to tempt our imaginations. Happy Writing!




  1. Ah, the good 'ol days! I especially enjoy the snuggling in the hayloft!
    I recently came across a book titled "One Thousand White Women" by Jim Fergus about a little known government program implemented in 1875 to marry white women into the Cheyenne. It was two fold: to dilute the Cheyenne race and to ease the transition from "savage" to civilized (or at least the idea of it).
    Oh, and about those ways people meet: my current WIP has a US Deputy Marshall meeting his intended when its his job to transfer her to prison. Now there's some conflict!! ;)

  2. Linda--I still have the desire to write a mail order bride series. Just can't get it out of my head.
    Oh, yes, I remember these series and movies. They were very popular.

    I'm going to have to steal Autumn Shelley's mention of "One Thousand White Women" and write a post about it. My book club read it years ago, and as I recall, the story is not true--just a story an author made up. I'll have to look it up to make sure. But wow, it is an intriguing novel.

    I have a copy of a group photo taken when my grandmother was 12. The group consists of her parents, brother and sisters, and a few work hands on the back row. In that back row is the man who became my grandfather. Tired of working in the coal mine in Erath County, he roamed around and came to the farm and asked for work. He was 25. After a short while, he asked if he could marry 12-year-old Sarah. Her father said, yes, as soon as she comes of age.
    In the photo, my grandmother holds a doll, and her hair is in braids.

    I took that bit of family history and used it to write Wish for the Moon. It never sold very well on-line, although it was popular here at home. It's more of a coming of age story, with a sweet romance.

    Thanks for this post--I enjoyed it.

  3. Autumn, I should have known you'd have something to say about the hayloft!

    I'd love to read the book by Fergus. I'll see if I can find it on Abe's books. What an idea. Of course there are lots of stories about the Indian schools too, many horror stories.

    I was thinking about your Deputy story today. I wish you'd get it finished so I can read it!

  4. Sounds like a great idea, Celia.

    Wow, your family story is intriguing too. Maybe you should revise it and it would sell better this time. I'd love to see you blog about it too.

  5. I remember the TV series (which I loved) and the movie (also loved it), Linda. Thanks for a smile.

  6. Linda, interesting tidbits about courting in the Old West! I love the idea of "bundling." Do you remember the Mel Gibson movie "The Patriot"? There's a bundling scene in it that injected a little humor into a very weighty story line.

  7. You're welcome, Caroline. You know, for some reason I always thought that story came from the Bible. Maybe it's because the Sabines are mentioned but I could never find anything about kidnapping. So, now I know the rest of the story.

  8. Lyn, I remember the movie but not the bundling scene. That movie upset me for some reason and I didn't watch it as closely as I should have.

  9. What a fun post. My own great grandmother and great grandfather had an arranged marriage but something must have worked because they had 6 children. Autumn, I saw that article also and totally forgot about it until you mentioned it here. Thanks for reminding me.

  10. Were they still alive when you were born? It would be interesting to talk to couples with an arranged marriage.

    I know I've read articles where in other countries arranged marriages are the custom. The girls say their parents know what type of man is best for them. Hopefully the parents are trying to make her happy.


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