Sunday, November 10, 2019

Mail Order Brides Fact or Fiction? by E. Ayers

Sometimes it feels as though I tend to pick on those who write mail order bride stories. Yet, I’ve written them myself. Desperate women looking for someone to take care of them, often running away from a worse situation, and men in the prime of their life that haven’t seen an eligible female or any female in years. Life must have been pretty lonely for those guys, and it’s no wonder that the brothels flourished.
But I was thinking about an upcoming set of characters and how the heroine must feel. That led me down a rabbit hole when I thought about the women who had been kidnapped by the Indians. There are lots of those true-life stories. How did they survive being captured? Or why didn’t they embrace the white man’s life when they returned? So I picked up the phone and had long conversation with my friend, Cliff, who is a retired psychologist. He’s the PhD, not an MD. We had quite a discussion. I love delving into what makes people do what they do. That psychological side of people intrigues me.
Today we have a name for many of those women who were kidnapped and never were capable of returning to the white man’s life. It’s called Stockholm syndrome and that term isn’t fifty years old. Many of us remember the images of young Patty Hearst after her kidnapping. We all watched in horror as she helped her kidnappers rob a bank. What really happens when people and in the case of mail-order brides find themselves in some pretty difficult, strange, or horrible circumstances?
In all my research, I’ve never come across an instance where a woman was told to go west or be imprisoned for some misdemeanor. But it happened to men all the time. Our west was filled with criminals, they were either told to get out of town and never show their face again, or they were running from the law. (Heck, our country was a big dumping ground for criminals from England. It was easier to send them here. Then they wouldn’t have to put up with them. And you thought Australia was the only penal colony? Over 50,000 people were banished to colonial America. That means 25% of the early immigrants to America were criminals!)
So what happened to women who were mail-order brides? Spoiler alert! They weren’t sitting in a romantic situation. Would you send a few text messages to a guy you’ve never met and then run off to marry him? The odds are he wasn’t penning his own letters. He had someone doing it for him because he couldn’t read or write. I have a warm comfortable home. Translation, he had a soddie made from grass and dirt. The list goes on. The concept of mail-order bride is about as truthful as Cinderella and Prince Charming. They are fairytale stories.
What really happened isn’t found in today’s stories. Women had no value except to wash clothes, cook, and make babies. That was how she was perceived in the East and in the West. So often she was trying to escape from a bad situation in the East. Going west meant a fresh start and she was willing to try anything. (It certainly can’t be any worse! Maybe and maybe not.)
So she goes west and meets the man she’s to marry. He’s nothing like he portrayed in his letters. Her only hope is that he’s decent to her. She’s willingly allowed herself to be possessed by him. With a little luck, she’s landed in a small town and not two days drive from another human. If so she’s probably going to discover other mail-order brides or at least the women have been placed in the same situation. Most mining towns were nothing more than tent cities. Houses were scarce.
Chances are the company store owned him. He probably couldn’t keep track of his money anyway. If he needed soap, he bought it. He wouldn’t have known if it was five cents or 5 dollars. And if he only made $3 that week, it wouldn’t take long for him to be in a deep financial hole. But if he wanted a wife, he could get one. Sometimes it was the best thing for him and her. Sometimes it wasn’t.
But when it wasn’t, she had very little choice. Did the other women come to her rescue? Ask a woman today who is in an abusive relationship if anyone comes to her rescue. People haven’t changed much and interfering can be dangerous to the person trying to protect the other.
Today we call it Stockholm syndrome. The person placed or kidnapped identifies with her captor. It’s part of the survival instinct. They manage, blend in, and survive.
We don’t normally think of marriage as a captive situation but it can be. Women were often stolen from their homes by the Indians. The Indians were also short of females. Some of the stories that have been told about such women are fascinating, especially when the women were found and returned to their rightful home. But did they manage to go back to their old way of life? Most of them didn’t. They had lived as Indians for so long that coming back to the white man’s ways was strange to them. Their children often didn’t survive in the white culture. Many got into serious trouble with the law. Many tried going back to the tribe but were turned away. The women and children were between two worlds and discovered they didn’t belong in either place.
Fortunately, many women discovered that some tribes treated their women better than the white men. The Crow tribe revered their women and still do!
Not everyone had a horrible life. Some women were running from a worse fate. Becoming a bride to an unknown man was as close to heaven as she could visualize. For them, even poverty or extreme rural life was better than what they had. Often relying on faith, they found love. Was it really love, or did they convince themselves that they loved and were loved. There’s no way to tell. What we know about Stockholm syndrome makes it easier for us to comprehend the predicament.
What we know is that people went west in search of something better and the promise of a brighter tomorrow for them and their children. Did they find it? Maybe. Were those women happier than we are today? We’d like to believe they were.
We want to believe that these women took a chance to create a life for themselves. Becoming a mail-order bride was probably the first time they had ever made a serious decision in their lives. Their future husbands could be a prince charming, a pauper, or an abusive monster. We want to think they all found Prince Charming. We want to believe that the men portrayed themselves fairly in their letters. We want to think the women were beautiful, and the men were handsome and brawny. In truth, they weren’t.
The women who did become mail-order brides didn’t have any options for a good marriage. Crossed eyes, extra fingers, bucked teeth, disfigurement, and dozens of things would keep them from finding a suitable husband. Things that today we think nothing of because they are easily corrected with orthodontics or plastic surgery. But back then, the way someone looked was part of that selective process. It was more important than general beauty. Remember that women were basically for reproduction. So a man wants a woman to produce healthy sons. She needs to measure up.
The same held true for men. It’s not vain to want a handsome man. It’s part of that selective process. And what is handsome? That varies according to whom you ask. Handsome is anyone that you consider better looking than yourself. Yep, lots of recent studies have proved that. And if you use today’s standards, probably very few men back then would be considered handsome. A very tall man would be considered anyone over 5’9”. Today we think of men as being over 6 foot. The men back then had natural muscles that come from the jobs they did. They didn’t worry about sculpting their bodies.
Times have changed. But have we changed? Maybe. I believe we expect more from men and from women. Those women didn’t have many options. Maybe they didn’t have the expectations that we dare to have today. But somehow they found the strength to keep going and accept their new husbands for better or worse.
Through each stage of history, we’ve progressed. I can’t imagine living in Biblical times. I can barely imagine living in the 1800s yet I know my great-grandmothers did. Both had arranged marriages as did my grandmothers. My mother married to get away from her family. I married for love or at least I believe it was love. This November would have been 49 years for us. I know I loved him. Or did I have a Stockholm syndrome? He didn’t kidnap me. I willingly entered into marriage that should have been doomed from the start. Am I no different from those grandmothers and great grandmothers who accepted life? I’d like to think I am. I was in love. Moments of anger and frustration were part of marriage but so were the joys.
Enjoy the small snippet of my newest western historical.

Arabelle looked around and spotted the book beside the only comfortable chair in the room. She recognized the title. To call the place sparse was an understatement. But then he did say it was enough for him. Maybe it was. But it was too small for two people.
She turned as he stepped through the door.
“Give me a moment to prepare the room for you.” He vanished behind a door and returned a moment later. “There’s a clean cloth for washing and a towel for drying in the bedroom. I hope everything is satisfactory.”
She walked into the tiny room and spotted the bed. She sniffed at the sheets and was surprised that they smelled clean. They were slightly scented with a manly smell, but nothing overpowering. He had a small pile of clothes in the corner. The ewer and pitcher were clean, and a bar of soap sat in a small dish. It wasn’t the delicately scented soap a woman would use, but under the circumstances, she had no problem bathing with it.
She washed the best she could, and then joined him. “I believe I will need a bath. Where might I find such a luxury?”
He chuckled. “I have a big tub hanging on the wall by the back door. And the well is over there.”
She noted the direction that he pointed. “Am I supposed to fetch my own water?”
“Well that depends. Would you care for a bath after we have eaten? I don’t mind bringing you enough water in the evening, but if you prefer to wait until I am gone to work tomorrow, you’ll be fetching your own.”
She smiled. “Ah, the dilemma. I will assume you’d rather watch me bathe.”
“Your assumption is correct, except I promised that I am from a good family, and I have been taught right from wrong. I will fetch your water, help you heat it, and then I will take a long evening stroll.”
She smiled at him. “That sounds like the man who wrote those lovely letters.”
After his supper of ham and potatoes, he did as promised, and she slipped under the warm water to wash two weeks of dirt from her body. She toweled off and put on a chemise with a robe over it. The color of the bath water told of coal cinders and common dirt that had coated her body and clung to her hair. She stood by the stove and combed her tangled locks. Anyone who thinks curly hair is impossible should try combing straight hair.
She wondered what had happened to Claude. He had left her but had not returned. When her hair was dry enough to braid, she formed a long plait and tied it with a yellow ribbon. Then she began to empty the tub out the back door. That’s when she discovered that Claude had been waiting for her.
“I’ll do that.” He took the bucket.
In short order, he had emptied the tub enough to pick it up and dump what remained outside. Then he wiped down the tub and placed it on the outside wall of his house.
“The necessary is over there. It’s actually quite nice. I share it with the Wilsons next door. Mrs. Wilson is extremely amiable, and their children are well behaved.”
Arabelle picked up the lantern and went to find the privy. It was as he said. The wood shone in the light of the lantern. She returned to the house and looked around. “I’m to sleep… Where?”
“For now you may have my bed. I will inquire in town for a room.”
“Staying here, even being here alone long enough to have supper with you has ruined my reputation. What difference does it make if I am to marry you?” She watched him mull on that thought.
“Then I shall inquire about being married as soon as possible.”
“I don’t need to be married. Does it matter? This is the Lawless West is it not?”


  1. This was a great blog. Very informative. I know I for one never put Stockholm Syndrome together with woman captured by Indians or with mail-order brides. Very interesting.

    1. The difference is one went willingly into the situation and the other was forced. Many a mail-order bride came from the city and had never seen a wild animal. She knew nothing about chickens or even how to remove the feathers. The learning curve alone is amazing. But she'd make friends and would begin to accept her new way of life.

      Thanks for stopping and commenting, Cindy.

  2. Great post, E. Very informative indeed.

    1. Thanks, Carol and thanks for stopping. I love chasing the social and psychological tidbits. So often I hit brick walls, but occasionally I get lucky. Now I need to go back and reread the stories of the gals who were returned to their white families after living with the Indians and compare their lives.

  3. I've never written a mail order bride book but have enjoyed what others created. One thing i had read is that after the Civil War so many men were killed that it left a shortage on the East Coast as well as less women who had gone West providing the setup for what happened. There still are mail order brides. I knew a guy from the chat rooms who had one from Asia. She wanted more for her family and he could provide it. I don't know how that worked out.

    1. Mail order is still in existence. Yes, often these women are coming from other countries. War does have a way of depleting males. But more male are born than females, and no one knows exactly why.

      Mail order historical stories are very popular, and some may say it's a niche market. If that's a niche, it's huge. Loving Arabelle is my first truly mail order story that I've written. I've written an arranged marriage, A Rancher's Request, which was very common.

      I can't imagine any male that my parents would have chosen for me. I dated a few guys that my mom asked me to date. Let's just leave it with it did not go well. If that had been forced on me, I'd probably never be writing a book because I'd be in jail for murder. :-)

  4. Very interesting and informational blog Elizabeth. I never thought of Mail Order brides have this syndrome but I did think of white women being kidnapped by Indians of any tribe but also Indian women being taken by white men also.
    Most stories you are correct about that I have read have usually good endings for mail order brides while some do not but it's also good when a story has them court before marrying to make sure they suit.

    1. My own great grandmother had the option to say no to a man that had been arranged for her. They corresponded and visited a few times. She agreed to marry him. I can't say if they were happy, but she had ton of kids by him. I've never heard anyone say he was nasty, abusive, or mean. He was strict. As a small child, I was to be seen and not heard, but I was fascinated with this old man who lived past his 100th birthday in spite of his tobacco use, "hearty" meals, whiskey consumption, and being overweight. He did everything wrong and the only reason he died was he slipped on the stairs and broke his neck. Yes, he was over 100 and still doing the stairs. I know both my grandmothers had arranged marriages, and one was very happy and the other one wasn't.

      I think going into something aware is different than being kidnapped or stolen. I feel sorry for those women. But many adapted, made friends, and apparently did well, others didn't. So it's really case by case, and that is difficult to write.

      I believe that most women have tremendous fortitude and when given an inch can conquer almost anything. The survival instincts within us are amazing. We learn and adapt. But I also believe that reach a point where we no longer want to start again.

      As for our American Indians, some women had a very difficult time of it. Others, depending on the tribe, assimilated into the culture and discovered a different but better life than they had with a white man.

  5. I enjoy mail order bride stories. I realize that few situations were as good as those in Romance Land with their HEA's. Chris Enss' books give a needed realistic look at the West and those who populated it. Her book, Hearts West: True Stories Of Mail-Order Brides On The Frontier, gives a good look at real mail order brides and their lives. In many tribes, captives were taken to replace family members who had died. If that were the case, the captive was relatively well treated although the transition period could be difficult.If they were captured as spoils or revenge, their story would be much different. I think in their case, the Stockholm Syndrome effect would be more of a possibility. To me the Syndrome is the result of deprivation, fear, and sometimes mistreatment. I don't think those taken as family members experienced those to the degree others did. As with many situations like marriage, moving to a new culture, entering a blended family, there is a period of adjustment. You are where you are and your life is what it is. We all do it. Think of a new job, adjusting to the work, boss, and co-workers. You make the best of it and do your best, liking new friends and tolerating the rest not having an option to get another. After a while you are content with the job/situation and might really resent having to leave. I really wouldn't equate that with Stockholm Syndrome.

    1. Stockholm syndrome applies to very difficult situations, such as kidnapping, but by definition, it spills into life in many forms. No matter how it's viewed, moving West was dangerous and what awaited those women was not what always good. Kudos to the women who survived! I'm a firm believer that women have inner strength that is unparalleled.


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