Mail-Order Brides of the Old West

Mail-order bridesA photographer friend of mine was recently visiting New York City. While there, he did what people roaming the streets of NYC with expensive cameras hanging around their necks tend to do. He took pictures. He took pictures of the regular things—taxis whizzing past, Grand Central Station, a subway station, and even a hot dog cart. But he also took some photographs of random people. One of my favorites is of a young woman bundled like she was standing on a street of NYC in the winter. When I commented on the shot, my friend said, “You’ll like it more when I tell you her back story.” My interest was piqued! He continued on to tell me, “She was a mail-order bride. Her husband works for ____________. (Insert the name a big, hoo-ha deal accounting firm that may or may NOT tabulate the votes for the Academy Awards Show. It wouldn’t be professional of me to say.)

My friend was right. Suddenly, I did like that picture even more—and not just because of its poignant composition. I liked it more because a neon sign went on in my head that was bright enough to light a corner of a big city street! The sign said, “Hey! Write a blog post about mail order brides of the Old West!” Since I’m not one to ignore flashing neon signs…here goes…

People Who Need People

California Gold RushWhen gold was first discovered in California, in January of 1848, tens of thousands of young men kissed their mamas goodbye and headed off to make their fortunes in the Old West. I like to imagine them walking off with their supplies wrapped in bandanas tied to sticks, but that’s probably not how it happened. At any rate, they set up camp in California with just about everything they needed to make their fortunes. . .they had picks and pans, food and water. But it wasn’t long before they realized that something was missing. Women! Well, you’re bound to forget one or two minor details when you set off on an adventure.

And the single women back east were none too happy about the mass exodus of eligible bachelors. They didn’t want to spend the rest of their days dancing with each other and filling their hope chests to the brim. There had to be a way to bring the fortune seekers and the men seekers together.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match

Eliza FarnhamA lady named Eliza Farnham was sure she had found a way! She had arrived in California in 1849, herself a widowed mother who was dismayed by the rough behavior of the men folk in Gold Country. They needed the sort of civilizing that a good wife can bring to an ornery man, she thought…so she set about to remedy that situation by placing advertisements in New York newspapers, to bring nice folks together!

Horace GreeleyEven Horace Greeley, that newspaperman (and frequent subject of “Jeopardy” questions), who famously said, “Go West, young man,” could see that perhaps it was time to say, “Go West, young woman!” About Mrs. Farnham’s efforts, Greeley wrote, “The mission is a good one and the projector deserves success. The enterprise in which Mrs. Farnham has engaged is one which evinces much moral courage.”I’m not sure how much courage it took to place Mrs. Farnham’s ads, but I can imagine how much courage it took to answer one of them!”

But lo and behold, two hundred women did answer the ads and Mrs. Farnham set off to fetch the pretty maidens back to California. Meanwhile, rumors about what was headed their way began circulating throughout Gold Country. The anxious, lonely men were expecting Mrs. Farnham to arrive by ship with 10,000 eligible women. Perhaps they thought it would be a matter of ordering a pretty blond who could cook and clean. It wasn’t. When the ship arrived, the disappointed bachelors discovered only three women accompanied her. Men were so upset that there was an outbreak of bad behavior!

Why were there only three women? Well, that’s probably because boarding a ship to head off for the arms of a complete stranger didn’t seem very respectable. People didn’t understand the finer points of this precursor of cyber dating. Sadly, Mrs. Farnham gave up her career as a matchmaker, but the idea didn’t die.

Stop! Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman!

Civil WarBy the later 1800s, there was a definite man shortage for women of marrying age. One of the sad facts of the Civil War was that Johnny didn’t always come marching home again. So many men had been killed that single women found the pool of eligible bachelors to be a might shallow.

Matrimonial NewsIn the 1870s, 80s and 90’S, Matrimonial News, a San Francisco based matchmaking newspaper helped to make love connections between the single men of the West and the statistically disadvantaged, single women back East. For $1.50 a word, people could place classified ads describing themselves and what they wanted in a potential mate. The paper’s goal was to “promote honorable matrimonial engagements and true conjugal felicities for amiable men and women.” If a match resulted in a wedding, both parties were required to pay an additional fee to the newspaper.

Most ads were fairly direct. I haven’t seen a single ad that mentioned enjoying long walks on the beach, but plenty of them were quite open about wanting someone who wasn’t ugly and had a specified amount of money. (At $1.50 a word, it’s a wonder that some ads didn’t read, “Me want woman!”) Interested parties would correspond with each other and often not meet until they were about to head to the altar. It was quite the leap of faith.

Mail Order BridesMatrimonial News even had a printed disclaimer that some people had been deceived through their want ads. Marriages could even be annulled if men had been “seduced by the use of false hair, cosmetic paints, artificial bosoms, bolstered hips or padded limbs.” That padded limb part really intrigues me!

Going to the Chapel of Love

It is estimated that around 2,600 couples that met through Matrimonial News ads, did in fact make it all the way to the altar. We know that many of those marriages were for life and resulted in a bunch of young ‘uns. I’m not sure if this makes me a romantic or crazy, but I really like thinking about that.

Mail-order bridesAnd, I hope that the woman whose photograph was recently taken by my friend—the woman with the wooly scarf and the haunting eyes—I hope she truly does have a better life now than she might otherwise have had. And, so, I will withhold my judgment of the man who works at the big accounting firm. May he treat her well and may their union be a happy one.

Happy Trails, y’all,
Anita Lequoia

4 Replies to “Mail-Order Brides of the Old West”

  1. With the pony express as their mail carrier, there probably wasn’t a whole lot of communication before making a decision to give it a go. I guess it must have been scarier to remain a single woman than to risk moving across the country to marry a stranger. Glad it’s not like that in the U.S. anymore, although based on the photo your friend took, apparently it still is in other parts of the world.

    1. Hi Carole, I think that women of the Old West did not have much of a choice in the matter. Job opportunities for women were extremely limited, so marriage was really the best option to assure their survival. The photo my friend took was taken very recently in New York City, so I think that the concept of the mail order bride is still very much alive today. Surprising, isn’t it?

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