If you think searching for a marriage record can be frustrating, keep in mind that finding a husband or wife hasn’t always been a straightforward proposition, either.
Social customs and financial restrictions could make finding someone to marry problematic. The tradition of the dowry, for example, limited the marriage prospects of those who didn’t have one. In some cultures, the couple was out of the loop entirely — parents picked spouses who might meet for the first time on their wedding day.
More common was what Stephanie Coontz calls “indirectly arranged” marriages: “The normal procedure was that you would look around among those in your social circle and decide who to fall in love with from the range of those who would be approved,” says Coontz, author of Marriage: A History. “There was some illusion of control — love — but without going outside the boundaries of propriety or class.”
Courtships were generally long and closely supervised. Although there were exceptions, most European cultures had a tradition whereby men proposed to marry eligible women and then the two of them had a period of time to get to know each other before they made that final commitment.
That was the face of courtship for centuries. But it had little relevance to the lonely men who first settled America.
Women for a New World
In 1607, after the English settlement of Jamestown was established by 104 men, there was some question about whether white women even had a place in the savage New World. But that debate was mostly academic, waged by those comfortably ensconced back in England with their wives at their sides. The men of Jamestown struggled more directly with the question. They needed women to help with the practical work of the settlement, for companionship, and, ultimately, to build a civilization.
By 1619, the Virginia Company of London realized that their grand hopes of establishing thriving communities would not be possible without providing the men the stabilizing influence of wives. They arranged that “a fit hundredth might be sent of women, maids young and uncorrupt, to make wives to the inhabitants and by that means to make the men there more settled and less movable.”
The passage for these first English brides was paid in tobacco to the Virginia Company by their prospective husbands. Later, several other shipments of prospective brides arrived from England and were quickly snatched up by the waiting bachelors. Company records note that after a shipment of “57 young maids” arrived in 1622, most “were well married before the coming away of the ships.”
Dating in America would never be the same again.
The Girls of France
Men in the French colonies were also longing for women. Like their English counterparts, tradition and religion dictated they marry French women of good character. Like the corporate-minded Virginia Company, the sponsor of the French incursion into the New World, King Louis XIV, recognized the necessity of women suitable for wives and recruited young women from orphanages, often poor but of good character, and even gave each a 50-livre dowry when finances allowed. The first brides from France, called filles du roi, or “King’s daughters,” arrived in New France (Canada) in 1663. They were quickly married to the desperate colonists, and more women followed: 770 between 1663 and 1673.
The first 25 brides to the French colonies in Louisiana arrived in Mobile in 1704. They were called Casket Girls, named after the small chests they carried (known as cassettes or caskets) that held their personal items. That first consignment of girls was followed by another to Biloxi in 1719 and reportedly one to New Orleans in 1728.
Jerilee Wei is a descendant of one of the later Casket Girls, Catherine Josephe Gautru, a feisty orphan who was married off to a New Orleans resident named Antoine Boudrot.
“This was a way for the government to populate the New World with respectable families,” says Wei. “These girls had been brought up in the Catholic Church and taught the womanly arts so they could make good wives when the time came.”
What was in it for the girls? While they probably didn’t know their husbands well prior to marriage, the dowry and small trousseaux given to them, combined with the unbalanced ratio of women to men, gave the girls marriage opportunities they would never have had as poor orphans in France.
The Wild, Womenless West
By the 1800s, the population in the New England states and the South was such that courtship and marriage rituals probably looked very much like they had in the old country for centuries. People tended to marry those in their social circle, young people were closely supervised, and there was leisure time for courtship.
Then dating was dealt a double whammy: the Civil War and the lure of the West. Hoping for gold or free land or unlimited game and woodlands, men began to migrate West, and once they got there, they wanted women to join them. At the same time, the war greatly reduced the number of marriageable men back East. Men and women both had to think creatively to find a mate, and many did so by advertising in the Matrimonial News, a newspaper devoted to matchmaking.
Chris Enss, author of Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier, says the woman and her intended often exchanged several letters before the bride-to-be went West. Those letters, says Enss, could be very passionate and detailed.
Many of these matches worked out well, even though there was no extended courtship.
“They had already committed to marry this person, and there were often financial arrangements made, so if they arrived and he seemed to be what he represented, they might be married within the hour after meeting,” says Enss.
The Girls from Massachusetts
Toward the end of the Civil War, there were several schemes to get women from Massachusetts to help settle the American West.
The New England Emigrant Aid Company, originally formed in part to help New Englanders settle in the Territory of Kansas and tip the scales toward Kansas entering the Union as a free rather than a slave state, eventually took on the task of encouraging women to move West. The company’s founders worried that a high ratio of women to men back East could create societal problems and reasoned that sending women West would create strong ties with the new territories. There were a number of plans proposed to the legislature that would pay the passage for women and ensure their safe passage, but the scope the legislature hoped to achieve was never realized.
At about the same time, a group of young women was being recruited from Massachusetts by Seattle resident Asa Mercer. There was no mention of marriage in the original ads for the girls, as that would have been considered improper. Rather, Asa Mercer went looking for schoolmarms, evidenced by this snippet that ran in the Lowell Daily Courier on Saturday, 23 January 1864:
“Teachers Wanted. Mr. Mercer, of Seattle, Washington Territory, has been in our city today, almost wholly, we believe, for the purpose of procuring female teachers to go to Washington Territory.”
However, says Peri Muhich, who runs Mercer Girls and is currently compiling a book on the Mercer Girls, marriage was implied.
“Asa Mercer never mentioned matrimony, just all the opportunities that were open to them as teachers in the territory,” says Muhich. “Teachers were needed, so he wasn’t misleading anyone, but he wasn’t telling the whole story. Everyone knew that marriage was one of the draws, as there was such a shortage of eligible men back East.”
The Mercer Girls paid for their own passage, $250, which provided transportation and lodging. When they arrived in the territories, they were put up by families who were glad to have the young women as teachers and citizens. Courting of the women began immediately, and most of the girls had the luxury of choosing between several suitors. With a very few exceptions, the girls were married within a short time and became the founding mothers of Seattle.
Off to War
Hundreds of thousands of war brides immigrated to America and Canada after both World War I and World War II. Annette Fulford, who specializes in research on World War I war brides, is herself the descendant of one of them. Her grandmother, Grace Clark, came to Canada from England in 1919. Unlike World War II brides, who were brought to America on special war bride transports, the brides of World War I often traveled with their husbands to their new country.
“The ships were known as dependent ships, and the men and women were berthed in separate quarters,” says Fulford. “They would meet up in the morning and spend as much of the day together as possible. It was like a second, more leisurely courtship without the stress of ongoing war.”
Clark’s marriage lasted 45 years, but not all war brides were so lucky. Sometimes, just as in the days of the mail-order bride, the men would misrepresent their circumstances. Romantic war-time courtships filled with glowing descriptions of palaces, riches, and plantations turned into marriages that quickly dissolved when brides arrived and found outhouses and dirt floors.
Michele Thomas, the daughter of a World War II war bride, says her parents’ marriage ended when she was 5, for reasons that were “complicated.” In fact, the entire impetus for becoming a war bride could itself be complicated. Certainly, love played a part in many cases, at least initially, but Thomas says marrying a man from a foreign country could also represent an opportunity for escape. “[The women] may have lost their families, and in some cases their countries were completely destroyed,” says Thomas. “American citizenship was especially attractive, so that may have factored into some of these marriages.”
Thomas also points out that there was another type of war bride — the woman who pushed up her wedding date to marry her beau before he was shipped overseas. This was a tradition common to all wars. (Remember the quickie double wedding of Scarlett and Melanie in Gone with the Wind?) The result was an abbreviated courtship and hurried honeymoon, which left many freshly married women without the company of their spouse and with the very real fear that they’d be widows before they had time to be wives.
One of the reasons marriage records are such a great genealogical resource is that they go back centuries. Parishes in the Church of England started keeping marriage records in 1538, as did most of Europe. Ancestry magazine contributor Myra Vanderpool Gormley says some records go back even earlier in Switzerland and Spain. The church is a particularly great resource for finding many of these records, as marriage was generally a religious contract in Europe.
In America, marriage has always been considered a civil bargain (possibly because Puritans did not consider marriage a sacrament), so marriage records are instead found in town halls, old newspapers, and county clerk’s offices, as well as churches. In the Southern colonies, the bride and groom were often required to post marriage bonds, and there are records of these as well.
But, says Gormley, one of the hardest things to accept in family history is that marriage certificates can’t always be found. Great-grandma may have been married by an itinerant preacher or the only document of the marriage might have been lost in some way. Still, there are ways to eke out information about an ancestor’s spouse.
“Sometimes when the courthouse burned, a homeowner would go when it was rebuilt and refile his deeds, so even if the marriage record is gone, the spouse’s name is usually on there,” says Gormley. “Other good records are census records, property sales, wills or probates, and cemetery records. Obituaries are also good sources.”
Some researchers are lucky enough to come from a strong tradition of oral history or to find diaries or memoirs that mention their ancestors’ courtships and marriages. Jerilee Wei had both to help her find her female French ancestors. Others may find their own filles du roi on a list of the first French brides.
Mercer Girls are well documented. But other mail-order brides were more reluctant to admit how they found their mates.
Peri Muhich says you may still be able to find a few good clues that an ancestor was a mail-order bride. First, mail-order brides reached their peak of popularity toward the end of the Civil War — 1864 and a few years beyond. It was also unusual for women to travel alone, so if there are records of a female ancestor traveling east to west without a male companion during that time frame, it could have been to meet a prospective spouse.
There are many resources for finding information on war brides: ship’s lists and manifests and a legion of websites with resources and reminiscences, including The American War Bride Experience, maintained by Michèle Thomas. Many World War I brides came through Ellis Island, another good resource.
Annette Fulford also suggests that hints about how a bride met her soldier can be found by trying to find out what she was involved in during the war: the Red Cross, the USO, or the many women’s auxiliary corps.
But the best records of a marriage, whether arranged, purchased, long distance, or just down the block, are those that go beyond the marriage certificate and give insight into the couple involved. Linda Thomson of Westminster, Colorado, has dozens of letters and postcards her grandparents wrote each other when they were courting. The letters acted as their form of courtship while her grandfather was out of state working on the harvest. When he was in town and they wanted to quickly communicate, they wrote postcards — sort of a 1913 version of the text message. They did, after all, live eight miles from each other.
“What was interesting to me was how sincere and expressive they were in their letters,” says Thomson. “You could tell they were very much in love.”