Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The term "mail-order bride," as it applies to a marriage arranged via correspondence between American men and women in the Great Plains in the nineteenth century, is largely a misnomer. Twentieth-century folklore has it that a homesteader could peruse the Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalogs and order a wife to be delivered to his dusty doorstep just as easily as he could order a rifle, stove, or stomach cure, but the truth is far more interesting. Arranged long-distance marriage existed in the Plains in a range of communities, took a number of forms, and grew out of a variety of social, economic, and cultural phenomena, but never involved the literal sale, purchase, or ownership of women, as the term "mail-order bride" suggests.

Among Plains Indians, sight-unseen marriage was frequently arranged with the help of a middleman and could involve the payment of a "bride price," intended to compensate the woman's family for the impending loss of her labor. But intercultural marriage was rare. In 1854, at a peace conference at Fort Laramie, a prominent Cheyenne chief requested of the U.S. Army the gift of 100 white women as brides, but the army refused. Russian immigrants brought with them the tradition of koopla, whereby marriage brokers were paid a fee to pair men with potential spouses from the Old Country. Similarly, Chinese and Japanese obtained "picture brides" from their homelands, women whom they had come to know only through grainy photographs. According to historian Glenda Riley, Asian women entered such relationships because of parental pressure, to escape poverty, or to hide a sullied reputation. It was customary for the men to bear all costs, including the woman's passage and any wedding expenses incurred.

During the peak years of overland migration, hundreds of thousands of white women traveled west, but the majority were already married, and it was thought that "suitable" single women did not go west alone. While many cowboys eschewed marriage for perpetual bachelorhood, homesteaders believed that married men made better farmers.

From the 1830s until the turn of the twentieth century, settlers pined for "that useful and essential article of household furniture–a wife." So severe was the shortage of single white women of marriageable age in Nebraska, recounts Mari Sandoz in Old Jules (1935), her classic portrait of Plains homesteading, "a man had to marry anything that got off the train."

By 1865 it was estimated that there were as many as 30,000 single women back east, a number augmented by the Civil War widows. The plentitude of bachelors in the Plains–and hence the chance for greater social and economic freedom away from home–beckoned women. Newspapers from Nebraska to Kansas and Wyoming (a state the Ladies Home Journal in 1899 declared a heaven for spinsters and widows) began to serve as forums for matchmaking, running regular "matrimonial columns" of paid advertisements, frequently with accompanying photographs, for example: "A young lady residing in one of the small towns in Central New York is desirous of opening a correspondence with some young man in the West, with a view to a matrimonial engagement. . . . she is about 24 years of age, possesses a good moral character . . . is tolerably well-educated, and thoroughly versed in the mysteries of housekeeping"; or more commonly, "A Bachelor of 40, good appearance and substantial means, wants a wife. She must be under 30, amiable, and musical." Across the Plains there arose a cottage industry of "heart and hand" catalogs, folded double sheets and broadsides devoted entirely to the matrimonial prospects.

Letters were the only means of courtship between potential mates separated by thousands of miles. According to one bride, the Pony Express "took about four weeks to go from east to west," and letters "often came in bundles." Language was a means of persuasion. Illiterate men could dictate their letters to typists who, for a fee, would doctor their sentiments on Remington Standards. Dishonesty was a risk. Men and women could easily misrepresent their physical attributes, their station, or finances. A homesteader who sent his betrothed a train ticket might find that she had turned it in for cash. A 1911 Wahpeton Times article tells of a New York girl for whom, upon arrival in Buford, North Dakota, "the spell was immediately broken" when she saw the face of her intended.

The railroad also played an important role in the western diaspora of single women. In 1882 businessman Fred Harvey sought young rural women "of good character, attractive and intelligent" as waitresses in whistlestop cafés along the Santa Fe rail line. Harvey required that they remain single for a year, live in chaperoned dormitories, and entertain callers in "courting parlors." By the turn of the century, he had married off nearly 5,000 socalled Harvey Girls.

By the early twenty-first century, matchmaking not only in the Plains but across the globe had become technically sophisticated. More than 200 so-called mail-order bride companies are available on the Internet, providing, for a fee, pictures of, or arranged meetings with, women from impoverished third world countries. At the millennium, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated that there were 10,000 such marriages per year, although specific numbers for the Great Plains are not available. The contemporary mail-order bride business, with its roots in benign nineteenth-century customs, has been called the "trafficking" and "enslavement" of women, but no clear evidence exists that the contemporary incarnation is different from its antecedents, except that profits from a single business can exceed $500,000 per year and a greater economic, social, and linguistic divide exists between the men and the women they marry.

Julie Checkoway University of Georgia

Luchetti, Cathy. "I Do!": Courtship, Love, and Marriage on the American Frontier: A Glimpse at America's Romantic Past through Photographs, Diaries, and Journals, 1715–1915. New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1996.

Makabe, Tomoko. Picture Brides: Japanese Women in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Riley, Glenda. Building and Breaking Families in the American West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Previous: Hooker, Evelyn | Contents | Next: McClung, Nellie

XML: egp.gen.022.xml