History of the Mail Order Brides of the Old West

by Shandi Stevenson
The mail order bride system created opportunities both for men and women.

The mail order bride system created opportunities both for men and women.

The "mail order brides" of the American west were the "supply" that met two "demands". For the men of the west who far outnumbered women and wanted to create families, farms, and towns, a mail order bride could be the solution. And for young women of the eastern states who faced loneliness, poverty, and the social stigma of spinsterhood if they didn't marry, being a mail order bride could offer social and economic opportunity.

Women Were Needed in the Old West

The gold rush lured many single men to the West, creating a huge demand for wives.

The story of the famous mail order brides of the old west began when the gold rush brought men over the Rocky Mountains to new mining communities. Only a few prospectors "struck it rich", but many young men stayed in the west, mining, ranching, farming, hunting or opening businesses. As towns began to grow, these men wanted wives to create families, and to build more stable, lasting communities. In the western territories, men outnumbered women dramatically, sometimes by as many as nine to one. The obvious answer was single women from the east, willing to start new lives.

Women Searched for Opportunity

Women who moved west as mail order brides seized the opportunity to avoid poverty and loneliness, and to build a life for themselves.

Just as the gold rush created a disproportionate ratio of men to women in the west at the end of the 1800s, the Civil War and the migration of men to the west, created a disproportionate ratio of women to men in the eastern states. There were few careers open to women, and women who did not marry early faced not only the loneliness and social stigma of spinsterhood, but the prospect of poverty. Thus, the opportunity to move west, make a life and have a family was one some women were willing to sacrifice for.

Ways of Making a Connection

Many mail order brides and their frontiersman husbands found one another on their own, through ads in newspapers or church circulars. Other couples used "The Matrimonial News," a paper published in San Fransisco specifically to run personal ads for men and women seeking marriage. Some people tried, with varying degrees of success, to organize "shipments" of mail order brides. Activist Eliza Farnham tried in 1849 to bring young women westward by ship, but recruited only three. Asa Mercer famously brought two groups of young women to Seattle, as potential teachers as well as potential brides.

Many Mail-order Marriages Were Happy.

Mail order brides played a part in bringing civilization and stability to the American west.

There was always some opposition to the concept of mail-order brides.There were also occasional "horror stories" of tragedy or scams. But many mail order bride stories in the old west ended in long and seemingly happy marriages. As women arrived and men started homesteads and families, the "wild west" began to evolve from a place of saloons, brothels, and mining camps, into a landscape of towns, with homes, churches and schools.

About the Author

Shandi Stevenson is a teacher, tutor and author whose work has appeared in national and international publications including "Shibboleths," "Homeschooling Today," and "Resort Living." She holds a Bachelor of Arts in literature in English and a Master of Arts in humanities.

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