A History of Mail-Order Brides
The first European arrivals in North America were predominantly men. Without females, the colonies became precarious. They needed women of child-bearing age to sustain the population base. Schemes were set up to attract women to take up lives with men they had never met. They were the first mail-order brides.
More recently, websites have proliferated with images of beautiful young women from Eastern Europe and elsewhere allegedly looking for husbands in wealthier parts of the world.
The First Mail-Order Brides
The Jamestown Colony of Virginia almost collapsed. Marcia Zug writes (The Atlantic, August 2016) that “barely a decade after its founding in 1607, Jamestown was almost entirely male, and because these men were unable to find wives, they were deserting the colony in droves.”
The colony’s leaders came up with the notion of advertising in Britain for women willing to settle in the New World. They were looking for “young, handsome, and honestly educated maids;” they had to be devoutly Christian of course.
In the new colony there was land and the prospect of prosperity; in England, all the land was taken and poverty stalked the underclass. For some women, the notion of a life of drudgery in service to the genteel classes was a sufficient push to encourage them to take up the challenge. Others were motivated by a sense of adventure. For the men, there was the promise of someone to run their household and look after their creature comforts.
Between 1619 and 1621 almost 150 women answered the call.
The King’s Daughters
In the colony of New France to the north, administrators were facing the same problem; lots of men getting a bit unruly. The civilizing presence of women was needed.
King Louis XIV put himself charge of the program of recruitment. Many of the young women were orphans and very poor, so the king gave each a dowry and new clothes. He covered the cost of travel to ports of embarkation and the voyage to New France. They became known as les filles du roi, the king’s daughters.
When they arrived in the colony, they were given free board and lodging until they married. In most cases, they didn’t have to wait long before finding a husband.
Between 1663 and 1673, some 800 marriageable women crossed the Atlantic Ocean to become the wives of farmers and other settlers.
Opening the West
By the 1800s, settlers were ploughing up the Prairies and building shelters (it would be a stretch to call them houses) out of sod. Some of these frontier people were already family units but most were single men. Again, a shortage of females developed.
By now, there was a real mail system and lonely bachelors wrote letters to churches back East looking for wives. Some placed personal ads in newspapers. Women who responded began a courtship by letter post until, eventually, the question was popped.
No doubt, both sides in the affair strayed from the truth a little, just as on-line dating couples apparently do today. Probably, many of the women were shocked at the primitive living conditions on a Prairie farm. Likewise, many a farmer was disappointed to discover the plain Jane who stepped off the train at Sawtooth Junction was not the raven-haired beauty of his imagination.
“We want an emigration of respectable females to California: of rosy-cheeked ‘down east’ Yankee girls—of stout ‘hoosier’ and ‘badger’ lasses, who shall be wives to our farmers and mechanics, and mothers to a generation of ‘Yankee Californians.’ ”
California paper pleaded in 1851, quoted by Chris Enss in his book Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier.
This being America, it took no time at all for entrepreneurs to grasp the idea that there was money to be made in kicking pebbles off the path to true love. The mail-order bride business was born and it flourishes today.
The Internet Brides
If today’s mail-order bride trade looks a bit tawdry that’s because it is a bit tawdry. The first hit in a Google search for “Russian brides” delivers AmorTRUE.com.
The opening page has images of seven young women who look like supermodels. Anna, 26, of St. Petersburg is tumbling out of a flimsy bra and is wearing little else but a garter belt. She doesn’t look like someone who’s going to help with slopping out the pigs on a Saturday morning. Well, she just doesn’t.
Ivanka, 23, from Kiev looks similarly unsuitable for a life on the farm. She’d have to trade the baby-doll nightie that’s a little short on fabric for overalls and a pair of Wellies. The kittenish pose on the duvet just doesn’t say “I’m eager to go milk the cows.”
Probably, there are some legitimate agencies that are trying to enable long-term relationships to happen, but it’s hard to find them in the dense thicket of businesses openly selling sex rather than soul mates.
(Spare a thought for the writer who is now going to be bombarded with ads from sleazy dating sites just because, in the spirit of good journalism, he did some research on your behalf).
The 2017 British TV drama Jamestown makes the case that some of the first women to arrive in the colony were anything but saintly and submissive. Some married several times, amassing considerable wealth and power as each husband died off. Others exploited their value as a rare commodity in a world where men outnumbered women six to one.
Chris Enss in his book Hearts West: True Stories of Mail Order Brides on the Frontier quotes an advertisement in a California newspaper: “A winsome miss of 22; very beautiful, jolly and entertaining; fond of home and children; from a good family; American; Christian; blue eyes; golden hair; fair complexion; pleasant disposition; play piano. Will inherit $10,000. Also, have means of $1,000. None but men of good education need to write from 20 to 30 years of age.” History does not record how many men were injured in the stampede.
It seems most of the mail-order relationships lasted but there were some disasters. Elizabeth Berry was 22 and thought she was headed for lonely spinsterhood when she saw an ad placed by Louis Dreibelbis. A short correspondence ensued and Elizabeth took off to be with her “lonely miner” in California. On the way, the stagecoach was robbed and one of the gang had an angry scar on his hand. She was allowed to keep her luggage, which contained her wedding dress and continued on to find her groom. Later, Elizabeth and Louis were joined in holy matrimony by a justice of the peace. As the registry was being signed, Elizabeth saw that same angry scare again on the hand of her new-found husband. Elizabeth hightailed it out of there.
- “The Real Wives of Jamestown.” Misha Ewen, History Today, May 10, 2017.
- “Filles du Roi.” Tom Wien and Suzanne Gousse, Canadian Encyclopedia, December 6, 2011.
- “Mail Order Brides: A History of Love in the Wild West.” Ancestryfindings.com, undated.
- “Mail-Order Brides.” Jana Bommersbach, True West Magazine, May 3, 2006.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor