Wild Women Of The West: Mail Order Brides


“Middle-aged bachelor sought.  Prosperous 130-pound rancher with full head of hair, keen eyes, and no false teeth desires life companion.  The lady enjoys indoor and outdoor activities and holds deeds to property valued at $10,000.  Dudes need not apply.”

This no-nonsense cowgirl personal ad placed by Miss Ellen Callahan in 1887 edition of Hoof and Horn issued a call for one good man.  Other women would follow Miss Callahan’s example.  Mail order advertisements had been around for more than twenty years before Ellen post her notice.  

When gold was discovered in the far west during the 18th century, a billowing mass of humanity swept toward the setting sun with the swiftness of a tidal wave.  Prospectors, businessmen, cowboys, and explorers came seeking a better way of life and the hope of amassing a fortune.  No matter what riches were to be had or the endless territories yet to be conquered, unattached settlers who made the journey longed for a companion to share the new land.  Due to the rigors of the frontier the males were in the vast majority. The few women that did migrate to points beyond the Mississippi were laundresses, cooks, or adventurers with no desire to wed, pioneers with children, or soiled doves.  

The need for marriageable women in the west immediately following the Gold Rush was great.  According to the October 6, 1859 edition of the Daily Alta California newspaper, it was estimated that there were 200 men to every woman.  At the close of the Civil War the need for men in the East was as pronounced. Capitalizing on that need on both sides of the country were mail order bride publications.  Women and men in search of a spouse placed advertisements and corresponded with individuals they hoped would agree to marry them.  The couples could exchange as few as three letters before accepting a proposal.  Others choose to write one another for several years before committing their lives to the interested party.  Prior to 1865, the cost to mail a letter more than four-hundred and fifty miles was $.22 from where the correspondence originated.  Many of the mail order brides were at least that far away.  

Women en route to the place where their future husbands were located carried the few personal belongings they owned in a trunk or satchel.  An additional dress, bed clothes, lace collars and cuffs, (used to wear over an old dress for a Sunday church service), a family Bible, photographs, and a book or two were all they usually brought with them.  

Brides who consented to move west to wed endure a difficult journey whether traveling by stage, with a wagon train or by steamship.  The desire to be a wife and have children was so overwhelming women happily agreed to make the strenuous one-hundred-twenty-nine-day trip from Independence to San Francisco.  Wagon trains and stagecoaches were hot and crowded and the vehicles easily overturned.  Sea travel wasn’t any more comfortable and could be dangerous as well.  Mail order brides boarding steamships on the East Coast ventured up the Pacific for a trip that lasted more than three months.  Between 1852 and 1867, one hundred and sixty steamships burned, two hundred and nine blew up, and more than five hundred and seventy vehicles hit an obstruction in the water and sank.    

The popularity of two mail order bride catalogues, Matrimonial News and the New Plan, sparked entrepreneurs to tap into the market and create their own publications.  All were devoted to the proposition that every man should have a mate.  Traditionalists criticized the patrons that employed the unconventional method of selecting a spouse.  Prospective brides and grooms defended their decision to court via mail with a quote all the matrimonial newspapers and magazines carried.  “Correspondence between intelligent young ladies or gentlemen cannot fail to sharpen the wits and brighten the intellect and is an excellent discipline for the mind.  It is an educator in many ways, and the practice of friendly letter writing should be encouraged.”

More than one hundred and sixty years after the first mail order bride was sent for, the method of choosing a life partner is still being used. 

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