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Early Marriages | Frontier Marriages

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    Last Updated: August 17th, 2008

    The wedding on the American frontier was taken very seriously even if the paperwork was not. It isn’t always possible to find out where or when your ancestors were married and here’s why. By and large, there were invitations however they were usually only by word of mouth and any event such as this meant several days of party time frontier style. Pictures, always costly, might take place for the only time in the couples life. (the image above is a wedding photo taken in 1908, courtesy of Bill Blanton.

    Entire families, and in fact the whole community would take part in the marriage, and the preacher would likely travel in from a distance, particularly if this were a homestead, or a Midwestern area where there was minimal town or city around to see the couple married.

    In such cases, there was paperwork given and it was sent back with the preacher, but travel was also arduous and dangerous, so it may be that the paperwork did not return to where it was supposed to go in earlier days.

    Marriage services were quite simple and the minister would hear the marriage vows. Brides would most likely wear a dress given to them by the family member, mother, grandmother or aunt, while had most likely seen a great deal of use before she got it.

    In some cases the bride would simply wear a frontier style calico, or some form of every day dress, a cap, a jacket, and cotton stockings. Most brides would wear fancy shoes, or kidd slippers if they could, and it may be the only time in their entire lives that they did.

    The grooms clothing might be a handed down suit, of velvet or broadcloth, and he would, if he could afford them, wear shiny new boots, or failing that, shine his older ones.

    Neighbors would contribute foods, offering to help for several days as well as to provide some of the meal, roast beef and portk, wild turkey, cornbread, molasses or if they were very lucky real sugar. Pickles and pies, cakes of all kinds would appear along with more everyday mundane fare.

    In many cases the preacher would be an intinerant or a traveling preacher and the bride and groom would have to put him up, or their family for a day or two until the feasting was over.

    He would take the paperwork back with him and file it, but it might be the nearest city or the state capitol, so finding it will take a bit of creativity. If you seek old family bibles, and ask relatives if they have anything along these lines, most families in those days faithfully recorded all scraps of information in the family bible.

    Marriages were recorded by and large by the minister or preacher who performed them and a very fancy marriage certificate was given to the couple which may be passed down through the family. In some cases it would be recorded in the county or state, but in others it was not, and would be difficult to find a record of later.

    Some states offer you another method of finding marriages however. If your ancestor traveled to California in the pioneer times, you might be fortunate enough to find some of the information that you’re looking for on what is called a pioneer card, which California began to keep.

    Your ancestor in California was given a card, and depending on what he filled out, you could have an indispensible record that lies houses in the rare documents room in the California State Library.

    These are the areas that could be filled in on folded over Pioneer Card that they were given:

    * Full name of Pioneer

    * Place of birth

    * Date of birth

    * If married, to whom

    * Date of marriage

    * Place of marriage

    * Parents of Pioneer

    * Father

    * Mother(maiden)

    * Date of Pioneer Arrival in CA

    * Route followed

    * States before CA

    * Places of residence in CA

    * Profession/occupation

    * Public offices held

    * Politics

    * Where educated

    * Place/date of death

    * Descendants

    * Misc Notes

    * Historical events

    * Info given by

    * Relationship

    * Address of signer

    If you are seeking an ancestor who went to California, that may give you a starting place to look. Other states did not keep such good records, however some will have records of settlers as well as homesteaders and the marital status will be logged on those as well if you are lucky enough to find them.

    Common Law Marriage.

    Too often misunderstood is the idea of a common law marriage. Many of these took place and in some cases were celebrated just as much as if a preacher had been present.

    In states that viewed common law marriage favorably, and many of the pioneer states did, a man and woman came to an agreement to call themselves husband and wife and began to live together as such.

    During this time period in many areas, this was as valid as any religious service.

    The origination of the common law is not immediately clear, however it does seem to be a strictly American custom that took place for the most part on the frontier. The vast shortage of preachers or traveling preachers in most areas made it necessary to find out other methods of marrying someone most likely.

    Even as late as 1865, an Alabama law stated that “freedmen and women…living together as man and wife, shall be regarded in law as man and wife”; and their children were “declared entitled to all the rights, benefits and immunities of children of any other class.”

    In most states common law marriage was gone by about 1900, when marriage was more formally solemnized, however prior to that time period, consider the above mentioned customes and ideology when seeking marriage records or searching ancestors.

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