Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Falling In and Out of Love in the Wild West: Courting, Marriage and Divorce

by | February 7, 2012 | 10 comments

 Being we are close to Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d do a post on falling in love western style.

 Despite Victorian mores, marriage and courting in the Wild West was a good deal less formal than the overarching norms of the period. This had much to do with the scarcity of women in the West, at least in the early period before the Civil War. After the Civil War, the female population increased somewhat as more adventurous women rode west, mainly in search of men to marry since the War Between the States had decimated the population of young men in the East and Southeast.  Of course, women still made up a smaller part of the western population even in 1890 with the West reporting 41% of its population as female while in the total United States females made up 49% of the population.

 Surprisingly, the marriage age was later for women in the West, perhaps because they could be choosier about whom they married and had a few more career options that allowed for independence, such as teaching and running boarding houses and stores, than their eastern sisters. The 1890 census reported 35% of men and 36% of females as married in the total United States while the Western Region reported only 30% of the male population married and 39% of western females as married.

 Out West, with a fair distance between ranches and towns, courting was difficult and letter writing essential. Barn dances were popular, if infrequent, and usually meant an overnight stay because of the distance traveled. Church with Sunday services and afternoon socials was also a venue for couples to meet and court. Parlor games were popular in the Victorian era, with many of them involving a blindfold such as Blind-Man’s Bluff, Cat and Mouse, and The Bellman allowing for much touching among the parties, all in the name of the game, of course.

 We have all heard about the Mail-Order Brides that help populate the West and many western historical authors have used the notion in a marriage of convenience story. Newspapers such as Matrimonial Law and various agencies sprung up to help Western men find willing Eastern brides much like internet sites today facilitate match ups.

 Perhaps the most famous matchmaker was Asa Mercer, a Washington Territory pioneer who went to Boston with the hope of finding women for the male population back in Seattle, Washington more in the name of public service than private profit. But he returned with just ten women, all but two of whom married quickly. The next year he tried on a grander scale, hoping to bring back 500. But bad publicity charging he was taking women out to be wives of old men trimmed the women to a group of a 100 hardy souls. After many trials and tribulations, they arrived in Seattle. The waiting men were disappointed in the number since they had each paid $300 for a wife. But they forgave Asa and he ended up marrying one of the women from that trip.

 As part of the wedding celebration, chivaree parties were a common practice, that is, friends and neighbors making a racket under the bedroom of the newly wedded couple.  Sometimes these revelers would bang on the door and “kidnap” the groom for the evening. Why this was considered “good fun” escapes me but then entertainment was pretty thin in the Old West.

 Not all romances blossomed into a happily ever after. In the nineteenth century, a breach of promise suit was a very real, if judiciously used, legal remedy for either man or woman left in the lurch. Great thought went into the filing of a breach of promise suit since it rarely helped either party’s reputation. Perhaps that is why the sums sought to mend a broken heart were substantial for the time.

 Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspapers often carried notice of breach of promise suits:

 “The daughter of a well-known commission merchant of Chicago has initiated a suit against a prominent physician for breach of marriage—damages $25,000. Another young lady in Chardon, Wis. has just received a healing plaster for her broken heart in the shape of a verdict of $10,000 damages against the gay deceiver. –January 9, 1864, 243-3. “

 In the United States, breach of promise suits were curtailed and laws repealed starting in 1935 providing much more freedom in the dallying department.

 And then there was the ultimate bad romantic ending, divorce. Despite Victorian attitudes against divorce and perhaps because of the imbalance of men to women out West, marriages could be and were dissolved by western women, especially in instances of abuse. According to The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West, “as a result of liberal attitudes there were far more divorces in the West than in other regions of the country during the period 1870 to 1900.” The 1890 census reports .19% of the U.S. population identified themselves as divorced but in the Western Region, .38% described themselves as divorced. While certainly not a popular choice, the West did have more divorces proportionally.

 But there were still lots of opportunity for romance in the West when 66% of the men and 54% of the women reported they were single. Viva la romance.

 Anyone know of any other Victorian parlor games that courting couples engaged in back in the day? Anyone have someone impose on their wedding night ala chivaree?

 Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Re-ride at the Rodeo, at The Wild Rose Press.


  1. Kirsten

    Fun post, Anne, with lots of great information!

    When my parents married in the 1960s in a small Wyoming church the congregates still practiced the tradition of “stealing the bride” then the groom would have to find her. But they outsmarted the would be kidnappers and my aunt helped them sneak out the back door early where she had her car waiting. They were long gone before anyone could say chivaree. :o)

    • Anne Carrole

      Kirsten, what fun to know that not so long ago this was still going on! I think I would have been tempted to shoot someone if they tried to steal me away from my hubby on our wedding night. 🙂 Just saying… Kudos to your Aunt for outsmarting them!

  2. Paty Jager

    Great post, Anne! Lots of fun information. I’ve never been involved in a chivaree and no little about parlor games other than what I’ve read in books.

    • Anne Carrole

      Me neither Paty. I’m glad I was never involved with the Chivaree but some of the parlor games I’ve read about sounded like fun. 🙂

  3. Terry Irene Blain

    The west was a great place to start over – if you weren’t a virgin then when you went weat you could claim to be diviorced or a widow and no one would be the wiser. and, of course it you really were divorce or widowed, it was still a great place to start over.

    • Anne Carrole

      I think that was the lure of the West–a fresh start. Unfortunately, there few places to go for a fresh start these days. And with the internet, everyone will know your business so there is no place to hide–makes life that much tougher.

  4. Nancy

    I had never heard the story about Asa Mercer and the brides for Seattle. The fact the men forgave him his transgressions is a story in itself 🙂 I read about a chivaree in Montana where the couple was expected to invite everyone in, feed them and offer them something to drink, and finally the crowd left. I wondered if the couple ever offered terrible food just to make the crowd leave quickly.

    Fun post, Anne.

    Nancy C

    • Anne Carrole

      Hi Nancy–Hah–terrible food–now wouldn’t that be sweet revenge!

  5. Tanya Hanson

    Hi Anne! Terrific post. I remember way back when a TV show set in Seattle with a bunch of brought-in brides. I love the mail order bride concept…but only in books when we know the ending IS happy. I wonder how many of such matches were happy.

    • Anne Carrole

      Hi Tanya–thanks for stopping by. :)I’m pretty sure that show was loosely based on Asa Mercer’s plans and was called something like Here Comes the Brides. I remember that being referenced in something I was reading about him. One of the articles said that MANY Seattle families can trace their ancestors back to these mail order brides so I guess there were quite a few that made it. A book that goes into mail order brides and what happened is Heart’s West if you are interested.



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