Go West, Young Woman! A Short History of Mail-Order Brides of the Wild West

Reimagine this text: Embark Westward, Adventurous Women! A Brief Chronicle of Mail-Order Brides in the Untamed West

What motivates a young woman to leave behind her family and familiar home, likely never to see them again in this world, and journey to the Wild West to become a mail-order bride? Why would a bachelor willingly commit to marriage with someone known only through written correspondence?

The concept of courtship through letters stands in stark contrast to today’s dating culture. While modern equivalents like online dating exist, they generally encourage in-person meetings long before the idea of marriage is broached. The thought of leaving one’s family, friends, and livelihood to unite in matrimony with a stranger from a distant land seems absurd by contemporary standards. So, what drove individuals to take such audacious risks?

It’s important to remember that this question is framed by the sensibilities of the 21st century. Were such propositions perilous when undertaken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Undoubtedly. However, the men and women of that era seemed to approach marriage with a more pragmatic outlook. Mail-order unions carried risks, but they also provided a means for both men and women to pursue their aspirations. While marriages in the past often served practical and strategic functions for larger kin groups, mail-order marriages appear to have been motivated more by individual interests.

Wives wanted sign posted on a log cabin in Apgar at the foot of Lake McDonald in Montana, 1901. From left to right: Bill Daucks, Frank Geduhn (Forest Service ranger before Glacier National Park was established), Esli Apgar (in doorway of cabin), and (Harvey) Dimon Apgar. Geduhn holds a cat, and a dog sits between Esli and Dimon Apgar. The Apgars were the sons of Milo Apgar, who began offering cabins and other services when they realized the potential for tourism in the area. Frank Geduhn (aka the cat guy) was in charge of supplies. Today, Apgar campground is the largest campground in Glacier National Park. In the end, Frank and Dimon were the only ones who got married.

During the initial settlement of the American West, it was primarily men who ventured forth. They sought fortunes in gold, established homesteads, and embraced newfound freedom, where resources abounded and vast open spaces beckoned. However, many of these solitary men soon found themselves yearning for companionship. While some may have had male friends nearby, it paled in comparison to the need for female companionship. Few brought wives or families with them, and the number of single women in the West was insufficient to meet the demand. It wasn’t long before men began devising innovative strategies to secure wives without risking their land being claimed by others during their absence.

Some men reached out to friends and family, seeking recommendations for suitable single women. Courtship took place through correspondence until the couple decided to marry, at which point the woman would journey westward for the wedding and the start of her new life. However, the more common scenario was the “mail-order bride.” Western men advertised in eastern newspapers for potential wives, describing themselves and their desired qualities in a spouse. Interested women meeting the criteria would respond, and the courtship process mirrored that of couples who met through social networks back home. Occasionally, women themselves would advertise in western newspapers, seeking husbands when they couldn’t find suitable matches locally. The courtship process for these women followed a pattern similar to responding to an advertisement.

Women who answered these ads for western husbands often did so because they couldn’t find suitable men at home or had pressing reasons to leave. Some faced strict parental control, others suffered from damaged reputations due to scandal, and some simply sought adventure and a fresh start after hardship at home. These women sought husbands in far-flung places, away from their familiar surroundings, and surprisingly, there was no shortage of women willing to respond to these mail-order bride ads. Many marriages in the Old West were forged through this unconventional method.

Others embarked on pen-pal correspondences with bachelors purely for the thrill of it. Not all anticipated the letters leading to marriage, and some were taken aback when their pen pals proposed matrimony. In a twist of fate, some began the exchange casually and found themselves committed to marriage.

Lastly, some women sought husbands via letters out of sheer loneliness, their local communities lacking suitable candidates for marriage. This was the case for Ethel Moore, a 22-year-old resident of Southport, Maine.

In most instances, these marriages proceeded smoothly, as both parties represented themselves honestly. No one wished to undertake a thousand-mile journey only to discover deceit that would make the marriage untenable. However, there were occasional tales of mail-order bride endeavors gone awry.

Two gold miners with pack burro, c.1898.

One notable example, though not the sole instance, involved 22-year-old schoolteacher Elizabeth Berry and bachelor miner Louis Dreibelbis. Louis, in his ad, portrayed himself as a lonely miner, while Elizabeth, nearing what was considered old age in the Old West’s marriage market, was concerned about remaining unmarried at 22. After a brief correspondence, Elizabeth packed her belongings and traveled to California to marry Louis. Along the way, her stagecoach was robbed, but one of the robbers allowed her to keep her luggage, including her wedding dress and other essentials. She noticed the same ragged scar on his hand as one of the robbers who signed her marriage license earlier that day.

Upon reaching Louis’s home, they proceeded to marry before a justice of the peace. However, as she exchanged vows and became man and wife, Elizabeth recognized Louis’s voice and the telltale scar on his hand. Realizing he was one of the robbers, she fled, and history remains silent on her fate. It turned out that Louis was indeed a miner, but he conveniently omitted his moonlighting activities—robbing stagecoaches with a couple of friends—in his advertisement.

If you have a mail-order bride ancestor in your lineage, delving into her history may unveil a captivating narrative explaining her decision to become one. Exploring her life after the marriage, as she ventured to build a new life with her husband, will offer a unique family story from the fascinating world of the Old West.

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