Lonely Colonist Seeks Wife: The Forgotten History of America's First Mail Order Brides

By Zug, Marcia | Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Lonely Colonist Seeks Wife: The Forgotten History of America's First Mail Order Brides


Zug, Marcia, Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy


As Catherine looks out across the water, she wonders what her life will be like when she reaches Virginia. She knows that conditions will be hard, but life in England was also hard. At least in the colony, there is the possibility of improvement. The Virginia Company has assured her and the other women that they will have their choice of marriage partners. They have promised that the men are wealthy, or at least will be wealthy with the women's help. Moreover, in Virginia, as a married woman she has the right to share in her husband's wealth. Catherine knows it is a risk, but she has been assured she can always return home if she changes her mind. Regardless, Catherine expects to stay. There is little for her back in England. She will marry a colonist and help found a nation.

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The first American mail order brides were independent, powerful and respected; they are never described as "mail order brides." The term "mail order bride" is most often reserved for women perceived as victims. (1) Colonial mail order brides, by contrast, have other names: "Jamestown brides," "King's daughters," and "Casket girls." Nonetheless, the label "mail order bride" is just as appropriate. Sources describing colonial mail order brides demonstrate that these women immigrated to America for many of the same reasons as their modern counterparts, but the colonial mail order brides received a level of respect and acceptance that typically eludes contemporary mail order brides. (2) Distancing today's mail order brides from these lauded forbearers obscures their similarities and perpetuates the one-dimensional treatment of modern mail order brides. (3) Re-examining the feminist underpinnings of the first mail order brides calls into question the widespread perception of modern mail order brides as simply unwitting victims.

Colonial mail order brides were considered heroes. Marriage has long been touted as a civic virtue, (4) but in the early American colonies, marriage was particularly important. The entire colonial endeavor hinged on marriage. (5) Without marriage there could be no stable family units, no children and no future. The colonies needed women to come to America to marry, and to remain as wives and mothers. The problem, however, was that most women found the idea of immigrating to the struggling colonies unattractive. (6) Mail order brides were the solution. These women came to the colonies when other women would not. The colonial mail order brides made marriage possible and helped ensure the survival and success of the colony.

I. THE JAMESTOWN WOMEN

The first American mail order marriages occurred shortly after Britain and France established their colonial settlements in the early 1600s. (7) Both countries actively encouraged immigration to America but soon realized that immigration alone could not achieve the population increase needed for colonial expansion and success. Few families immigrated to the Southern colonies of the United States or the colonies of New France. (8) Unlike the northern settlements of the United States, which were populated by family groups (9) fleeing religious persecution, (10) the southern and French colonies were established by individual speculators and fortune hunters. (11) Colonists in the southern and French settlements sought to profit from America's abundant land and natural resources, but they did not bring families and they did not intend to stay. (12) Consequently, because few families immigrated to the American South and New France, those colonies' populations were almost exclusively male and transient. (13) To solve this gender imbalance and entice the male colonists to remain, the colonial governments actively sought to increase the number of marriageable women in the colony. (14) On at least three separate occasions, single European women were recruited to immigrate to the colonies and marry the surplus bachelors. (15)

The first request for brides was made by the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. …

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