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Love, Love Me Do: Finding a Mate Out West

by Lisa Harrington

“A girl who will love,
honest, true and not sour;
a nice little cooing dove,
and willing to work in flour.”

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Unidentified mail-order bride, from Matrimonial News, in 1891. Courtesy of Searls Historical Library.

From the 1870s through the turn of the century, matrimonial catalogs and periodicals flourished in America, full of ads that brought hundreds of lonely hearts together on the new frontier. Single women from the East, including Civil War widows, and eligible men living out West placed or responded to notices in Matrimonial News, a weekly paper printed in San Francisco and Kansas City. In Object Matrimony: The Risky Business of Mail-Order Matchmaking on the Western Frontier, author Chris Enss reports: “A code of rules and regulations, posted in each edition of the paper, was strictly enforced. All advertisements must give personal appearance, height, weight, financial and social position in life, and a general description of the kind of persons the writer desired to correspond with.”

“I am a widow 33 years of age, weight 145 pounds, of good form, walk erect, blue eyes and black hair: am self-sustaining and independent. I would be pleased to correspond with a gentleman of suitable age who would like a companion and who means business.”

To protect advertisers’ identities, the personals were numbered rather than signed, and responses were to be mailed to the paper for forwarding. Further correspondence usually included an exchange of photos.

“I am 33 years of age, and as regards looks can average with most men. I am looking for a lady to make her my wife, as I am heartily tired of bachelor life. I desire a lady not over 28 or 30 years of age, not ugly, well educated and musical. Nationality makes no difference; only I prefer not to have a lady of Irish birth. She must have at least $20,000.”

In their ads, women offered housekeeping, cooking, and companionship. Sometimes they offered a dowry, but many could not.

“Young lady of good family and education would like to correspond with some gentleman of means, one who would be willing to take her without a dollar, as she has nothing to offer but herself.”

Apron Full of Gold

The Gold Rush was first to draw mail-order brides to California, persuading women to take a leap of faith hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles from home. Women from the states, and also from Ireland, Russia, France, and around the world came for a better life. Most unattached women sailed to San Francisco, although some ships refused to take a woman traveling alone. Others managed to come by stagecoach or wagon train, crossing the plains, deserts, and mountains to get here. They typically traveled lightly, packing only an extra dress or two, a collection of lace collars and cuffs for church and special occasions, nightgown, family Bible, photographs and books.

While the majority decided to go no farther than San Francisco, some headed for Sacramento and the gold fields. There, they would have their pick of men, perhaps jilting the suitor who had paid for their passage. Women who chose to stay in the Gold Country and marry may have settled for living in a tent along a creek where they would mine for gold alongside their husbands. There are tales of miners who would sprinkle gold dust on the riverbank, where a visiting woman might find it, encouraging her return.

In 1850, women made up 8 percent of California’s population. By 1860, their numbers had increased to 30 percent, with only 2 percent in the mining counties. In The World Rushed In, author J.S. Holliday recalls the story of a young miner who was heard to exclaim, “Got nearer to a female this evening than I have been for six months. Came near fainting.”

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Wedding portrait by Moore Photography, Nevada City. Courtesy of Doris Foley Library for Historical Research.

Diaries and letters of women from gold and silver mining towns are vivid in describing remote, lawless places. New brides to the region not only had to contend with homesickness, but also with mountain storms, isolation, rattlesnakes, bears, and other wild critters, as well as livestock that didn’t always differentiate between indoors and outdoors. There were fleas, there were rats, there were hogs in the kitchen--and so much cleaning up after men who’d been living on their own for some time. More industrious women, however, could make small fortunes running boarding houses, selling baked goods, and washing clothes and sewing—all for top dollar. Biscuits for $5 apiece, a load of laundry for $30.

Given time, pioneer women found the means to establish schools and churches, first steps in building a more civilized society. Mary Jane Megquier, Dame Shirley, and Mary Ballou, who came to the Mother Lode with husbands, are considered among the best chroniclers of life in the mining camps. The adventurous Megquier left her children with relatives back East in order to accompany her husband West. In letters home, she described her journey in detail and promised to return with “an apron full of gold.” French women gave their Yankee peers something to write about when they were seen mining for gold in the creeks, dressed in pants and boots like men.

Runaway Bride

In 1873, Eleanor Berry, a schoolmistress from Gilroy, corresponded for three months with Louis Dreibelbis, whose advertisement in San Francisco Magazine caught her eye: “Lonesome miner wants wife to share stake and prospects.”

Eleanor’s work with children, Dreibelbis opined, would make her a fine mother, and he quickly proposed marriage. Eleanor accepted and boarded a train to Colfax, and from there took a stagecoach to meet and marry in Grass Valley. The stagecoach also was carrying a safe filled with $7,000 in gold to be delivered to a Grass Valley bank. Just short of town, four masked men on horseback approached to rob them at gunpoint.

After surrendering the safe and other valuables, the coach proceeded to Grass Valley, where a shaken Eleanor got ready for her wedding ceremony. At last when she stood before her groom, she thought how familiar his voice seemed. But it was the sight of his hand that made her suddenly flee from the room, as it bore the same scar as one of the robbers. Indeed, it was true. Louis confessed and was arrested at once.

Come Sail With Me

In mining towns, such as Nevada City, some men seemed less than pleased with the arrival of virtuous women and formed clubs for bachelors, secret societies whose principal object was the suppression of the female sex. No bachelor club could ever suppress the stern, bespectacled Eliza Farnham, a reformer who firmly believed that women of virtue should tame California. In February 1949, she advertised a matrimonial voyage of sorts from New York:

“It is proposed that the company shall consist of persons not under twenty-five years of age, who shall bring from their clergyman, or some authority of the town where they reside, satisfactory testimonials of education, character… and who can contribute the sum of two hundred and fifty dollars….”

Widowed the year before when her husband Thomas fell ill and died in San Francisco, Farnham was sailing back to settle his affairs. She had already been in the city to arrange his funeral and found it “a wild depraved scene—the reckless abandon of a city raging with Gold Rush fever.” Her mission to bring 200 eligible women of fine character to San Francisco was praised by Horace Greeley, who wrote:

“The enterprise in which Mrs. Farnham has engaged… evinces much moral courage. Her reward will be found in the blessings, which her countrymen will invoke for her when the vessel… shall have arrived… with her precious cargo.”

Unfortunately, plans to solicit a boatload of fine women fell flat. When the packet ship Angelique docked in San Francisco, only three women disembarked with Mrs. Farnham. Reported one miner whose hopes were dashed, that night there was more drunkenness, gambling, and brawling than had ever been seen in the city.

Books on Women in the West

Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco 1849-1856, Second Edition edited by Polly Welts Kaufman

Comstock Women, The Making of a Mining Community edited by Donald M. James & C. Elizabeth Raymond

Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier and Object: Matrimony by Chris Enss

I Hear the Hogs in My Kitchen: A Woman’s View of the Gold Rush, by Mary B. Ballou

They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush by Jo Ann Levy

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