What Was America's First Marriage Tradition?

With the topic of same-sex marriage in the news on a daily basis and many Americans on the fence about whether it should be legalized or outlawed, more than ever before Americans are trying to define the term "traditional marriage." Like any historian, the first place I go to for an answer is the past, and what I found actually contradicts both proponents and critics of the notion of "traditional marriage." In fact, the only people who practice America's first marriage tradition are often the butts of jokes today.

America's earliest marriage tradition was not about marrying for love, being part of an arranged marriage, or even marrying for religious reasons; the first marriage tradition practiced in America was "mail-order brides." We all know the story: When the English came to America and created the colony of Virginia in 1607, like most men, they forgot to bring some very useful and necessary supplies to assist a young colony. They didn't bring enough food to sustain a long visit, and within a few years nearly half the colonists died. This is when the brave men who took the risk to journey to the "New World" noticed something else they'd forgotten to bring that they desperately needed to flourish: women.

They forgot to bring a large number of women, one of the most important ingredients needed to populate and repopulate a colony that was quickly losing its remaining population due to disease and starvation. A few women did accompany them on their maiden voyage, but there weren't nearly enough to successfully repopulate a colony. So, like any man who desperately needs a wife, the colonists wrote a desperate letter asking King James to send them "maids" to come to America, and bow-chick-a-wow-wow...

Not wanting to lose his investment, King James rounded as many maids, widows, and desperate and dateless women he could to volunteer to travel to America and marry men they'd never met. I have to believe that these were probably not the most "desirable" women; otherwise, why would they leave England and accept the ultimate blind date that there was no turning back from?

This is without question the first example of "mail-order brides" in American history, and at the same time it is one of America's first marriage traditions. So the next time friends tell you they met their husbands or wives online and you want to make a comment, just remember that is closer to America's earliest marriage tradition than marrying someone for love.


Ransome, David R., ed., The Ferrar Papers 1590-1790. http://www.microform.co.uk/guides/R97513.pdf