Coming to America: The History of Mail-Order Brides

Mail-order brides have deep roots in American history, dating back to the colonial period.

Mail Order Bride

Being a mail-order bride offers women surprising and empowering opportunities for a better life.

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Modern mail-order brides are often stereotyped as young foreign women desperate to escape their homeland, but there was a time when mail-order brides were seen as strong pioneer women. There have been mail-order brides in America as long as there have been Europeans in America but the course of time has changed the perceptions of these women. In Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches (NYU Press, 2016) author Marcia A. Zug traces the history of mail-order brides in America from colonial times to the present.

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"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 advancement. 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 with the women’s help, and that the women will have a share of this 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."

The above thoughts illustrate what I believe one of the first mail-order brides might have felt as she traveled thousands of miles from England to settle in the Virginia colony. There is no actual record of the hopes and fears of these young women. Nevertheless, we do know that their arrival in 1619 was eagerly anticipated and desired.

Marriage was vital to the success of the colony. Wives were needed to create stable family units, produce and care for children, and cement America’s racial and cultural hierarchy. However, the difficulty was that few European  women were interested  in immigrating. In fact, female immigration to the colonies was so rare that when a group of forty women from La Fleche, France, began boarding a ship for Canada in 1659, the townspeople tried to prevent their departure because they were convinced the women were being kidnapped. Mail-order marriage helped resolve this problem. These women immigrated when others would not, and consequently, their presence was considered critically important.

The risks the early settlers faced were substantial. Most potential colonists had heard frightening accounts of disease and famine, and many of these stories seemed to indicate that women were particularly vulnerable. One horrific tale from Virginia involved a colonist who “slue his wife as she slept in his bosome, cut her in pieces, powedered her & fedd upon her till he had clean devoured all her parts saveinge her heade.” In the northern colonies, settlers such as the Puritans and the Quakers accepted these risks as the price of religious freedom, and as a result, these areas had little difficulty attracting large numbers of family groups. In contrast, the southern colonies, which lacked this religious draw, had a much harder time finding families willing to accept the dangers and hardships of colonial life. A handful of women came to the colonies shortly after the first male settlers arrived, but their numbers were small, and even fewer came with their children. Moreover, some families, like that of Sir Thomas Gates, sent their daughters back to England if their wives died. As early as 1609, a broadside (poster) produced by the Virginia Company of London demonstrated that the colony’s governing body recognized the need to recruit women. The broadside was directed at family groups and specifically emphasized that both men and women were needed for “the better strengthening of the colony.” Nevertheless, despite such appeals, few families immigrated to the southern colonies. Instead, the majority of southern colonists were single men, primarily individual speculators and fortune hunters, who came to profit from America’s abundant land and natural resources and then return home. As colonial historian Julia Cherry Spruill has noted, these “men were not interested in building permanent homes in Virginia or in cultivating lands to be enjoyed by future generations.” They simply “planned to make their fortunes and then return to England.”

The transient nature of the southern population was problematic, and it quickly became clear that the lack of women was threatening the future of the fledgling colony. In 1614, the Virginia Company’s lawyer, Richard Martin, spoke before the House of Lords and highlighted the threat posed by the colony’s gender disparity. He informed the members, a significant number of whom had shares in the com- pany,that Virginia desperately needed “honest laborers, with wives and children.” He then recommended the appointment of a committee to consider ways to increase family immigration. Other members of the Virginia Company shared Martin’s immigration concerns. However, class politics ultimately prevented consideration of his proposal. Martin was only a lawyer and not a lord, so his requests, which went beyond legal advice, were considered presumptuous.  One contemporary described his speech as “the most unfitting that was ever spoken in the house.” Consequently, not only were Martin’s appeals ignored, they resulted in punishment. The day after appearing before the House of Lords, Martin was arraigned for contempt. He was brought before Sir Randall Crew, the Speaker of the House, forced to kneel, and given following admonishment:

"The case was this a petition relative to the Virginia Company had been presented, and an order for the Council to appear, that he as their Attorney had represented himself with diverse Lords. That the House at first was disposed to listen to him with all due respect and love; that the retrospect of the Virginia Plantation was acceptable, for it had been viewed with the eyes of love. But afterwards, he has impertinently digressed, for it was not his place to censure and advise. The House had therefore brought him before them, and although many were his acquaintances, yet all now looked upon him with the eyes of judges, and not as private friends."

After Martin’s censure, the issue of family immigration was dropped, but the lack of women remained a significant problem. Finally, in 1619, the Virginia Company’s treasurer, Sir Edwin Sandys, who now controlled the company, decided to address the issue. He warned his fellow shareholders that if immediate action was not taken, the colony’s gender imbalance would soon “breed a dissolucon, and so an overthrow of the Plantation.” Sandys recommended sponsoring the immigration of single women because he believed their presence would “make the men more setled [and] lesse moveable” and decrease the number of men who, because of the dearth of women, “stay [in the colony] but to gett something and then return for England.” This time, the recommendation to address the colony’s female immigration problem was met with approval. After hearing Sandys’s suggestion, Lord Francis Bacon, a founding member of the company, immediately expressed his public support declaring it “time to plant with women as well as with men; that the plantation may spread into generations, and not ever pieced from without.” Shortly after Sandys’s request, the company began recruiting single women to marry the Jamestown colonists.

In the spring of 1620, ninety mail-order brides arrived in Jamestown. Their arrival was considered a success, and the next year Sandys requested funds to transport an additional one hundred women. By this time, the company was in financial difficulties and no longer had the necessary money. However, because Sandys insisted that more women were absolutely essential, the company agreed to raise the money by subscription. Due to these efforts, another fifty brides were sent to Jamestown. Altogether, the Virginia Company sponsored the immigration of 140 mail-order brides. The arrival of these women was intended to reduce the number of male colonists returning to England, but this was not the only reason female immigration was considered necessary. Despite the femaleless wasteland described by Sandys, the colony did not actually lack women. America was filled with indigenous women, and relationships between the male colonists and native women occurred almost immediately.

As early as 1608, after disease and starvation wiped out nearly a third of the original Jamestown colonists, a large number of the male survivors began taking Indian wives. By 1612, the Spanish ambassador to England reported that “between 40 to 50 Englishman   . . . had married Indian women.” He also informed the company that nearly all of these men had abandoned the colony for their wives’ villages. Only two years earlier, the entire population of Jamestown consisted of sixty colonists. Consequently, the number of desertions described by the ambassador was shocking. Just as concerning was the fact that these desertions seemed unstoppable. Virginia Governor Dale had already decreed that deserters were “to be hanged, some burned, some to be broke upon wheels, others to be staked and some to be shot to death.” This law had little effect, and colonial men continued to leave the colony.

Desertions contributed to the already declining population, while also undermining the moral justification for the entire colonial endeavor. Virginia settlers had rationalized colonization by highlighting the supposed differences between themselves and the country’s native inhabitants. Captain John Smith’s 1607 report on the native population of Virginia epitomized this trend, characterizing the local Indians as cruel, irrational, vengeful, treacherous, and barbaric. He also accused these tribes of Satanism. He described the Virginia Indians as devil worshippers who prayed to idols shaped “with such deformity as may well suit with such a god” and claimed they practiced child sacrifice. Such accusations seemed to confirm the English colonizers’ belief in their moral and religious superiority. However, intermarriage threatened these distinctions.

Britain’s recent colonizing venture in Ireland had demonstrated that settlers were extremely likely to adopt the customs and manners of native inhabitants with whom they intermixed. One typical report from the Irish colony bewailed the number of Englishmen who “in small time have grown wild in Ireland, and become in language and qualities Irish.” This report also noted the paucity of Irishmen who “do in exchange become civilized and English.” Virginia’s colonial leaders worried that marriage to Indian women would lead to similar results. Specifically, they feared that intermarriage would cause European men to abandon their “civility” and become indistinguishable from the “heathen savages.” This fear was then further exacerbated by the perceived sexual availability of Indian women. In John Smith’s 1612 account of life in the early Virginia colony, he wrote about his visit to one of Powhatan’s (Pocahontas’s father) villages and noted that in any of these villages, an Englishman could expect “a woman freshly painted red with pocones and oil to be his bed fellow.” Smith also detailed his own experience. He claimed to have been greeted by “30 young women [who] came naked out of the woods (only covered behind and before with a few greene leaves), their bodies all painted, some white, some red, some black, some partie colour, but every one different.” He then described being invited back to their lodging where they “more tormented him than ever, with crowding, and pressing, and hanging upon him, most tediously crying, love you not mee?” Similar, although less colorful, accounts were provided by colonist and company secretary William Strachey, who declared that the local women were “‘most voluptious’ and eager to ‘embrace the acquaintance of any Straunger.’”

In order to prevent desertions to the native villages and lessen the attractions of native women, colonial leaders described white/Indian relationships as religiously prohibited. In his 1609 sermon, the colonial Reverend William Symonds railed against the dangers of miscegenation. Symonds cited the biblical injunction that “God’s people in Canaan ‘keepe to themselves,’” and “not marry nor give in marriage to the heathen, that are uncircumcized,” and he warned that the “breaking of this rule” jeopardized one’s chance for eternal salvation and risked “all good succese of this voyage.” Symonds’s religious admonishment did little to stem the flow of desertions, and even within the colony, some determined men found ways around this prohibition. The most famous intermarried colonist was John Rolfe. In his letter to Governor Dale seeking permission to marry Pocahontas, Rolfe acknowledged “the heavie displeasure which almightie God conceived against the sonnes of Levie and Israel for marrying strange wives.” Nevertheless, he argued that this concern was inapplicable to his own relationship, because Pocahontas was converting to Christianity and, thus, their marriage would actually be furthering God’s work and assisting with Rolfe’s “owne salvation.” Rolfe’s arguments were persuasive and earned Dale’s endorsement of the marriage.

By 1619, it had become clear that neither religious prohibitions nor capital punishment was a sufficient deterrent against intermarriage. The company, therefore, concluded that the best way to reduce desertions and ensure the colony remained racially and ethnically distinct was to provide colonial men with a viable marriage alternative to native women. Understandably, the women recruited to fulfill this important task were chosen with care. They were not prostitutes, criminals, or beggars. In fact, out of the thirty-eight women whose social status is known, eight had links to the gentry. According to the company records, four of the women were the daughters of gentlefolk; two others had uncles and one cousin (once removed) who were knights; and the eighth was described as the daughter  of Mr. Gervase Markham, “of the Nottinghamshire gentry.” In addition, the company insisted that all the women “had been received . . .  upon good recommendation.”


Reprinted with permission from Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches by Marica A. Zug and published by NYU Press, 2016.