Coming to America: The History of Mail-Order Brides

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


| February 2017



Mail Order Bride

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

Photo by Fotolia/shchus

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.”