Colonial Love & Marriage

“Scarcity breeds demand and women were scarce in early America. No women accompanied the settlers who established Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. And when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, only 28 women numbered among the 100 or so passengers on the Mayflower.” 

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Between 1620 and 1622, about 150 “pure and spotless” women arrived in Virginia and were auctioned for about 80 pounds of tobacco to future husbands. But, by 1625, men still comprised three-quarters of Virginia’s white population, and, by mid-century, the situation had worsened. Eligible ladies obviously remained hard to come by. On the other hand, the free women of 17th-century America found their position enviable. Regardless of looks, wit, or wealth, they had no trouble finding husbands. Many other women came as indentured servants, especially to the Southern colonies. But even they quickly fared well, often marrying the men who bought their contracts. Later, the Southern colonies attracted men with wives and children by basing the size of family land grants on the number of household members.

Marriage and the customs surrounding it took various forms in early America. Many of our ancestors followed old English practices—negotiating a dowry, announcing a betrothal, and holding a ceremony. While the English were the largest ethnic group in early America, other groups exerted influence in some locales—among them, the Dutch, in New York and New Jersey; the Swedes, along the Delaware; and the Germans, in Pennsylvania.

The Dutch and Germans performed the wedding ceremony in their native languages, employing customs from their homelands. The Quakers held weddings in their meetinghouses. There, couples could marry themselves, often by reciting vows they devised, without a clergyman. For many years, Anglican traditions, based on the Book of Common Prayer, prevailed in the South. However, the customary “banns” (public announcements made in church), used in the old country to notify family, friends, and neighbors of an impending marriage, were unsuited to the widely dispersed settlements in the colonies. Some historians claim that marriage licenses, issued by county clerks, developed to replace the banns. By the late-17th-century, the use of license spread northward to the Middle Colonies.

A Southern wedding differed greatly from a New England wedding. In the South, family and neighbors received invitations to the event, which usually took place in the home of the bride. After the minister completed the ceremony, the festivities began. Dancing and card playing often preceded an elegant supper, complete with toasts and songs. In the late-17th-century, New Englanders forsook many of their old English customs. Congregationalists, for instance, held that nothing in the Bible designated marriage as a religious rite; so they made it a civil affair, officiating by a magistrate and lacking the festivities of a Southern wedding.

Whatever religious significance they attributed to marriage, all the colonies recognized it as a civil contract based on mutual consent of both parties. Husbands had to support and cohabit with their wives. Deserters were hounded and errant husbands hauled into court for adultery or for failing to provide. Early court records reveal many such cases. Especially in New England, where authorities kept a watchful eye, both husbands and wives often received reprimands for misconduct.

The colonies limited or outlawed physical abuse of wives. In 1641, for instance, Massachusetts prohibited wife beating “unless it be in his own defense upon her assault.” In the Southern colonies, laws prevented husbands from inflicting death or permanent injury on their partners. So Colonial wives enjoyed legal protection (in principle, at least) that was denied to their counterparts in England. But laws obviously could not end desertion or domestic strife. (One only has to read abstracts from Colonial newspapers advertisements to learn this.)

Colonial wives also benefited from antenuptial and postnuptial contracts. Used in England only by the rich, the contracts served here to help preserve domestic peace and to keep wives and children off the public dole. Antenuptial contracts—many of these appear in old court records—let a woman retain control over her own property. Postnuptial contracts could reconcile a couple in dispute or enable them to separate (although the contracts usually compelled the husband to continue supporting the family).

Divorces, which we frequently assume never occurred in earlier times, were granted. The Puritans, no less, fostered this major innovation in New England. It was a great change from the laws of their homeland: In England, marriage was sacramental and indissoluble. Only the wealthy could dissolve marriages through annulments or acts of parliament. New Englanders most frequently obtained divorces for desertion, bigamy, adultery, and failure to provide. Women received divorces more often than men. However, far more women petitioned for divorce than received ones.

The Dutch also granted divorces. An entry in the court minutes of New Amsterdam, dated June 22, 1665, reads: “Lodowyck Pos, his wife and daughter (the wife of Arent Juriaansen Lantsman), entering, the aforesaid Lantsman’s wife requests to be divorced from her husband, as she cannot keep house with him.” Other colonies allowed separation of husband and wives, but the marriages rarely ended by law.

Some 17th-century laws protected husbands—from wives who acquired debts, waged attacks, or committed adultery (a crime against both the husband and the community). The most common offense wives committed was verbal abuse. We often think of our early female ancestors as quiet souls, and they probably were meek in church. But they certainly were assertive outside of it—at least according to Colonial court records, which contain many verbal-abuse cases. In addition to gossiping (an offense in many areas), wives scolded their husbands, slandered their neighbors, and cursed their enemies. One woman ended up in court, in 1678, for calling her husband opprobrious names on a Sunday.

In New Netherland, where Dutch law granted married women a lot of independence, some wives sued others for defamation. In Virginia, a 1662 statute provided ducking as a penalty for “brabling [sic] women [who] often slander and scandalize their neighbors.”

Colonial wives had to obey their husbands and they usually played the role of junior partner in the family. They had partial control over their children and servants, but children legally belonged to their fathers. In searching court records, you will often find guardianship papers for minor children that might at first make you assume the children were orphans. Often, however, the mother was still living, but legal guardianship (usually of the property and legal matters rather than day-to-day care of the children) had passed to another male.

In the early-17th century, women usually married between ages 20 and 23. (The aged dropped somewhat in succeeding generations and was younger in some locales than others.) They probably spent up to 20 years bearing children and most of their adult life raising them. There were some large families of 10 to 15 children, but the average family had six or seven. Many children died from disease in infancy or early childhood (only about half of Colonial infants reached adulthood). Most couples lost one or more children.

The death rate was high for husbands and wives, too. Newlyweds had only a one-in-three chance of living together 10 years. Women often died in childbirth. It is not uncommon to find an ancestor from Colonial period who married three or four times. A woman needed a husband to provide for her and her children, and a man required a wife to care for his children and home.

The chores of a Colonial wife involved constant production of food, clothing, and household items. Spinning, for example, was a vocation of almost every 17th-century housewife.

In New Amsterdam, Dutch law allowed great latitude to a wife whose husband was at sea. She could administer his land, serve as his attorney, or be licensed as a “feme sole trader” to keep his affairs alive in his absence and often while he was present.

Widows found themselves managing lands they inherited, running small businesses, or working as shopkeepers, taverners, and, occasionally, as printers, butchers, or gunsmiths.

Single women, whether widows or spinsters, had many rights under common law. They could make contracts, administer estates, hold power of attorney, sue and be sued, and own, buy, and sell property.

Throughout the colonies, however, the property of a woman brought to her marriage usually went under the husband’s control or management, as did her personal property, earnings, and children. She could bequeath her personal property, such as her jewelry or clothing, to her heirs, but only with her husband’s consent. Most colonies assured a widow of her dower right—if he died without a will.

For most of our Colonial ancestors, marriage was a partnership in which both labored long and hard to carve out a new home and give their children far more than they ever had. Each couple on your family tree has a special story. But it takes diligent genealogical research to piece their stories together.