Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Book Review: Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier

Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier
Chris Enss
The Globe Pequot Press, 2005

The huge emigration of men to the western United States in the 19th century resulted in a disproportionate ratio of men to women in such places as Washington, Arizona and especially California during the Gold Rush. Mail order brides were by no means a new phenomenon during the 19th century and the settlement of the West; there are accounts of settlers of the new world arranging for brides from Europe. But, with the mystique of the Wild West being what it is, there's something exciting and romantic about a woman who travels west, either by ship or over land, to meet a stranger so they can settle amidst new territory and make it their own.

And so they did, by the hundreds. Hearts West, by Chris Enss, gives us accounts of just a dozen or so of them. They came either through a business, like that run by Asa Mercer who brought women by ship to Puget Sound in 1864. In his first trip, only eleven women disembarked to the disappointment of dozens if not hundreds of men. Newspapers sprung up that catered strictly to matchmaking, such as The Matrimonial News in San Francisco. In Tucson, shoot-outs over eligible females were occurring, so clubs like the Busy Bee Club were formed. Some women were fixed up through their churches, or relatives or friends. The experiences were as wide and diverse as the land they were aiming to settle.

But what seems to be a common denominator in all the stories are the hopes and optimism that the women felt over their decisions to move west. And many times, the prospective bride and groom traded several letters and sometimes love blossomed even before they met. Sometimes a marriage proposal was presented during the correspondence. Now, once they arrived, they were sometimes met with husbands not to their liking or sometimes even abusive ones, but those instances seemed to be rare. Enss writes in the epilogue:

"In spite of the occasional mismatch or short-lived union, historians at the National Archive Department in Washington believe that mail-order brides produced a high percentage of permanent marriages. The reason cited is that the advertisements were candid and direct in their explanations of exactly what was wanted and expected from a prospective spouse. And if requested, the parties involved sent accurate photos of themselves along with a page of background information. Often, when the pair met, the groom-to-be signed an agreement, witnessed by three upstanding members of the territory, not to abuse or mistreat the bride-to-be. The prospectve bride then signed a paper (also witnessed) not to nag or try to change the intended."

This book is not a complete account of the mail-order bride phenomenon. Rather, it is a collection of women's experiences, each story independent of each other. Maybe it was me, but I was a little disappointed in this - I was hoping for a more in-depth history with a cohesive narrative. I wanted something with a little more substance. But if you're looking for a pleasant read that's a good introduction to how and why women would do such an insane thing as to agree to marry someone sight unseen and 3000 miles away from home, this is a good book to start with. You can probably read it in a day. It did whet my appetite to read more accounts, especially first-person accounts of these and other pioneer women. I found Enss to be a good writer and she brings a flair and drama to the stories.

Enss writes these accounts and mixes them with newspaper articles and ads. One account, of Eleanor Berry and Louis Dreibelbis, is especially memorable. Eleanor, on her way out to marry Louis in Grass Valley in Nevada County California, and on the final leg of her trip, is in a stagecoach with thirteen other travelers. As luck would have it, their stagecoach is robbed by four men wearing gunnysacks for masks. But at one point, Eleanor notices that one of the bandits has a noticeable scar on his hand. Everyone survives the hold-up, none the worse for wear, and Eleanor finishes her trip. Once in Grass Valley, she is promptly sent to the altar (it was common for the brides and groom to marry almost as soon as the woman stepped foot in the territory). Walking up the aisle, she sees Louis for the first time who, for some reason, goes into shock when he sees Eleanor. When Louis reaches to sign the marriage license - you guessed it - Eleanor sees that her new husband has a familiar scar on his hand. For obvious reasons, the marriage was off.

This little book is another product of the Globe Pequot Press, which has published several books in the same vein, such as Pioneer Doctor: the Story of a Woman's Work, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: Women Soldiers and Patriots of the Western Frontier, and With Great Hope: Women of the California Gold Rush. In other words, books that cover the role of women in the American West, and in many cases, the lives of individual women who in any other circumstance would have never had their stories published. In this vein, Globe Pequot Press does a great service, bringing us true stories of women who would have otherwise been doomed to obscurity or only remembered by a few people through family histories.


Barry said...

Sounds like a good book and I really like the second photo of the lovely young lady, I hope she had a good life.
Old photos are like a windo into the past aren't they?
I was at a flea market yesterday and saw a box of old family photos and thought how sad that no one cared about them anymore.

Barry said...
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Charles Gramlich said...

So many great stories out there. I wish I had more reading time.

Laurie Powers said...

It's always that way at flea markets, isn't it Barry? I see stacks of old family photos and memorabilia and I always wonder what is the history behind them and what they have been witness to.

Charles, I know what it's like. I wish I had more time to read too. Sounds like a vacation is in order.