Love And Marriage On The Trail

As promised, we continue on our journey via wagon train from Missouri to Oregon. And this time the subject is love and marriage on the trail.

Marriages on the frontier were often made before a girl was half through her adolescent year. According to one young woman mentioned in the “Women’s Diaries of Westward Journey,” “she was married at fifteen . . .those days the young men wondering why a girl was not married if she was still single when she was sixteen. That summer Judge Deady . . . came by . . . we all rode horseback . . . We met occasionally at weddings and other social doings,” and soon they were married.

There’s instance after instance of girls of fifteen or less marrying along the trail and soon finding themselves with child despite the painful lack of privacy for people “to whom the taboos of sex and other bodily functions were completely controlling.” Some women, for instance, could not even mention in their private diaries that they were pregnant. They merely noted the arrival of a baby.

Despite the lack of privacy, there was also a new freedom. Although most girls and women continued to ride sidesaddle and wear dresses, there were opportunities for romance not present in their previous lives.   An escape to a wooded river,  trips to replenish firewood,  close proximity over thousands of miles and through any number of hardships, evenings  sitting by fires while young men played a guitar, mouth organ or fiddles all promoted romance.

Once a wedding took place, the other members of a wagon train often held a Chivarie for the couple. One such description, again from the “Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey”: ” Such a Chivarie as they got that night was enough to awaken the Seven Sleepers. The newly married couple occupied a wagon for sleeping apartments. The first notice that they had of any disturbance was when the most of the men and women in the company took hold of the wagon, the men at the tongue pulling, the women at the back pushing and ran the wagon a half mile out of the prairie. Then the fun began. Such banging of cans, shooting of guns, etc. and every noise conceivable was resorted to. The disturbance was kept up until midnight when the crowd dispersed, leaving the happy couple out on the prairie to rest undisturbed until morning when they came walking into camp amid cheers and congratulations.”

When babies came, as they often did on journeys lasting six to eight months, there was little time to rest or celebrate.  The train had to continue on and usually did the same day or the next morning birthing. And, remember, these wagons had no springs.

And the prospect of birth along the trail must have been terrorizing.   I imagine these women watched the horizon anxiously in the last days of pregnancy, trying to learn whether the weather would be calm or threatening, if the wagons were near or far from water, and, most important of all, if another woman was at hand.

And often there was not. If a wagon broke down, it was left. Families were separated along the way. One huge family of some ten wagons separated into three different groups along the way. No one could wait on a damaged or overloaded wagon for fear of being caught in the mountains during early winter. Some women were seen walking along the way by themselves, their wagon and man gone through some disaster.

The danger involved in pregnancy during these years on the trail — and the early years on the frontier — is most readily evident by one pioneer daughter. She grew up with four stepmothers in succession, each one dying in childbirth.

And so it was with love and marriage on the trail.


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17 thoughts on “Love And Marriage On The Trail”

  1. The hardship of the trail, the wagon trains, childbirth are what forged westerners into such tough people. Only the strong survived.
    I’ve read that the west changed radically with the coming of the train mainly because people who were soft could make it west.
    I’ve got in my own family history multiple second marriages because the wife died in childbirth. If you ever have a chance go walk through an old cemetary sometime and look at all the women and children who died young.
    We’re honestly the first generation in the history of the world where people expect to die when it’s there turn.
    There was no such expectation of living to an old age in the olden days.

  2. Pat, I shudder to think how well I’d have made it or how long I lasted under those conditions. Like Mary said, only the strong survived. I can’t even imagine the mental and physical strength it would’ve taken for a woman. I love to write about those days but I sure wouldn’t have wanted to live there. I’m a creature of habit and love my soft bed, reliable car, and doctors around every corner!

    Yes, Mary, it’s really sad when I see so many wives buried next to one husband. And oftentimes, there are infant graves too. Lots of stories buried in cemeteries. I’ve wished more than once that the dead could speak and tell me some of their tales.

    Good post, Pat! 🙂

  3. You’re so right, Linda. Childbirth on the trail would be a shuddering experience. Yikes. This was a great, informative post. Thanks, Pat!! Before I sign off, how prevelant was the sidesaddle on the trail? It seems so anti-functional on such a practical no-nonsense venture. Was it taboo for gals to ride astride?

  4. Wow! That’s great information, and leads me to wonder if a story could be built around a girl so young, pregnant and widowed on the trail and separated from the rest of the group. If she was strong and survived childbirth, what kind of life could she have expected to live…and supposing a handsome lone cowboy came across her and took her in…hmmm….

    makes the wheels turn. Thanks for sharing this today! It’s wonderful and really something to ponder on.

  5. From everything I’ve read, the sidesaddle was pretty much standard for a woman on the trail. Riding astride would be considered not “lady-like.” I think that changed in later years — but in the 1840s and 1850s, riding astride was “loose” behavior.

  6. Love this post.

    You know, I was thinking about it and some of my fave western romances take place on a wagon train (some of my other faves were mail-order bride stories).

  7. Oh boy – I’m glad I’m a woman in today’s world. Women had it rough, didn’t they? I found it interesting to note how many women had difficulties delivering babies on the trail. I won’t mention that to my childbirth class – thankfully, we live in safer times for pregnant women.

  8. I really enjoyed reading your blog today, Pat. It was easy to put ourselves in these women’s places and wonder how we would’ve endured childbirth.

    For most of us, I suspect, not so well!

    I can still remember walking across the hospital parking lot to give birth to my first daughter and thinking how nervous I was. Not so unusual, but I had all the medical help I needed right in front of me.

    I simply can’t imagine being out on the cold prairie with that ordeal imminent. How frightened those young girls must’ve been!

  9. Great post, Pat! Romances don’t *really* reflect the reality of what it was like, do they.

    My great-grandmother married the first time when she was 11 years old. Hard to imagine. Anyway, her husband (who was much older) ended up getting the marriage annulled because she played with dolls, and just simply acted like the child she was instead of doing the household and farm chores.

    Later (I don’t know how old she was the second time around) she married my great-grandfather and they lived a very long life together and raised 9 children.

  10. Great information. So many of these young brides ended up young mothers and young widows. Glad I live in todays world.

  11. You know I’ve been having my girls in my books get married REALLY YOUNG. Like 15-years-old. That’s okay, isn’t it? Sometimes I think I’m pushing it a bit but a lot of 15 year olds got married back then, right?

  12. Devon–age 11!!! Ohmigosh. I’ve never heard of a bride that young. No wonder she played with dolls. Thank goodness the man she married realized he’d made a mistake. (And I have to ask–did they consummate the marriage? I hope not!) What a story!

    Mary, 15 sounds young to me, too!

  13. Pam, I was just as shocked as you when I first heard about it. Actually, I was appalled. And I wondered about that, too — the consummation part, that is. I hope it didn’t happen because, to me, that would be like child molestation. I would love to know the story behind the story about why she was married so young. Unfortunately, all the people who might have known all passed on before I was old enough to be told about it and ask. I have a very vivid memory of her from my childhood. She was quite the character and ruled the roost from a rocking chair in the front room of her house. She always kept a gallon size crock of moonshine sitting on the floor beside her chair. We kids weren’t supposed to know, but of course we did know. LOL!

  14. Great Post, Patricia!
    I have a 60 yr old friend who was married in NE at age 15, given to an older man by her parents after they took her back from an orphanage!
    A 50 yr old friend’s husband delivered her 3rd child at home because daughter was born before the ambulance could get Mom to the hospital (20 yrs ago, not at that advanced age!)
    I certainly wouldn’t want to have either of my premature babies (1 & 2 months early) but my grandpa was also a premie and survived in a shoe box next to the stove in 1898- BUT not on the trail!

  15. Sorry I’m late—great post, Pat! Those diaries offer such wonderful insight. Times were hard and life expectancies were not what they are today. Even so, any marriage under the age of 14 is a frightening thought. But by 14 I was sure I knew everything 😉

    One of my grandmothers married at 14, the other 15. My mom married at 16….I held out to the ripe old age of 18–though we did waite five years to add youngens to the mix–trying to live with a man (a young one at that!) was hard enough 🙂

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