Frontier Marriages - How old were you when you tied the knot?

Although the shotgun wedding may be the first thing that comes to mind with the phrase frontier marriage, they are not synonyms. First of all, a shotgun wedding is an American colloquialism that describes a marriage where the participants wed to avoid the embarrassment of an unplanned pregnancy. The idea being that the father of the bride has to hold a shotgun to the future husband's head in order to ensure he makes his wedding vows. While shotgun weddings assuredly occurred as likely on the frontier as in the old south, the subject of this post is to give a glimpse at the marriage age on the frontier.

In 1830, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized, the Northwest Territory (organized in 1787 and encompassing the states of Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois) was undergoing a massive change due to emigrants and religious fervor. While Ohio had received many new settlers, Michigan from 1830 to 1837 was the most popular destination for westward-moving pioneers. Interestingly enough, Michigan even had a pioneer song called the Emigrant's Song which was published in a Detroit paper in 1831. The words are below:

Come all ye Yankee Farmers, Who'd like to change your lot,
Who've spunk enough to travel Beyond your native spot,
And leave behind the village Where Pa' and Ma' do stay,
Come follow me and settle In Michigania.

What country ever growed up So great in little time,
Just popping from the nurs'ry Right into like its prime;
When Uncle Sam did wean her, 'Twas but the other day,
And now she's quite a Lady, This Michigania.

Then come ye Yankee Farmers, Who've mettle hearts like me,
And elbow-grease in plenty, To bow the forest tree;
Come take a "Quarter Section," And I'll be bound you'll say,
This country takes the rag off, This Michigania.

Mormon pioneers didn't head out west until 1847 although they did end up in Ohio and later in Illinois for a time from 1839 to 1846. The urge to move west was strong throughout the eastern states.

Now back to frontier marriage. From a book called Michigan: A history of the Wolverine State comes the following information about frontier marriage:

Social occasions found young people engaged in the age-old quest for a
mate. Although the girls frequently sang a little ditty that announced,

I am too young, I am not fit,
I cannot leave my mamma yit,

they often said yes at the age of fourteen or fifteen if the right young
man popped the question. Weddings were big events on the frontier, occasions for
visiting, feasting, drinking, and making merry. Following the ceremony the young
couple was serenaded with all sorts of noisemaking paraphernalia a night or two
after the wedding. This was called a "shiver-ee."

The ditty mentioned above comes from a short song called Thus the Farmer Shows his Seeds. In its entirety it goes like this:


Come, my love, and go with me,
And I will take good care of thee. I am
too young, I am not fit,
I cannot leave my mamma yit.
You're old enough,
you are just right
I asked your mamma last Saturday night.

Of course the song is interesting; however, of more interest is the marriage age of 14 or 15. I've had a few questions about the age of Mormon's being wed during the early period of the Church. On the frontier, where the Mormon Church was located, marriage at such a young age was the norm. Early age marriage had more to do with living on the frontier than anything else.

Today, of course, most states have marriage laws that in 1976 allowed 16 year olds to be married without the consent of an adult; however, by 2003 48 states set the marriage age at 18, while Nebraska has it at 19 and Mississippi at 21. One interesting note comparing Utah to the US, in 1990 the average age of a first marriage in Utah was 21 for both men and women, while nationally the average age of a first marriage was 23.9 for women and 25.9 for men.

One final thought, when you search for marriage the article starts with Red Flags in your Marriage and Crash and Burn Predictors. What a way to start a marriage article, perhaps they are focused on serving the bride and groom from the shotgun wedding?

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