By Marcia Zug
Every Californian knows about the forty-niners, the daring fortune seekers who helped settle California. However, few people have heard of the brave young women who followed them out west. These women also came to seek their fortunes, but they didn’t come to mine for gold; they came to marry the miners.
Shortly after the forty-niners arrived in California, the first California mail-order bride expedition was proposed. Eastern reformers believed women would be a calming influence on the lawless, male mining towns and they enthusiastically supported plans to bring brides west. California’s many bachelor politicians also supported these plans both for themselves, and for their numerous single, male constituents. In fact, California was so eager for female immigrants that the state government quickly passed some of the most female friendly laws in the country.
California was the first western state to consider importing brides, but many other male heavy states quickly followed and by the end of the 19th century, thousands of eastern women had traveled west to seek their fortunes as mail-order brides. Unfortunately, finding wives for miners was not California’s only involvement with mail-order marriage. California pioneered the idea of bringing mail-order brides out west, but it was also at the forefront of a later movement to bar mail-order brides. As the race of the arriving brides changed, California’s support for mail-order marriage quickly evaporated.
When mail-order brides were eastern white women, Californians lauded them as heroes and patriots. However, when Japanese mail-order brides began arriving in California, barely a generation after the forty-niners, these women were quickly branded as criminals, prostitutes and threats to America’s racial hierarchy. Eventually, the outcry against the Japanese picture brides lead to their complete exclusion from the United States. Moreover, the nativist arguments honed in the picture bride fight were soon echoed in other exclusionary immigration laws including The 1921 Quota Act, and The National Origins Act.
Treatment of mail-order brides reflects America’s complicated and contradictory immigration history. America has both welcomed and encouraged immigration, but it has also restricted and even barred certain immigrant groups. California’s history with mail-order marriage reflects this history. Depending on the shifting politics of the time, California both welcomed and excluded mail-order brides. Nonetheless, for the women, the benefits of mail-order marriage have been surprisingly consistent. Throughout American history, mail-order marriage has been a way for women to change their circumstances and, like the men they followed and married, a way to seek their fortunes and improve their lives.
Marcia Zug is an Associate Professor of law at the University of South Carolina. She specializes in family law, immigration law and Federal Indian Law. She is the author of Buying A Bride: An Engaging History of mail-Order Matches
Marcia Zug’s Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches is the first book-length treatment of the history of mail-order marriage, and it makes a powerful case for the reexamination of a practice that remains poorly understood. Mail-order brides have been part of American life since the founding of the first English colony in Jamestown, Virginia. Nevertheless, how they have been perceived has changed drastically over time. There were “Tobacco Wives,” in colonial Virginia, mail-order brides during the California gold rush, Japanese picture brides during the early twentieth century, and even same-sex mail-order grooms today.
She will talk about her book at the California Historical Society on Thursday, February 9th. To register, click HERE.