Mail Order Brides

Hearts West

photo courtesy Amazon

Last semester while I was working on my school assignments, I became fascinated with the subject of the American Frontier through the eyes of the women who lived it.  I read the Little House on the Prairie books years ago, but I greatly desired to read more stories.  I ended up searching on Amazon for books, and Hearts West: True Stories of Mail Order Brides on the Frontier is one of many that I ordered.

Hearts West is only 108 pages, so it is an easy and fast read, but I enjoyed it.  I wish it contained much more stories.  I came away from it with a different perspective of the Frontier mail order bride business, as well as respect for it.  The book contains real advertisements for brides and husbands that appeared in the newspapers in those days.  Many people reading them today would probably snicker and accuse those men and women of being desperate, but I have a lot of respect for them.  They were honest about being lonely, and didn’t pretend to be something they were not.  In the ads the people got right to the point about themselves and what they were looking for.  Many people today are also lonely and desperate, and the ways in which they try to find a partner can also be called into question.

Some of these unions did not work out, but I was happy to learn that many of them did, as was the case for Mary Richardson and Elkanah Walker, who were married for nearly four decades.  Elkanah proposed to Mary the same day that he met her.  Many other women actually married within hours after meeting their intended husband.  I certainly would not recommend that, but maybe people were more mature back then because life was different.  Men and women took on adult responsibilities earlier in life.

Spokane_Walker_1933 Mary Richardson Walker

Mary Richardson Walker (1811-1897)

Women did not have the choices that they do today and life was challenging for many of them.  In some cases young women were escaping from a life of very boring hard work and possible spinsterhood.  One woman in the book worked as a personal maid for the daughter of a wealthy family in the east.  The daughter treated her very badly.  Answering an advertisement to travel west to marry and help with westward expansion was an exciting and adventurous proposition.  The journey was hardly easy, but at least she had a chance to be more than a maid, and to have her own family since many eligible men had died in the Civil War.

The mail order bride business was not without its scammers, and the book does cover this aspect of it.  Some human beings will never let an opportunity pass them by to make a buck by taking advantage of others.

One of the things that stood out for me while reading this book is the strength these women had, and how much they were willing to endure to find happiness, even if things did not work out, as was the case for Bethenia Owens.  Shortly after marrying at age fourteen, Bethenia realized that her husband, Legrand Hill, was a loser.  After four years of marriage she left, divorced her husband and worked several jobs to care for her son and put herself through school.  Dr. Bethenia Owens-Hill became the first woman physician in Oregon.  Bethenia did remarry years later, but her second husband, Colonel John Adair, wasn’t thrilled that her work came before keeping house.   I became curious about Bethenia, so I did some online research about her.  According to True West Magazine, Bethenia sponsored a bill to have thousands of “undesirable” people sterilized in the United States.  As a result 64,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized.  Needless to say, my admiration of Dr. Bethenia dropped to ZERO.

Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair

Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair (1840-1926)

These and other stories are testament to the deep impact that women really had in the lives of men and in the shaping of America.  Many of these women not only raised their own families, but helped to establish churches and schools within their community.   I am thrilled to know that many of them did find true love along the way.  Some who didn’t were able to make their own way as teachers, or other professions that were open to women at that time.

I would have liked this book to be more in-depth, but it was still a very interesting read, and caused me to do further research. so I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

This entry was posted in America.


  1. Sandra Hutchison says:

    After that bit about Owens-Adair forcibly sterilizing people, I wonder if her first husband got away just in the nick of time.

    (And Xenia, I’m a local Troy author whose books are in the local library. I have a feeling you might enjoy them, since we seem to be gaga about the same things. In fact, I’d love to have your opinion on my current manuscript, because it borrows the structure of its romantic relationship at least in part from Persuasion.)

  2. Servetus says:

    I think people didn’t expect so much from their partners back then in terms of the ‘soft’ things — constant sexual attraction, romance, complete understanding, agreement, etc. — while people wanted to be attracted and fall in love, still the main things were more like work ethic, spending habits, fertility / willing to have children, willingness to work on the same goals together.

    • Xenia says:

      I do agree. Work ethic, having children, etc were most important Expectations were not what they are today, but I got a sense that the relationships weren’t as sterile as we imagine them to have been. People certainly were not openly affectionate like we are today, but within the boundaries of the time period, I think there was just a bit more romance going on than we give them credit for. When one spouse passed away the remaining spouse was often heartbroken and missed their spouse terribly. Letters and diaries reveal more than many people today may assume.

      On some level many couples back then were more committed going into it than many people are today.

      • Servetus says:

        Yeah, I’m not saying there was no romance, just that it wasn’t widely considered a necessary prerequisite for a successful relationship. A lot of that affection developed over the years of relying on someone as opposed to being seen as the reason to marry someone (which certainly couldn’t obtain in a situation where people met and married immediately).

        There’s a kind of awful reality show on right now, Married at First Sight, and you see the kinds of things that people are worried about in relationships, most of which would have seemed frivolous to someone 150 years ago.

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