Colonial American Marriages

SOURCE: Everyday Life in Colonial America: From 1607-1783, by Dale Taylor

The life expectancy of a colonial was short. As many as 50% of all women died in childbirth or from childbed disease. The infant mortality rate was also high. If a child could reach the age of eleven, they stood a better chance at survival. Individuals in their forties and fifties during the 17th century were considered "old."  Statistics peering back to the 18th century indicate the average life expectancy was the age of 45!

For families of consequence, marriage was viewed as a business transaction, love not being made a part of the arrangement. Love was saved for affairs outside of the marriage contract. Marriage, on the other hand, was the institution in which legitimate heirs were produced, a title obtained or additional monies and properties achieved. The children of poor families had an easier time selecting a mate. Property and money didn't play a role in their decision. Love could be taken into the equation when it came to spouse selection.

A marriage in colonial America could be viewed as an absolute partnership with the man and woman having a specific role to fulfill. A man's sphere of influence was in the area of war, politics, and business. Although women did not have a legal right to property ownership, they could hold influence over the running of the internal affairs of the home. A high stationed, literate wife would be expected to handle basic accounting and management affairs within the household. The overseeing of servants in the higher classes also demanded her time in addition to her other traditional duties including child rearing and sewing. When death took a spouse, little time was put aside for mourning. Within four weeks of a spouse's passing, the surviving spouse might remarry. The challenges of day-to-day living demanded that a partnership always be in place.

Early marriage was typically not done for immigrants to Colonial America. Immigrants did not enter into being indentured* until the age of 21. As such, it might be five to seven years before they could marry. For ladies living in the South during this period,  they could marry as young as fourteen.  (*indenture: a written agreement or contract which an apprentice is bound to service.)

The wealthy aristocracy of the Southern colonies arranged marriages of their offspring. A young man simply did not go off on his own and begin a courtship without attending to business first. Restrictions existed on the inheritance a couple received if they married without the permission of their parents.

As such, a young man approached his father first before soliciting his attentions to a local girl. If a young man's father approved of the match, he would write a letter to the girl's father outlining the financial particulars of the match. Upon receipt of a letter from the girl's father approving the match, including his own financial tribute, the couple could commence with their courtship. Courting took place in the typical places: dances, church, and visiting the young girl's home.