RootsWeb's Guide to
Tracing Family Trees

Article by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

This article may be linked to, but do not post it to mailing lists, newsgroups, your friends or family. Do not republish it in any format.

Los Angeles Times Syndicate, 1989

Myra Vanderpool Gormley is a certified genealogist, syndicated columnist and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and has written more than a thousand articles on the subject of genealogy. She is editor of RootsWeb Review.


Love and Marriage in Colonial America

By Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

Marriage — the ceremony and the customs surrounding it — took on a variety of forms in Colonial America. While the English were the largest group in early America, other ethnic groups exerted their influence, particularly in some localities: the Dutch in New York and New Jersey, the Swedes along the Delaware, and the Germans in Pennsylvania, for example.

Of course, some of our ancestors adhered to old English customs — negotiating a dowry, which was then followed by a betrothal (engagement) and finally a wedding. However, soon after the early European settlements of early America began to thrive, the wedding ceremony itself began to change, partly due to ethnicity and religion and partly due to geographic factors.

The Dutch and Germans performed ceremonies in their native languages along with some of the customs from their homelands. The Quakers held weddings in their meetinghouses. There a couple could marry themselves with vows often of their own devising, without the benefit of any clergyman.

In the South for a long time Anglican traditions — based upon the rite in the Book of Common prayer — remained prevalent. However, the customary publication of the banns, which had been used in the old country to notify family, friends, and neighbors about an impending marriage, did not work among the widely dispersed settlements in the colonies. Other means had to be found to spread the word. It is claimed by some historians that the marriage license, issued by the county clerk, was thus created. And by the end of the 17th century this innovation had spread northward into the Middle Colonies.

Weddings in the South differed greatly from those in New England. Customarily they were held in the home of the bride with invitations extended to family and neighbors. After the minister completed the ceremony, the festivities began. There often was card playing and dancing, followed by an elegant supper, some toasts and songs.

People in New England soon began to forsake their old English wedding customs. The Congregationalists held that nothing in the Bible designated marriage as a religious rite, so they made it a civil affair officiated by a magistrate, but without the festivities that were part of Southern weddings.

Women married about the age of 20 to 23 in the early part of the 17th century, though the age tended to drop somewhat in succeeding generations and brides were often a bit younger in particular localities. Women usually spent up to 20 years bearing children and most of their adult life was spent raising them. While there were some large families — 10 to 15 children — in early Colonial days, the average number of children was six or seven. Many children died in infancy or were lost to the various childhood diseases (only slightly more than half of Colonial infants reached adulthood), and most couples suffered the loss of one or more children.

The death rate was high for husbands and wives too. Newlyweds had only a one-in-three chance of living together 10 years. Women often died in childbirth. It is not uncommon to find an ancestor marrying three or four times during this period. A woman needed a husband to provide for her and her children and a man needed a wife to take care of his young children and look after the home and all its chores.

For most of our Colonial ancestors marriage was a partnership in which both labored long and hard to carve out a new home and give their children far more than they ever had. And, each of these couples hanging upon your family tree has a special story — just waiting to be researched and told.

RootsWeb Guide Index to Lessons