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Pioneer Weddings

June 15, 2015

Pioneer WeddingThe staff at Living History Farms invites you to a wedding! The 1850 Pioneer Farm interpreters will recreate a pioneer wedding ceremony on Saturday, June 20, 2015. Come and compare the modern wedding process to the necessities of life during Iowa’s settlement. Weddings on the frontier did not involve white dresses and months of meeting with caterers and choices of wedding stationary. Courtship and weddings in rural Iowa during the time of settlement were usually simple affairs. When possible, the family might invite neighbors and friends to attend and celebrate with food and music. Sometimes, the couple went before a judge and then immediately went on to their new life.  Pioneer Wedding

Distances between farms and small settlement populations often made it impossible to indulge in long “get to know you” relationships before a man proposed in rural Iowa. Men and women were often introduced through family or mutual friends. Men would court women with simple visits to the home or a series of correspondences between the couple. Intentions were often stated pretty much outright.

The courtship letters between Andrew Murray and Margaret Gordon indicate that they had a “slight acquaintance” and their mutual friends recommended they would be a good match. His first letter from February 15, 1854 is a forthright proposal saying, “Pardon the liberty I now take in addressing you in this manner on a rather delicate subject. You are aware that I am an Old Bachelor very much in need of a partner to divide with me the care and troubles of this life…,” A few weeks after their first correspondences they met in person, and became betrothed on April 12, 1854. In another example, John Paris spent a few Sunday evenings in the home of an “old rugged farmer” in his community and visited with the farmer’s daughter Emeline. It was indicated that her family was going to move to Utah the following spring and Emeline did not wish to go. Knowing that she was motivated to find a reason to stay, the next Sunday he proposed marriage.

ministerOn the frontier, most weddings were held at the bride’s home or outdoors, rarely in a church. Weddings could be performed either by a minister or a justice of the peace, and the date of the wedding was often determined by their availability. In one instance, a betrothed couple went to a typical Sunday morning Methodist service and upon its conclusion, the minister “announced that he had been requested to pronounce a marriage ceremony and asked the parties to come forward to the altar.” The couple was married and that was that. John Paris had a bit more celebration, but not much. Emeline’s family was preparing to move to Utah, so time was valuable. Having a clerk and justice of the peace available, John and Emeline were married at once. Her father distributed hard cider to the group. They unloaded the bride’s belongings and headed into town to celebrate. Egg nog was given out at the impromptu party.

pioneer table

When a wedding was allowed a bit more planning, the ceremony and meal could bring families together for food and music. In “Pioneer Women of the West” from 1856, a typical celebration was described in great detail:

“The ceremony of the marriage preceded the dinner, which was a substantial backwoods feast of beef, pork, fowls, and sometimes venison and bear meat roasted and boiled, with plenty of potatoes, cabbage, and other vegetables. During the dinner the greatest hilarity always prevailed, although the table might be a large slab of timber hewed out with a broad axe…and the furniture, some old pewter dishes and plates, eked out with wooden bowls and trenchers. A few pewter spoons…the rest were made of horn. If knives were scarce, the deficiency was made up by the hunting knives which every man carried…”

pioneer meal

“After dinner, the dancing commenced, and generally lasted till the next morning. The figures of the dances were three and four-handed reels and jigs…In this way it was often continued till the musician was heartily tired of his situation. Towards the latter part of the night, if any of the company, through weariness, attempted to conceal themselves for the purpose of sleeping, they were hunted up, paraded on the floor, and the fiddler ordered to play ‘Hang out till to-morrow morning.'”



Gifts were sometimes brought to a wedding, most being practical items needed by the couple to set up housekeeping. The bride, herself, would bring with her a trousseau, also known as a hope chest. It would have been filled with clothing and linens—made by herself, her family, and friends which she would need to start married life.trousseau

riding on rail

A favorite 19th century tradition in rural areas actually took place after the wedding itself; it was a called a shivaree. It usually took place at dusk or later in the day of the wedding at the home of the newlywed couple. A crew of friends and neighbors would awaken the couple with “rough music” by banging loudly on whatever would make noise, and shouting, pestering the couple until the husband surrendered and set up refreshments for all the visitors. The groom might be forced to straddle a fence rail and be paraded around by his friends. Or demanded to push his bride about the farm in a wheelbarrow.


Read more posts on the LHF Blog


1850s   Historic Snapshot

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