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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Bad Odds for Bachelors

Nineteenth century singles had limited ways in which to meet someone to marry, especially those singles who lived in rural areas. This was true across America, but California had another, unique problem: During its first decades of statehood, men outnumbered women by a substantial margin: an astronomical 12:1 in 1850, down to “only” 3:1 in the 1860 census, an imbalance that more or less remained the same through the end of the century. This was a boon for the ladies, of course; but definitely a handicap for men who wanted to take a wife.

Since social mores decreed that unmarried individuals initially meet within the bosom of their families or in the company of others at public community events, many rural singles married their grammar-school mates or lifelong neighbors. Local—or regional multi-community events—included barn raisings, July Fourth picnics, and annual fund-raising bazaars sponsored by churches. Single men who had relocated to find employment, and were endorsed by the respectable families they worked for and boarded with, expanded the pool of possible connections. If none of that worked, some parents expanded their daughters’ social circles by sending them off to visit distant relatives for weeks on end.

More prospective spouses might be found in California’s rapidly expanding Gold Rush cities, but young ladies had reputations to protect. Singles were still required to initially meet and court in respectable circumstances, though towns did offer greater opportunities for them to become acquainted. Besides school and church, charitable organizations sponsored concerts and lectures and public balls; private parties hosted home dinner parties, and summer picnics on this or that green often drew hundreds of participants.

One young woman, a lawyer’s daughter, met her future husband—her father’s young protégé—at her own family’s dinner table. No doubt several courtships started in this manner, as more professionals and businessmen flooded into California, intent on taking advantage of the economic opportunities the Gold Rush created. Young gentlemen who were already pre-approved by doting fathers were simply luckier than others, in an environment where most eligible maidens had an ample supply of suitors.

But what about the other bachelors in chaotic Gold Rush California, where they outnumbered eligible women in such a lopsided male-female ratio? To many a man’s chagrin, early schemes to import boatloads of marriageable females “of good character” from the eastern states fell flat. Some single men indeed returned east to marry long-time sweethearts, or wed new acquaintances, and came back with their brides. Some wed prostitutes, who in fact constituted the majority of California females in the early days, and turned them into honest women. Many single men wrote letters to friends and relatives back home, asking them to find someone suitable, or struck up a correspondence with girls they had once known. Many proposals were accepted via this long-distance “dating” (although the phenomenon known as “mail-order brides” started later, in the 1870s).

Throughout 1850s and 1860s more families arrived to settle, many with marriageable daughters. But there still weren’t enough women in California for every man who wished to marry…and some never did.

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