Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews

Reviewed by Chrys Ankeny
By Chris Enss
TwoDot, imprint of Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Conn., 2005

Personal ads for companionship or whatever have a rich tradition in America. During the last third of the 19th century, for instance, the San Francisco–based Matrimonial News promoted "honorable matrimonial engagements and true conjugal facilities" for men and women. Mail-order requests for brides were the natural result of the fact that out West, men could prospect for gold but rarely for respectable females. The gals were mostly in the East, so the guys promised matches made in heaven, or at least in the Sierras.

Sometimes things worked out for the parties involved, as with widow Elinore Pruitt of Arkansas, who answered an ad in the Matrimonial News and found 20 years of matrimonial bliss with honest Clyde Steward. On the other hand, as author Chris Enss writes in the introduction to this delightful 108-page work, teacher Eleanor Berry was not so lucky: "Her mail-order husband misrepresented himself in his letters and the marriage lasted less than an hour."

If the Wild Wild West was ever going to be civilized, of course, women were needed, because without them, men rarely saw fit to build schools, libraries, churches or homes with flower pots in the windows. Of course, the women did not come West to live in poverty. Promises of riches held considerable appeal to both soiled and unsoiled doves. Enss includes the personal advertisements that triggered unions of the sexes and then presents the tales with a flourish or two.

Eleanor Berry answered a San Francisco Magazine ad on April 12, 1873, that read: "Lonesome miner wants wife to share stake and prospects. Please respond to Louis Dreibelbis in Grass Valley, California." Louis, without revealing too many details, turned out to be a bandit, and Eleanor had to confess that her intended husband was "not as well-fixed as I expected to find him." Enss calls them"the Schoolmarm and the Scoundrel."

She also presents the tales of "The Hopeful Bride and the Farmer," "The Homesteader and the Sheep Rancher" and several others. One only wishes that there were more of these matchmaking tales she could tell. Can a mail-order bride live happily ever after? Well, as one modern observer noted, "Better to meet by mail than in jail," but he was talking about e-mail.

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