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Image Backcountry Marriage Ways: Border Origins of Bridal Customs

Marriage customs among the people of the backcountry also derived from border roots. An ancient practice on the British borders was the abduction of brides. In Scotland, Ireland and the English border counties, the old custom had been elaborately regulated through many centuries by ancient folk laws which required payment of “body price” and “honor price.” Two types of abduction were recognized: voluntary abduction in which the bride went willingly but without her family’s prior consent; and involuntary abduction in which she was taken by force.1 Both types of abduction were practiced as late as the eighteenth century. It was observed of the borderlands and Ulster during this period that “abductions, both ‘under the impulse of passion and from motives of cupidity,’ were frequent.”2

The border custom of bridal abduction was introduced to the American backcountry. In North and South Carolina during the eighteenth century, petitioners complained to authorities that “their wives and daughters were carried captives” by rival clans.3

Even future President of the United States Andrew Jackson took his wife by an act of voluntary abduction. Rachel Donelson Robards was unhappily married to another man at the time. A series of complex quarrels followed, in which Rachel Robards made her own preferences clear, and Andrew Jackson threatened her husband Lewis Robards that he would “cut his ears out of his head.” Jackson was promptly arrested. But before the case came to trial the suitor turned on the husband, butcher knife in hand, and chased him into the canebreak. Afterward, the complaint was dismissed because of the absence of the plaintiff—who was in fact running for his life from the defendant. Andrew Jackson thereupon took Rachel Robards for his own, claiming that she had been abandoned. She went with Jackson willingly enough; this was a clear case of voluntary abduction. But her departure caused a feud that continued for years.4

For a cultural historian, the responses to this event were more

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The old border custom of bridal abduction continued in the American back-country. The petitions of the Regulators complained of frequent abductions, and even members of the border ascendancy resorted to this practice. The leading example was Andrew Jackson and Rachel Donelson. This was a case of voluntary abduction; Rachel went willingly. But her departure started a feud that continued many years. It later became an electioneering issue in other parts of the United States, but in the backcountry, Rachel and Andrew Jackson were not condemned by their own culture. Most backcountry marriages, of course, were not abductions, but abduction rituals long remained an important part of marriage customs in this region.

important than the act itself. In later years, Jackson’s methods of courtship became a campaign issue, and caused moral outrage in other parts of the republic; but in the backcountry he was not condemned at the time. Historian Robert Remini writes, “One thing is certain. Whatever Rachel and Andrew did, and whenever they did it, their actions did not outrage the community.”5

Most backcountry courtships were not as primitive as this. The strict Protestantism of Scottish and Ulster Presbyterians created a heavy overlay of moral restraint. But many backcountry marriages included mock abduction rituals that kept the old customs alive in a vestigial way. A wedding in the back-settlements was apt to be a wild affair. On the appointed day, the friends of the groom would set out for the wedding in a single party, mounted and heavily armed. They would stop at cabins along the way to fire a volley and pass around the whiskey bottle, then gallop on to the next. Their progress was playfully opposed by the bride’s friends, also heavily armed, who felled trees along the road, and created entanglements of grape vines and branches to block the passage of the groomsmen.

Sometimes an ambuscade was formed by the way side, an unexpected discharge of several guns took place, so as to cover the wedding company with smoke. Let the reader imagine the scene which followed this discharge, the sudden spring of the horses, the shriek of the girls, and the chivalric bustle of their partners to save them from falling. Sometimes, in spite of all that could be done to prevent it, some were thrown to the ground; if a wrist, elbow or ankle happened to be sprained, it was tied with a handkerchief, and little more was thought or said about it.6

The two parties then came together and staged a contest in which their champions raced for a beribboned bottle of whisky. The results were celebrated with another explosive feu de joie.

Two young men would single out to run for the bottle; the worse the path, the more logs, brush and deep hollows, the better, as obstacles afforded an opportunity for the greatest display of intrepidity and horsemanship. The English fox chase, in point of danger to their riders and their horses, was nothing to this race for the bottle. The start was announced by an Indian yell, when logs, brush, mud holes, hill and glen, were speedily passed by the rival ponies. The bottle was always filled for the occasion, so that there was no use for judges; for the first who reached the door was presented with the prize, with which he returned in triumph to the company. On approaching them he announced his victory over his rival by a shrill whoop. At the head of the troop he gave the bottle to the groom and his attendants, and then to each pair in succession, to the rear of the line, giving each a dram, and then putting the bottle in the bosom of his hunting shirt, took his station in the company.

Finally, both parties would assemble with invited guests from the neighborhood. These were “bidden weddings,” which could be attended only by invitation. “It often happened,” Kercheval remembered, “that some neighbors or relations, not being asked to the wedding, took offence; and the mode of revenge adopted by them on such occasions, was that of cutting off the manes, foretops and tails of the horses of the wedding company.”7

When all were assembled, the bride would be brought into the room by the best man—not, significantly, by her father. The bride and groom put their right hands behind their backs, and their gloves were ceremonially removed by the best man and the bridesmaid, who took care to do so at exactly the same moment.

After the ceremony, there were more volleys, much whooping, and an abundance of kissing, drinking and high hilarity. Then a dinner and dance would take place, with everyone joining in wild reels, sets and jigs while a fiddler scraped frantically in the corner. Before the wedding dinner, another mock-abduction was staged indoors; the bride was stolen by one party and “recovered” by the other. During the dinner itself the party played still another abduction-game called stealing the shoe. While dinner went on, the young people crawled about beneath the table and some of the groomsmen tried to steal the bride’s shoe while others sought to stop them. Four of the most beautiful girls and the most handsome men were appointed “waiters” and had the honor of protecting her while at the same time they served the dinner. Their badge of office was an exquisitely embroidered white apron, on which the bride and her family had labored for many weeks before the wedding. If the bride lost her shoe, she could not dance until it was recovered by her champions in mock combat.

As the sun set upon this turbulent scene, the couple retired to their chamber, while hordes of well-wishers crowded round the bed and offered ribald advice. Yet another contest was staged at the foot of the marriage bed. After the couple was placed beneath the covers, the bridesmaids took turns throwing a rolled stocking over their shoulders at the bride. Then the groomsmen did the same, aiming at the groom. The first to hit the mark was thought to be the next to marry. These games continued well into the night. When the wedding party finally left the chamber, a “cali-thumpian serenade” took place outside—the bells and whistles punctuated by uninhibited gunplay that sometimes caused a back-country wedding to be followed by a funeral.8 As morning approached, a bottle of Black Betty was sent to revive the bride and groom and the merriment continued, sometimes for several days.9

All this was very similar to marriage customs in the borders of north Britain, as appears in a poetic description by the “Cumberland bard” Robert Anderson:

They sing of a weddin’ at Worton

Where aw was fehgt, fratchin’ and fun,

Feegn! sec a yen we’ve hed at Codbeck

As niver was under the sun.

The breydegruim was weaver Joe Beyley

He com’ frae about Lowther Green;

The breyde Johnny Dalton’s h’sh dowter,

And Betty was weel to be seen.10

In this scene, “Betty” was Black Betty, the whisky bottle.

A good deal of wealth changed hands on these occasions. Affluent families in Cumbria kept the custom of marriage portions, often very large, which were paid over a period of several years.11 In families too poor to afford a portion, other marriage customs were carried from the border to the backcountry—the “bidden wedding,” and “bridewain.” The former was explained by a Cumbrian antiquarian:

Some of the Cumbrians, particularly those who are in poor circumstances, have, on their entrance into the married state, what is called a BIDDING (invitation) or BIDDEN WEDDINGS, at which a pecuniary collection is made among the company for the purpose of setting the wedded pair forward in the world. It is always attended with music & dancing; and the fiddler when the contributions begin takes care to remind the assembly their duties, by notes imitative of the following couplet:

Come my friends, and freely offer

Here’s a bride that has no toucher.12

Another custom called bridewain had a similar social function in this culture:

In Cumberland … the friends of a new married couple assemble and are treated with cold pies, fermenty and ale; at the close of the day the bride and bridegroom are placed in two chairs in the open air, or in a large barn, the bride with a pewter dish on her knee, half covered with a napkin. The company put offerings into a dish—offerings often amount to a considerable sum. The word wain was said to be ancient custom in the north.13

Even in poor border families, much was spent on weddings. One antiquarian wrote of the borderers, “They intermarry one with another, and will spend all they have in the wedding week, and then go begging.”14

Marriage customs in the American backcountry bore a striking resemblance to those of the British border lands—complete even to the abductions and mock abductions, the competitions and mock combats, bidden weddings and bridewain, the wild feasts and heavy drinking, wedding reels and jigs, the rituals of the wedding chamber, and the constant presence of Black Betty. Some of these customs were shared by other cultures. But in their totality the backcountry wedding was a unique adaptation of ancient border customs to the conditions of an American region.

The distinctiveness of this system also appeared in quantitative indicators. Age at marriage in the backcountry was different from every other American region. Both brides and grooms were very young. South Carolinian David Ramsay wrote of the backcountry, “ … marriages are early and generally prolific. In one district, containing upwards of 17,000 white inhabitants, there is not one woman at the age of twenty-five who is neither wife or widow.”15 That impression has been solidly confirmed by statistical fact. Historian Mark Kaplanoff finds that in three districts of upcountry South Carolina during the eighteenth century, women married at the average age of nineteen; men at twenty-one. In no other region of British America did both sexes marry so early. Nowhere else were the ages of males and females so nearly the same.16

This was partly the result of a frontier environment, but not entirely so. Other frontiers were very different. And it is interesting to observe that of all the regions of England, age at marriage was lowest in the north—as much as three years below southern England. Here again, the backsettlers followed their ancestral ways.17

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