Backcountry Marriages

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. 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."

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.

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 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....

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.

The two parties then came together and staged a contest in which their champions raced for a beribboned bottle of whiskey. 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.
Excerpted from Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer

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