Backcountry Marriage Ways:Border Origins of Bridal Customs

Marriage customs among the people of the backcountry alsc 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.73 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." 74

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" bv rival clans....75

Most backcountry courtships (though comparable) were not quite 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....

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." 75 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.76

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.77

Rituals of Love and Violence
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