English, Dutch, and Scottish Traditions

The original thirteen colonies were governed by English law, derived from Anglo-Saxon tradition. Following settlement, each colony then modified English law to create its own marital codes. Marriage was seen as a choice made by both partners. As part of that choice, the woman agreed to have her legal identity become part of her husband’s. This act was called coverture and the wife was referred to as a feme covert terms borrowed from the archaic French still used in English law. Her husband became owner of all her property, both land and movable (as objects were called). He also received the right to manage and collect rents on any property she owned.

Any children resulting from the marriage could not inherit land from their mother until their father’s death. If the husband consented, however, a marriage contract written before the ceremony could specify property to remain in the woman’s possession. Wealthy families often did this as a means of protecting their investment in a dowry.

In eastern Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, and the Carolinas, the process of being married in the Anglican church often took several weeks or months. Following engagement, the marriage was officially announced by calling the banns in church on three successive Sundays. The ceremony was conducted in the church and was followed by a celebration and the consummation of the marriage. All five components were considered necessary for the wedding to be legal. Vows could not be taken during Lent, Advent, or the three weeks prior to the Feast of Saint John.

Marriage among Quakers in the Mid-Atlantic colonies also followed a specific process. Quakers were expected to marry other members of the Quaker faith. They also could not marry first cousins or, sometimes, even second cousins. Finally, the couple had to be approved by the community. As a result of these restrictions, many Quakers chose not to marry. The average marital age was also higher than among other cultural groups.

Once the marriage was approved, the wedding was officially announced to the community. During the ceremony, the group gathered together in silence. As was common to Quaker religious meetings, the members were given time to speak upon the marriage as they wished. Finally, the couple declared their intention to marry in their own words. After the marriage, they settled in their home and continued their lives as part of the Quaker community. Marriage for the Puritans of New England like that between Dr. Francis Le Baron and Mary Wilder of Plymouth was a civil contract rather than a religious one. The couple established a covenant between themselves and the state. (Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-12716)

According to the Pilgrims and Puritans of New England, marriage was a civil contract rather than a religious one. Courtship was usually a lengthy process in order to enable the couple to become fully acquainted. Following courtship, the couple agreed to form the marriage as a covenant between themselves and the state. As in the other cultural groups, the service was followed by a meal. While the civil marriage custom was unique among English colonists, similar practices were conducted in the Protestant low countries, where the Pilgrims had lived prior to coming to North America. Dutch colonists in New York also conducted civil marriages.

Marriages in unsettled areas all over the colonies reflected the customs of their inhabitants. As legal and religious officials were rare, marriage could be as simple as having the man and woman agree publicly to live together. Regardless of who officiated, marriages were usually occasions for much celebrating. Scottish and Scots-Irish colonists often followed the Scottish tradition of handfasting, by which the couple would agree before two witnesses to live together for a year and a day. If they were content with the agreement at the end of this time, they would seek out official religious or legal status. If not, they were free to separate.

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