Matchmaking In the Old West

~ by Ruth Ann Nordin

During the mid-1800s in the United States, there was a gender imbalance between the East and the West.  Men had migrated west to find new opportunities such as land and gold.  There was a good number who brought their wives with them, but some men embraced the romantic notion of the rugged pioneer life and went alone. However, once there, they faced a very practical problem.  Who would help with the domestic chores?  Also, being human, they faced loneliness.  Women, meanwhile, were facing their own problems back East.  After the Civil War, many became widows and were left with the very real possibility of poverty, and some had children to care for.

The answer to the gender imbalance was a matchmaking service. Today, we think of online services, but back then, they had newspapers ads.  The names and other identifying information were kept private, but in these ads, both men and women would briefly describe themselves then request the type of person they were looking for.

As you’d expect, there were situations where the person placing the ad (or even answering them) would lie.  Human nature hasn’t changed much over the years, but from my research, it appears most were honest, like they are today.

Sometimes there were so few women, the man had to take anything he could get.  The women, in this case, were at an advantage.  They could be more selective in picking the one they would go out West to marry.  However, in some situations, the women were in such a desperate situation, they actually paid to come out West.  Once there, their opportunities were pretty good considering how much the men outnumbered the women.  The trick, of course, is picking the right man, something the modern women still struggles with.

In addition to newspaper ads, a person with a mind for business acted as a matchmaker by making it convenient for women to come out West to meet potential husbands.  For example, Asa Mercer was successful in bringing some brides to the Washington Territory in the 1860s.

In 1870s, the quality of pictures were good enough to create Picture Books where a woman would have her photograph along with a brief profile.  These became popular, which isn’t surprising since it’s only human nature to want to know what your future spouse is going to look like.

The railroads made correspondence and these ads much more accessible, and because of this, you can consider the train a part of matchmaking history.

Love, however, was up to the man and woman who chose to get married.  It’s not the circumstances that bring you together that matter.  It’s the commitment to the person you’re marrying that makes all the difference, which is why in mail-order bride romances the focus is on how two strangers met and created a life together.  The question of “how” these people met are interesting, but it’s the journey to the happily ever after that makes for a compelling and heartwarming read.


Ruth Ann Nordin lives in Montana with her husband and four sons. When she’s not playing wife and mother, she’s reading and writing. She has written over sixty books, and about fifty of those are romances. Her romances include Regencies, historical westerns, and contemporaries.

Ruth’s books can be found on the Pioneer Hearts Bookstore by clicking here.

To find out more about her, visit

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