Friday, July 26, 2013

On finding a wife in 1830s rural America


Women in the Backwoods

Friedrich Gerstäcker, the son of a celebrated opera singer, was born in Hamburg on May 6, 1816. Destined to see the world, he came at the age of 21 to New York in 1837 where he stayed for several months. He arrived in Arkansas in 1838.  The translation was recorded in the Pennsylvania German Society Series 14- Ebbes fer Alle- Ebbes fer Dich, Something for Everyone- Something for You, 1980. The following article on Women in the Backwoods was written for a German magazine in the mid 1840's.  When Arkansas became the 25th state on June 15, 1836, two percent of households were headed by women who had few legal rights, until the passage of the Married Woman's Property Law in 1835.

William Sidney Mount (American painter, 1807-1868) Cracking Nuts

On finding a wife in 1840s rural America

It was always interesting to me to see how the Americans "courted," and I will not forget a young man who took a wife in real American fashion.
 

Heinze - he was of German extraction - had worked hard and tirelessly to make a little piece of land arable, had built a good cabin, had split a few thousand fence rails so he could enclose a second field, had planted a small peach orchard, and had procured as fine a stock of chickens and young pigs as could be found in Arkansas. The natural consequence was that all the neighbors firmly asserted that Heinze was tired of bachelor housekeeping and wanted to get married. Despite all the gibes of his friends, however, he denied that this was at all certain and allowed that he "still had time to think about marrying." But this was not completely accurate. One morning in the middle of the week Heinze began with unusual zeal to black his Sunday boots and brush his blue wool coat with the shiny buttons.
 

His old father, who dwelt in the house jointly with Heinze, wondered. "Sonny," he said, "what's got into you, that you're putting on your Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes on Thursday? Surely you're not going to do some courting?"

"Don't be silly," answered Heinze, brushing all the more briskly on his very dirty coat collar. "I'm going over to the new settlers to see a few cows I might buy."
 

"Hm-m-m!" The old man shook his head, while his son took the piece of bearskin from the saddle and in its place threw across a delicately tanned lambskin that was used only on rare occasions. The father's supposition turned to certainty when his son, right there in the middle of the week, while looking into the piece of mirror that he had never needed for shaving, combed his hair. Soon after he had finished his toilette, he went away whistling with his horse at the trot.

The old man's suspicion was well founded. Heinze didn't go near the new settlers, but took the road down to the river, and after a three-mile ride reached a neighbor who had two very pretty daughters and, in addition, a very respectable property. He had not firmly decided which of the two girls he would ask for, and was leaving this completely to chance. He got down from the horse, which began to graze quietly, and went into the house.


It was still early in the day and he found both maidens busy with their housework; the eldest was churning and the youngest was spinning, while the mother sat at the loom and made the shuttle fly busily back and forth. After the friendly greeting, Heinze backed a chair up to the fireplace and began to turn his hat around between his knees.


"Have you already planted your corn this year, Mr. Heinze?" asked the mother.


''I'm going to start right away, Ma'am," said Heinze.


"It's a dry spring this year." "Very dry."


"How's your father?"


"He's kicking about, thank you."


"Don't you think it will rain today?"


Here the conversation broke off, and Heinze twisted and turned his felt between his fingers in a truly inhumane way. The oldest daughter: tried a few times to start up some talk, but it was in vain. Heinze answered everything as tersely as possible, and fell back into his meditations. Finally noontime neared, the table was set, and food was brought out. The visitor stood, smoothed his hat, and said "Goodbye to you-all!"


Won't you eat with us, Mr. Heinze?" "Got nothing against it,'' Heinze answered, quietly turning around. He put his· hat under his chair and plunged straight off into some fried bacon and a dish of potatoes.


The food was cleared away, the women again took up their occupations, and evening approached. Bur the probable suitor still sat stock-still in his chair and looked searchingly but sidewise now at the eldest, now at the youngest daughter. The girls, who had long since noticed the glances of their suitor,·could hardly suppress their laughter.


Finally their father came in from the woods leading a few cows. He walked into the room, greeted the guest, and sat down next to him. Heinze now thawed a little and became more talkative, but still did not speak freely. He let himself be invited to the evening meal before he allowed that he ought to fodder and saddle his horse, and repeatedly asserted that he had to ride home at once. But the oncoming darkness and a threatening storm made any discussion of this useless, and without further invitation Heinze now carried the saddle into the house and tied the pony fast to a trough.

As soon as the storm was over, everybody sought a bed, and the suitor too found himself stretched out under the woolen covers. The whole family, including the guest, slept in one room. On the next morning, before it was yet quite light, the two maidens rose, heated the coffee, milked the cows, and brought out the breakfast of bacon and cornbread.


Now Heinze became restless, and the words lay on his tongue for asking the question about one of the daughters, but he could not utter them. The old man, to whom the mother had imparted her suspicions, noticed that. So, to spare the poor devil such an embarrassment, he took Heinze by a button, led him just outside the door, and there told him that both his daughters were already promised and on the following Sunday would both be married at the same time.


Heinze said only the one word - "Singular!" He pressed his hat harder down on his forehead, shook the old man's hand, asked him to bring his saddle out of the house, and ten minutes later was on his way home.


But he had used up a whole day, during planting time at that, and for this reason must not return home without having accomplished his mission. So when he rode by another little cabin, in which lived likewise a young but very poor maiden, he went in and finished his business in· an hour and a half. He quickly got the consent of parents and daughter, who knew him as a hardworking fellow. Four hours later he was walking in shirt sleeves behind the pIows on his own land, making furrows for planting corn, and eight days afterwards he rode with his bride to the Justice of the Peace and left as a married man.