“Wanted: A nice, plump, healthy, good natured, good looking domestic and affectionate lady to correspond. Object – matrimony. She must be between 22 and 35 years of age. She must be a believer in God and immortality, but no sectarian. She must not be a gad-about or given to scandal but must be one who will be a helpmate and companion, and who will endeavor to make a happy home. Such a lady can find a correspondent by addressing the editor of this paper. Photographs exchanged!” – William J. Berry’s advertisement in the Yuma Arizona Sentinel – 1875
It was 1879, and the nightlife in the mining town of Tombstone, Arizona, was in full swing. The burg’s main thoroughfare featured a string of saloons and bathhouses filled with thirsty citizens. A dirty, unshaven miner walked down the street past a row of the rowdy businesses carrying a loaded six-shooter in his hand. The angry man glowered at bystanders who dared to stand in his way. Nothing was going to stop him from his violent mission.
He entered the Occidental Bar and scanned the sea of faces, looking for his prey. A thick haze of cigarette and cigar smoke hovered over the dingy, crowded room. The man glanced down at his gun then made his way along the bar. A young woman with ebony skin and smooth, black hair sat at the end of the counter next to a large man with heavy jowls, a round face, and a straggly mustache. His hands were all over the woman’s body, and she giggled as he kissed her neck. The miner raised his weapon, pointed it at the fat man, and pulled the hammer back. Frightened saloon patrons scattered.
The fat man jumped up and hurried away from the bar. The miner followed his every move with the barrel of his gun. The young woman was undaunted, as if she had witnessed this kind of display before. She smiled a Sphinx-like smile at the miner and stepped out of the way. “I saw her first,” he snarled at the fat man. The fat man quickly reached for his gun. KABLAAAMM!! KABLAAAMM!! When the shooting stopped the fat man lay dead on the floor, two bullets in his chest.
Scenes like this played out repeatedly in the Old West. With too few women to go around and prostitutes setting up business, married black women living in mining camps around Tucson, Arizona, sought to put an end to violent behavior and ultimately bring social reform to the unruly black communities. In 1885, six wives, convinced the problem was the lack of marriageable women in the area, met to arrange mail order brides for Arizona miners. They called their enterprising group the Busy Bee Club.
Members of the Busy Bee Club ran advertisements in newspapers and wrote letters to churches in the east inviting single women to come west. Lured by opportunities offered in the wild territories, many women responded to the call. Candidates mired in poverty, family problems, or personal tragedies hoped to begin life anew on the frontier. Before those hoping to find love and happiness were given a one-way ticket west, they had to consent to marry the miner who selected her as his bride on sight. This condition was not a big concession in the eyes of these women and quickly agreed upon.
Black miners throughout the west anxiously awaiting the women’s arrival discussed how they would decide on the selection of brides. Even though all the men had contributed financially to the endeavor, seniority won out, and the oldest men gained the right to choose first. Some of the men were old enough to be fathers and grandfathers of the teenagers they selected to marry. Often the mail-order brides were second wives for the senior miners who had lost their first wives. These men had large families and needed help caring for them. Once the vows were exchanged, the naïve young women took on a full houseful of children as well as a husband.
On rare occasions these mail-order brides were treated to elaborate weddings. Miner Thomas Detter of Eureka, Nevada, gave his betrothed, Emily Brinson, a splendid ceremony complete with a gift of diamond earrings and a gold wedding band. According to the Eureka Newspaper, their ceremony, held in June of 1876, was “attended by nearly all of the black folks in town, besides some twenty-five or thirty white people, including some of our most prominent citizens and their wives.”
Another such extravagant ceremony took place in San Francisco in 1867. Sara Anderson and Wellington Patrick married under a canopy of chiffon, and the bride was ushered in by the Black Pacific Brass Band. Brides on the other end of the spectrum considered their ceremony to be a posh affair if their grooms stepped down off their horse to exchange vows. According to the Alta California Newspaper such an account took place in February of 1867. A couple named James and Belle rode up on horseback before a Justice of the Peace and said their “I dos” atop their rides. James asked the Justice of the Peace, “Can you marry us?” “Well, yes,” the Justice responded, “I guess I can swear you and that gal to support each other. Join hands. Stranger do you swear that you believe that the gal whose hand you are holding, you will support as long as you breathe?” The Justice asked. James agreed to do so and his betrothed took the same pledge. The Justice concluded the ceremony with, “I now call you one. Farewell.”
There were some black women who immigrated to California for the sole purpose of living an independent life. But no sooner than they arrived they found themselves the subject of a prearranged marriage. Friends and relatives of single black women expected them to be engaged within days of their arrival west. Suitors paid well-meaning matchmakers handsomely to wed the unencumbered females. Out of fear of being killed by the suitors, most women went along with the arrangement
Widow Pauline Williamson took exception to this practice and shunned attempts by her friends to marry her off to a perfumery storeowner. Shortly after coming to California, Pauline learned her acquaintances had received expensive diamonds from a businessman as payment for giving him Pauline’s hand in marriage. Pauline got out of having to marry the stranger by claiming she was betrothed to a man from New York who would soon be joining her. In a letter sent back home to her friend in November of 1885 she wrote that she thought “the whole transaction was crazy to go so far without her knowledge.”
Black women like Pauline Williamson, who challenged such practices, forged the way for other black women to freely come west and start a life unencumbered by social restrictions. Members of the Busy Bee Club, and other like-minded black organizations, helped transform the sparse frontier into a thriving, racially diverse country.