Did you ancestor really get married at age 16? Probably not.
Here’s the quick version:
- Mean and median ages at first marriage are pretty consistent for the past few centuries: women in their early twenties, men in their mid to late twenties.
- Laws banning marriage below a certain age without parental consent also go back centuries.
- If you really think it happened, there’s probably an interesting story. Look deeper.
When I started researching genealogy, I had the impression that, a hundred or more years ago, everybody got married in their teens. And I definitely encountered some female ancestors where this appeared to have happened—especially in the mid-1800s, when U.S. census records started naming every person.
But in nearly every single case, something else was happening. Perhaps the marrying teen was actually a second wife who just happened to have the same name as the first wife’s. Or the child whose age suggested a teenage marriage was actually a nephew or niece. Or the young wife’s birth year was mis-transcribed. It could be any number of reasonable explanations.
Let me give you an example. In Jeremiah Van Fleet’s 1858 will, he named a daughter, Phebe Simon who was born in 1815. Jeremiah’s wife, Margaret, is well documented, and was born in 1796, meaning she was just 19 when her first child was born, and so probably 18 when she got married.
But… there’s this gap in birth years. The first child born in 1815 when Margaret was nineteen, the second in 1821 when she was twenty-five.
What really happened is that Margaret was Jeremiah’s second wife. His first wife was Phebe’s mother died, and she died sometime before 1821. In that year, Jeremiah married twenty-five-year-old Margaret.
My rule of thumb now is, from the 1600s to the 1960s, when genealogical records are reasonably extant, that women married at age 20 at their earliest, while the earliest age for men was mid-twenties. Anything earlier than that, I’m going to take a very close look.
I believe the numbers support this rule of thumb. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the median age at first marriage age in that period ranged from 20 to 22 for women, and 23 to 26 for men.
Average first marriage ages in England and Wales are pretty similar over the same time period, ranging from 22 to 25 for women, and 25 to 28 for men.
Averages and medians are different statistics, of course, but considering the likely shape of the data—skewed to the left by puberty and with a long tail to the right as shown in this chart—it’s mathematically expected that the long tail would pull averages above the 50th percentile. This makes the U.S. and U.K. numbers pretty much identical.
So what about marriages before the mid- to late-1800s?
Nation states and census data are sort of like, well… a horse and carriage. The two just go together. I mean, you really can’t have one without the other!
Nation states are a relatively new phenomenon and finding detailed marriage statistics prior to the mid-1800s isn’t just a simple web search.
My go-to source on colonial north American culture, David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, helps to fill in the gaps, and does so in a pretty big way.
The book mostly covers the 1600s and 1700s, and documents five different ranges for age at first marriage for five different cultures:
- For Quakers in Pennsylvania, marriage ages approached modern levels, ranging from 26 to 32 for men, and 23 to 30 for women.
- Pennsylvania Dutch had similar patterns, with men marrying at an average of 29, and women at 26 for the research communities.
- For Yankee Puritans, the average marriage age was 23 for women, for men 26.
- In the Tidewater of Virginia, Delaware and Maryland, the average for men was also 26, but for women, it dipped down to between 18 and 20.
- Backcountry marriages amongst the Scotch Irish followed Tidewater patterns for women, with average marriage at 19 for women, and 21 for men.
These cultural norms weren’t new to North America: they were brought from Britain by their communities.
If most women were between 19 and 25 when they first married in the 1700s, a range which basically matched that of the 1900s; and men ranging from 22 to 26 in both periods; then we have a pretty durable range of first marriage over several hundred years.
So what do you do when you see a woman marrying at age 14, or a man at 18? Be skeptical. Odds are, you’re missing something.
The first thing to do is look for parental consent: it might take a while, but you can generally find a site that will tell you what the laws were, and if there’s a law, you can bet there are (or at least were) records, like this note signed by Andrew Chew regarding his daughter Mary’s marriage to Thomas Moon. Nothing in it says she was underage, but other sources say she was seventeen.
If you can’t find proof of consent—and even if you can—keep looking. There’s often a better story.
A good example from my wife’s tree is Harriet Elizabeth Pierson, who, at age 15, married a man nearly twice her age in 1833.
Why would she marry at such an early age? Well, first off, she was an orphan in an age when the concept of adoption did not exist. Orphans were expected to work, and a Cinderella-like existence was entirely possible.
There’s no record of parental consent—something her guardian could have withheld. It’s possible he did consent and the records are simply lost—we only know the details of their marriage from documents recorded decades later in Oregon.
But there was also something special about where Harriet was living. Western New York in the early 1800s was referred to as the Burned Over district, a place of fervent religious activity, a place where the second Great Awakening birthed several new Christian sects, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Shakers and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
During the Second Great Awakening, it’s easy to imagine such legal niceties could have been glossed over. And it surely had a big impact on Harriet’s life, well beyond a potential legal and culture flexibility about a teenager getting married.