Friday, May 24, 2013

When Did Girls Get Married?: A Review of Two Centuries of Livingston Marriages

It often seems to me that there is a feeling out there that women "back then" married very young.  It slips out often during casual chatter when I guide tours, "Oh she didn't get married until X age," someone says, "That was old for back then."

As is often the way, this is partially true and partially exaggerated.

For one thing "back then" is a pretty broad term when you're talking about Clermont history.  From Robert the 1st Lord's arrival in New York to Alice Livingston's death in 1964, we cover 290 years of history--and a lot can change in social customs during that time. 

The second problem is "they."  I can't really speak to the whole population of the American continent (rich and poor, rural and urban, north, south, German, English, Native--you get the idea), but I can at least look at the Livingston marriages.  Livingstons were a family of Dutch and English origin, extremely wealthy, and centered in the northeast--primarily New York's Hudson Valley.

Okay, now that we've got that narrowed down, I can turn my Old Reliable: the Livingston Family Genealogy.  This big, thick book holds the most complete listing of Livingston births and deaths in existence.  It's still not totally complete, but I've been adding to it in pencil for years.  Since it doesn't actually have marriage dates in it either, I add those when I find them.

It's these pains-takingly-added notations I will primarily depend on today.  Some guesses can also be made from the birth of the marriage's first child.

We'll start with the mid 18th century marriages.  Margaret Beekman was 18 when she tied the knot with Robert R. Livingston Sr in 1742. (It was an arranged marriage, but rather a passionate one.  The two had eleven children together.)  Her husband's cousin Sarah Livingston (b. 1725) had her first baby at age 24 so assuming that everything was planned (so to speak), she could not have been married any older than age 23.  Using the same method, cousin Catherine Livingston (b. 1734) could not have been older than 19 and another cousin Alida ( comes in around age 18.  Cousin Philip "the Signer" married his Ten Broeck wife Christina (b. 1718) when she was 22 in 1740.

The next generation in the late 18th century has similar ages, although there are two notable extremes that I'll get to in a minute: Philip's son (unfortunately named "Philip Philip") married his wife Sarah when she was 19, and Sarah Livingston married John Jay (at right) when she was 17 in 1774.  Joanna may have (b. 1754, also from the Manor side--Henry's daughter) married Paul Schenk as late as 26 years old, since her first daughter was born in 1781.

Then there are some of Margaret Beekman's eleven children:  The Chancellor's wife Mary was 18 or 19.  Brother Henry Beekman married his wife when she was 18.  Gertrude tied the knot in 1779 at age 22.  Sister Alida (b. 1761) married a Revolutionary war veteran in 1789 at the age of 28.

The latest age at marriage in this brood is the oldest sister Janet who pined for her love Richard Montgomery until he finally married her at age 30 in 1773.  Sadly, their marriage lasted only 3 years as he was killed early in the American Revolution.

The youngest bride was their brother Edward's wife, Louise D'Avezac de Castera Moreau.  Although Louise was 18 or 19 when she married Edward in 1805, she was a widow at that point, married for the first time at the age of 13 (though her memoir seems to suggest that this young marriage was a function of her Caribbean upbringing).

Proceeding on to the next generation in the early 19th century! Ah the era of high-waisted Empire dresses and Jane Austen.  The Chancellor's girls were married to Livingston cousins: Edward Philip and Robert L.  Betsy was 18 or 19 (at left) and her sister Margaret Maria was 17 or 18.  Cousin Harriet took a risk and married Robert Fulton at the age of 24 in 1808 (the marriage was a rocky one).

It was another cousin, Serena Livingston, who spurred me to write this blog.  Serena got married in 1816 or 17--of that we are fairly certain--but her birth date is listed in the genealogy as 1804.  Given that every other Livingston girl seems to have waited until at least 17, marrying off a girl as young as 12 seems highly unlikely.  Other records seem to suggest that her birth date may be as early as 1795--which I have to say gave me a sigh of relief--making her as old as 21 or 22 when she got married.  I'm going to hope for her sake that this is the case since her marriage was particularly tumultuous.

So all my evidence thus far points to Livingston girls of the 18th century getting married primarily in their late teens and early 20s with a few notable exceptions.  Social changes in the Victorian era however, lead to later marriages, which amongst other things also lead to smaller families (try Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America for more information).  Pushing forward into this time period unfortunately I find fewer marriage dates have been recorded in my book so I'll have to make more guesses based on the birth date of the first child.  I've just been subtracting a year from the child's date of birth, which is admittedly "iffy," but it gives us an idea at least of the latest age at which they were married.  Nevertheless 17 -year-old brides seem to drop off the map after the 1830s, and even 18-year-olds are harder to find. 

Betsy and Edward Philip had quite a number of children, though they lost several sadly.  Their daughter Margaret was 20 when her first daughter was born in 1828 so was about 18 or 19 when she got married.  By the same method, her sisters Elizabeth (at left) and Mary look to have been 20 and even 26 respectively.  Their brother's wife (a Livingston cousin named Cornelia, below at right) was about 20.  Brother Edward's wife Susan de Peyster was 33 when she had her first child, and children followed every 2-3 years thereafter, leading me to believe it was not infertility but a marriage as late as 31 or 32 yeas old that lead to such late births.

Betsy's granddaughter Elizabeth (b. 1830) seems to have married at age 23 or 24.

Margaret Maria's children don't have a lot of productive marriages for me to work with, but I see first children at ages 21 and 22 so marriage dates not later than 20 and 21 in the 1820s and 30s.  Her granddaughter Mary (b. 1847) appears to have been around 20 or 21.

Going on at this rate I run the risk of just turning into a list of names and ages so I'll have to call it quits.  Suffice to say, Victorian-era marriages were often taking place later in women's lives, while earlier 18th century marriages were focused on getting girls settled by their late teens and early 20s.  Exceptions were present in both time periods.  Livingston girls were not generally slaves to custom.  While a few girls took the plunge before their 18th birthdays, more Livingston girls waited a little longer to find the right partnership (at least they hoped) before diving in.

So there it is.  Compared to today when the average age at first marriage for American women is 26.9, girls were getting married off earlier.  There were a lot of reasons for this, but they are not divulged in my big thick book o' genealogy, and it would take a whole additional blog entry to really explore the topic.  But it is worth noting, the next time you say "Boy, they got married young back then," that the age at first first marriage changed for Livingston girls over the centuries, and that there was no hard-and-fast rule about how old you should be.  Just like today there was a pressure to find a mate, but flexibility for the person and their situation was still allowed. 


  1. Great topic! I looked into a similar one in my own family tree - not quite the same, since I didn't have a lot of marriage dates, but the relative ages of spouses. It seemed like most were within five years of each other, not the "young women married old men" stereotype. I'd be interested to see if that holds true with the Livingstons!

  2. It looks like the age differences are all over the map. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, I see as little as 1 year (Edward Philip and Betsy, 1799) and as much as 22 years ("Beau Ned" and Louise d'Avezac, 1805) between bride and groom.

    Out of 17 couples I randomly selected with marriages between 1740 and 1810, the median age difference was 7 years--mode of 8 years. I guess the Livingstons didn't feel too worried about age differences.

  3. Very interesting to see those different ages!