In an earlier post, I mentioned the existence of multiple-partner marriages in America; commenter Ellen challenged me to find reputable sources to back up this assertion. Somewhere in my personal library I do have at least one book that documents the practice of multiple-partner marriages among lower-class white in colonial New England; but I cannot find that book right now; my books are still in a certain amount of chaos from moving.
Google Books came to my rescue. A quick search of Google Books turned up several reputable sources that back up my assertion. If this sort of thing interests you, I’ve included lengthy quotations from the relevant books below the fold — then you can go read those books yourself online.
Leaving aside the well-documented practice of multiple partner marriages by such religious minorities as the Oneida community and mid-19th C. Mormonism, we can find evidence of multiple partner marriage within several racial and economic subgroups, e.g., certain indian tribes, African slaves (including African Muslims), poor whites of European descent, etc.
From Tribe, race, history: Native Americans in southern New England, 1780-1880, by Daniel R. Mandell (John Hopkins Univ, 2008, p. 155):
There was a similarly mixed picture of household structures and moral standards at midcentury. Earle praised the family stability and sexual practices of most tribes in the state, noting that illegitimacy had declined, and his census shows a decrease since 1800 in woman-headed households in the [Martha's] Vineyard communities. But other records paint a different picture of Indian women continuing to enter informal marriages with multiple partners. At midcentury, the Machantucket Pequot’s overseer wrote that “there is no such thing as regular marriage among them,” and all eith Eastern Pequot children lived in three female-headed households. In 1861, many Monhegan women had “several sorts of children,” which “added greatly to their embarrassment” — although the embarrassment was more probably the commissioners’ than the women’s. Even Earle comdemned one tribe, writing that at Troy-Watuppa “Intemperance and unchastity are but too prevalent,” and, off the reserve, 12 children had been born to unmarried women in two families, with the paternity divided equally between men from all three races [blacks, white, Indians]. But he, like many others, saw such morals, whether admirable or unfortunate, as more a matter of culture and class than race, comparing the behavior and culture of Indians to “others of their class” in the region.
In other words, not only did Indian communities practice informal marriages with multiple partners, but this practice was part of a constellation of practices that were seen by literate whites as typical of people “of their class.”
From Sexual revolution in early America: Gender relations in the American experience by Richard Godbeer (Johns Hopkins Univ., 2002, pp. 120-122):
Many of those who advocated a reformation of sexual mores in the colonial South bemoaned a lack not only of virtue but also of fundamental civility among white settlers. Members of the southern elite remarked scornfully upon the barbarism of their social inferiors, including and especially their lack of sexual decorum. Recall Governor Glen’s comment about the “loose embraces” of folk who lived like “pigs” and Woodmason’s description of colonists “swopping their wives as cattle.” Virginia planter William Byrd declared of a backcountry couple that “these wretches live[d] in a dirty state of nature and were mere Adamites, innocence only excepted.” It is no coincidence that political and religious leaders used similar criteria and language in assessing the behavior of African slaves and Indians, who also seemed sexually fickle and promiscuous. Anxiety about the apparent savagery of poorer white settlers was informed in part by racial perceptions and sometimes framed quite explicitly in terms of comparison with nonwhite behavior….
When Le Jau and others observed slaves engaging in serial or polygamous relationships that would ahve been deemed licit in African societies, they generally assumed that such patterns of behavior were rooted in a savage and depraved nature. The depiction of blacks as incapable of sexual loyalty was reinforced by the instability of family life among slaves, itself caused by the conditions under which they lived. Slave unions had no legal standing….
Here again we see that elite whites lumped together the sexual practices of poor whites, blacks, and Indians in order to contrast them with the sexual mores of the elite whites. An anthropologist would find differences between the sexual practices of poor whites, blacks, and the various Indian tribes. We also see that the white elite delegitimized the cultural practices of blacks, while at the same time setting up economic/social/political systems that would not allow blacks to have the kinds of monogamous marriages that elite whites valued. The same thing happened to various Indian tribes, and probably to poor whites as well.
In After polygamy was made a sin: the social history of Christian polygamy (Routledge and Kegan, 1974), John Cairncross claims to have traced a long history of Christian polygamy — in both theory and practice — dating from the Reformation to the present day. In the Preface to the book, he writes:
From all [my] detective work there emerged a long but largely underground tradition of Christian polygamy (supplemented and sometimes intertwined with a mainly French freethinking current), which extends from the first half of the sixteenth century to about 1800, and indeed, in isolated areas of Utah, to the present day.
Cairncross states that the Reformation, which saw the Bible as divinely inspired and which encouraged everyone to read the Bible for themselves, got some European Christians thinking about those Old Testament patriarchs with all their wives. Some went so far so to conclude that polygamy was divinely inspired. Cairncross finds plural marriage was practiced by German Anabaptists in the 1520s, advocated for by Anglican clergy (including at least one bishop) in the 1700s, and carried out in the New World by Brigham Young and the Mormons.
Finally, there’s the question of legal marriage. In 17th C. colonial New England, the imported English legal system did not recognize multiple marriage, but the various Indian legal systems that existed alongside the English system might allow multiple marriage. According to Peter Charles Hoffer in Law and People in Colonial America (Johns Hopkins Univ., 1998, p. 68), English traders on the frontier were adopting native customs of marriage, public address, and reciprocity.” We tend to assume that English law was the only law for whites in colonial New England, but that was not necessarily the case.
Summary: Multiple-partner marriages did exist in America among certain indigenous Indian tribes, among certain persons of African descent, and among certain persons of European descent. Such marriages were not sanctioned by the legal systems or religious systems set up by the economic/social/political elite of European descent; indeed, the elite rejected such marriages outright; nonetheless, such marriages were real.