Documenting multiple-partner marriages in America

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.

7 thoughts on “Documenting multiple-partner marriages in America

  1. Joel Monka

    I don’t have access to my original sources at the moment either, but I well remember that even among the supposedly straightlaced, absolute fidelity was only required until the couple had produced “an heir and a spare”, after which anything went as long as they didn’t cause a public scandal.

  2. Albatross

    Aren’t all marriages multiple-partner? I suppose Sybil could have had a single-partner marriage…

    It’s good to see polyamory studied and taken seriously. Given the pace at which Civil and Gay Rights progress has taken place, I think America will be ready for polyamorous marriages around 2112.

  3. Bill Baar

    Dan, Jefferson fathered children with his slaves. I’m not sure that would be a multiple partner marriage though. Powerful men take multiple women. That’s a very old practice.

    Whether that’s a case for ongoing institution of multiple partner marriages though another story.

    I’ll write more when I have more time, perhapes over on my own blog.

  4. Victor

    People often forget that polygamous societies were religiously-based, and focus instead on the modern preoccupation with sex and having multiple partners. Being originally from Upstate NY near Oneida, I’m somewhat familiar with the Oneida Community – a/k/a the “Perfectionists” who wanted to create a more perfect society by emulating selflessness and thinking of the greater good. (Not a bad idea). The Oneida Community Mansion House (actually in Sherrill, NY) is well worth visiting: The Community is unique among polygamous societies in that they were also extremely good business people, thus allowing their community to flourish while many others disintegrated.

  5. Victor

    Excuse the long post, but I found the following excerpt from the Hand Book of the Oneida Community (1867) to be quite interesting as it presents a very different concept of Christian marriage – which perhaps can be summed up as “less is more.”


    It is a commonly received opinion that the Bible has but one doctrine on the subject of marriage, and that altogether on the side of the present system; and that whoever ventures to suggest anything different from it, or any possible improvement on the established method of relating the sexes to each other, is a madman or an infidel. Entertaining a different conclusion, we are willing to enter the field of discussion, and give the reasons why we believe the record of inspiration contemplates a more progressive philosophy of social relations.


    At the outset we avow ourselves to be strictly Bible men – disciples of Christ and of Paul, in relation to the subject of
    marriage. We do not on the one hand turn aside, with some, to independent philosophical speculation; nor do we appeal with others to the authority of a new revelation. We adhere only to the Bible, and feel bound to abide by its judgment, as set forth in the New Testament, believing sincerely in the inspiration of its writers, and that their views accord in fact with eternal truth. We propose to find out precisely what they did teach in relation to marriage; and having done so, we shall endeavor not to misrepresent their views to ourselves or others.


    So much as this is perfectly clear: The New Testament writers were not in favor of freedom of divorce, as a means of mitigating the difficulties connected with marriage. There can be no mistake about the fact that Christ, instead of favoring freedom of divorce, as it had existed under the Mosaic dispensation, restored the marriage-law to its simplicity and rigor, allowing no divorce, except in cases of adultery. (Mark 10.) Paul stood substantially on the same ground; that is, he explicitly forbade believers to sunder the external marriage tie. (1 Cor. 7.) It is true he supposed the case of separation brought about by the departure of an unbelieving partner, and said that the other was not in bondage in such cases. Whether this in his mind amounted to the privilege of divorce and of marrying again, we cannot perhaps determine; but at all events, it was his will that the whole movement and responsibility of separation should be laid on the unbeliever. He did not allow the gospel to introduce separation between husband and wife, or to relax at all the marriage code.

    The Bible view of divorce may be illustrated thus: Suppose a commercial system which brings people into a general condition or debt, one to another. Now one way to mitigate this fact and to release people from such a state of things, would be to enact a general bankrupt-law, which would make an end of all obligation by legal repudiation. The bankrupt-law operates to release a man from his promises; and this is just the nature of any legal increase of freedom by divorce.

    Christ and Paul, however, were clearly opposed to any bankrupt-law in relation to marriage, as being a mode of discharge not contemplated in the original contract, and as dishonestly rescinding unlimited obligations.

    Sympathizing with them in this respect, we as Bible Communists are on entirely different ground from that of the infidels, Owenites, and western legislators, who, at different times, have aimed to lighten the responsibilities of marriage, by introducing an easy system of separation. We will loyally abide by the view of Christ and of Paul on that subject; and hold if there is to be any alleviation of the troubles of marriage, it should come in some other way than by freedom of divorce.


    Again, we are clear that the teaching of the New Testament is sufficiently distinct against polygamy. There is nothing in it positively explicit on this point; but the drift of its principles is against plural marriages. We do not think it is fair to infer any thing against polygamy from the saying of Christ, “What God hath joined together let not man put asunder”-the original doctrine of inviolability on which he insisted as against divorce-because it is not a matter of course that a man shall abandon his first wife by taking a second. No such thing did happen under the polygamic economy of the patriarchs; on the contrary it was well understood that the contract with the first wife could be fulfilled, consistently with taking a second.. Christ, in that saying, is pointing his artillery against putting away. If polygamy were understood to be a nullification of any previous marriage, then that saying would operate against it. But there is no intimation of any such thing in the New Testament; and hence the objection to polygamy must be placed on other grounds.

    Perhaps the strongest citation from Scripture against the polygamic system is to be found in the examples of the apostles, and the distinct intimation of Paul’s opinion against it in the saying, “A bishop must be the husband of one
    wife.” This passage is a fair hit at polygamy ; but it is nothing more. It is not to be taken as a positive approval of marriage. The apostle here shows that he prefers monogamy to a certain other form of marriage; but he elsewhere shows that he prefers celibacy to either. Finding marriage in general to operate as a source of “distraction” from spiritual service, and a cause of ” trouble in the flesh,” (see 1 Cor. 7), he objects specially to polygamy as the worst form of it, and advises the bishop, if he must enter marriage at all, to be as little involved in it as possible.

    Here it is proper to observe the concurrence, in certain points, of monogamy and polygamy. It is plain that the fundamental principle of both, is the ownership of woman by man. The monogamist claims one woman as his wife; the polygamist, two or a dozen; but the essential thing, the bond of relationship constituting marriage, in both cases, is the same, namely, a claim of ownership. Now, as the gospel in its ultimate principles, expressed on the day of Pentecost, tends to supersede private ownership, Paul was evidently consistent in choosing those forms and institutions which came nearest to the gospel standard. The restricted ownership of marriage was better in his view than the license of polygamy, and better still as an expression of Christian unselfishness, was the total abstinence from marriage proprietorship which he chose for himself.


    We come now to ascertain more definitely the precise position of Christ and Paul with respect to all social relations, that of marriage included. It is plain that the constitutional principle on which they stood, toward which they were leading the church, and which they expected would expand and occupy the whole field of the future, was declared in the saying of Christ, ” In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Now, whatever may be the exact meaning of the state designated by the term “resurrection,” it was undeniably the condition towards which Paul was urging his course, the condition towards which he ever pointed the church as the goal immediately before them. He continually pressed on believers the importance of living in heaven; of becoming citizens of heaven; and the consequence of this change of residence (so to speak) on their social and proprietary relations was constantly kept before them. “If ye then be risen with Christ,” said he, “seek those things that are above.” What were those things? Marriage certainly was not one of them. ” Lay not up for yourselves,” said Jesus, “treasures on earth, where moth and rust do corrupt; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven;” i. e., Do not depend upon perishable possessions like money, or seek temporary fellowships like marriage, but lay up for yourselves eternal connections. In the resurrection, marriage was to be superseded by universal unity. That the disciples were intent on realizing this condition, and introducing the heavenly state into this world, is shown by the prayer which Christ instructed them to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done ON EARTH AS IT IS DONE IN HEAVEN.” Their position, thus negatively ascertained, was one not in favor of divorce, not in favor of polygamy, and not in favor of marriage, but tending to abolish it. If the question be asked how they could be opposed to marriage and yet opposed to divorce, how freedom from the one could be obtained without the other, the answer must be sought by rising with them to a sphere of truth above the ordinary level of thought, and viewing the subject from the spiritual stand-point which they established.

  6. Dan

    VB @ 3 — Yes, there are still small groups that splintered off from the main Mormon body that still practice polygamy. The main body of Mormons would say that those small groups are not really Mormons, and I suppose those small groups would say they’re the real Mormons. Instead of saying “Mormons,” I should have said something about the main body of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.

    Victor @ 6 — Thanks for this! A very nice addition to this post.

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