February 2, 2011 by Amy Elliott Bragg
Detroit historians on weddings and marriages
Silas Farmer on marriage law in early Detroit. File under: dusky lovers, child brides and the ever-self-important French commandant:
Long before the French came, dusky lovers strayed through the primeval forests, exchanged whispered vows, and made presents of wild roses, water lilies, and fleur de lis. Indian husbands, however, were less attractive than Indian lovers, and the French when they came carried off the fairest of the forest.
… No one was allowed to marry without permission. Even [Alphonse de] Tonty himself, in 1717, was obliged to solicit a marriage permit that he might marry an attractive widow.
… The presence of the commandant was essential to wedding festivities, and there was much formality attendant upon all the preliminaries. The notary, with his quill and ink-horn, was a man of eminent importance on these occasions and the contract of marriage which he drew up specified with exact care the dowry of the bride and named at length all who were present at the wedding.
… Marriages under the English law were solemnized either by the minister or a justice of the peace. The French maidens were not averse to having English suitors, and were so eagerly sought that they often stepped from childhood into married life. Tradition says that when Dr. G.C. Anthon married Miss St. Martin she had a doll in her arms. Where both parties were French, less than thirty years often covered the united ages of both bride and groom.
Where can a modern-day Detroit bride find a ceremonial quill and ink-horn?
Of course, I turned next to General Palmer for early local wedding lore. A browse through his book is important for remembering that marriages, for much of American (nay, human) history, were just short, sweet preludes to death.
The marriage of Elizabeth Clemens — daughter of Judge Christian Clemens, founder of Mt. Clemens — to the auctioneer Sydney Hawkins, for instance:
The wedding was a fine affair and participated in by the then elite of Macomb County. The knot was tied by Elder Colclazer, the handsome presiding elder of the Methodist church, who it was thought was at one time a suitor for the fair bride’s hand. Miss Caroline Whistler, a niece of Mrs. Judge James Abbott, was the bridesmaid and Mr. John V.R. Scott, a young society man of Detroit, and a partner of Mr. Hawkins, was the best man. I may be pardoned for dwelling a little on this happy event, as all the participants were of the first prominence, socially and otherwise. After a brief and happy married life passed in Detroit, Mr. Hawkins died, and his widow returned to Mt. Clemens.
Or the wedding of Matilda Moran (daughter of Judge Charles Moran and Julie Dequindre) to James Watson:
The wedding was a brilliant one and occurred in the old brick Moran mansion on Jefferson Avenue, lately demolished. At it were gathered all the elite of Detroit. The young couple went to housekeeping directly, in the little wooden cottage (still standing) corner of Jefferson Avenue and Riopelle. After a brief married life of a little more than a year the wife passed away.
Or take Friend Palmer’s father-in-law, Judge Benjamin F.H. Witherell, who had a particularly awful streak:
Judge Witherell was married three times, and survived each of his partners. He was first married to Mary A. Sprague, of Poultney, Vermont, in 1824, by whom he had four children, Martha E., James B., Harriet C.M. and Julia A. His first wife died in 1832, being the first victim of the cholera which prevailed to such an alarming extent that year. In 1837, he married for his second wife Miss Delia A. Ingersoll, by whom he had one child, Charles I. She died in 1847, and in 1849 he was married to Miss Cassandra S. Brady, daughter of General Hugh Brady, and who died in 1864, from the effects of a lamp explosion.
Martha, the eldest daughter, a saint if there ever was one, died just on the verge of womanhood. Harriet, the next daughter, married the writer and after thirty years of a happy married life she too passed away to a glorious immortality.
At the Burton Historical Collection, the General’s scrapbooks are filled with newspaper clippings about being a good partner to your wife, learning to relax when your wife nags you, enjoying the elevated state of matrimony in your everyday life, etc. They married in 1851; Harriet died in 1880. He seems to have loved her a lot.
I just found this picture of her and it made me smile. That’s Harriet on the left; her friend Minerva Cole on the right.
Tomorrow we’ll bring you an outrageous Detroit society wedding. With newsreel. That’s right!