Two by two

Two weeks ago I wrote on the history of love and romance in Arkansas, and today I am concentrating on weddings. As you might expect, Arkansans throughout history have entered into marriage in a variety of interesting and sometimes eccentric means.

Little is known about the betrothal practices of Arkansas Indians, and only a bit more about the marriages of French colonists in early Arkansas. Morris S. Arnold, the leading historian of Arkansas' colonial era, has written that the weakness of the church in colonial Arkansas meant that ". . . many of the inhabitants had been cohabiting without even the benefit of a contract to regularize the arrangement when a priest should next appear."

The situation was considerably improved by the time Arkansas became a territory in 1819. The earliest recorded marriage I could find for Pulaski County occurred on March 2, 1820, when Alfred Harrington married Polly Mason.

Enslaved Arkansans, as a form of property, were unable to legally marry, though many slaves did follow a form of marriage. Some slave weddings were very informal, such as jumping over a broomstick.

However, some slaves as well as owners insisted on a formal ceremony. For example, when Green Elliott wed Dora Hildreth in Ouachita County just before the end of the Civil War, a white minister performed the ceremony. In 1867, the Arkansas General Assembly passed a law legitimizing all slave marriages and children resulting from them.

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The Civil War played havoc with courtship and marriage. However, two famous marriages of that era are well documented. In 1863, Confederate Captain Carroll H. Wood outran pursuing Federal forces to get to Batesville to marry his sweetheart, Nannie Wilson.

In Civil War Camden, which was free of Federal occupation until late in the war, a formal wedding at the Episcopal Church in June 1863 united Confederate surgeon Dr. Junius N. Bragg with the beautiful raven-haired Anna Goddard. A shortage of candles meant that the wedding was performed in half-light, but the bride was later described as appearing "queenly in her lovely white mull and her tulle bridal veil caught back with pure white Cape Jesamines; and the Doctor attired in his Confederate uniform."

With the passage of time, many traditions grew up around marriages. Weddings were often held at the home of the bride--to the right of the fireplace according to one source. If they could afford it, the groom's parents often gave the newlyweds a horse or mule, and one Carroll County source wrote that "the parents of the bride usually gave her a cow, chickens, and a sow, bed linens, and a feather bed, dishes, etc."

Both families often provided large meals for the newlyweds, their families, and numerous guests. A common feature at the bride's dinner was a stack cake, with each female guest bringing a thin layer of sorghum cake. An especially tall cake was a source of pride for brides. The meal provided by the groom's family often took place the day following the wedding and was commonly called the "enfare dinner," a tradition originating in Scotland.

Another tradition of foreign origins, this one borrowed from the French, was the chivarie. While it took many forms and numerous spellings, a chivarie usually involved good-natured taunting of newlyweds. Neighbors and friends paraded around the home of the newlyweds beating on pots and pans. Cora Pinkley-Call recalled a loud and boisterous chivarie following her 1913 Ozarks marriage: "Shooting off dynamite, guns, beating tin pans, ringing bells, and anything else that would make a noise. No one married in the valley escaped without a shivaree."

Honeymoons, usually called wedding tours, were more common among the moneyed classes. For example, in 1911 the newly married Mr. and Mrs. Minor Gregory of Augusta, Woodruff County, took "an extended bridal tour through the east." In 1914, Charles Vos, a "very prominent rice farmer of Almyra," Arkansas County, took his new bride on a "wedding tour" to Hot Springs--which would become a favorite honeymoon destination for Arkansans.

Throughout our history, homosexuals in Arkansas have been denied the rights and protections of legal marriage. However, that did not prevent Fort Smith resident George Burton, "who has for years been known here as a hermaphrodite," from obtaining a license under the name of George Ann Holly and marrying James Chesser in 1888.

This first gay marriage in Arkansas history is all the more remarkable because Burton/Holly was black and Chesser was white. Upon discovery, both parties were jailed and charged with sodomy, though the outcome is unknown.

Correction: Last week in my column on President George Washington, I mentioned that Matthew Lyon, one of the many Revolutionary War veterans who migrated to Arkansas, was a former U.S. congressman and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Despite the fact that I took this information from the official U.S. House of Representatives website, Lyon did not sign the Declaration. I am old enough to know not to wholly trust anything found on the Internet, and I apologize for this error.

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