Saturday, June 04, 2011

This Week in Texas Methodist History June 5

The Republic of Texas Legalizes Marriages Conducted by Bond, June 5, 1837

Perhaps you think family law is complicated today. The prevalence of blended families, child custody disputes, disposition of family assets, and similar issues fill our courts. As complicated as they may seem, these issues are child’s play when compared with family law in Texas of the 1820’s and 1830’s.

Mexico invited immigrants to the Texas and gave very generous land grants as an inducement to immigrate. A head of household would usually receive a league (4428 acres) and labor (177 acres). An unmarried man would receive ¼ league (1107 acres). If an unmarried grantee later married, he could then apply for an additional ¾ league. Say “I do” and get 3321 acres!

With such a powerful incentive to marry it is little wonder that Mexican Texas was full of sham marriages, fraud, bigamy, and assorted ruses to be able to present oneself as married. Men who deserted their wives in the United States without benefit of divorce sometimes committed bigamy when they arrived in Texas. Young girls of fourteen or fifteen became the objects of courtship by much older men. Widows were especially prized. A man who married a widow not only got the league but could also file a claim for the league due his wife’s deceased first husband.

Unfortunately for couples who wished to marry, only Roman Catholic priests could perform weddings, and there was always a shortage of priests in the regions of Texas being settled by colonists from the United States.

The combination of powerful incentives for marriage and the shortage of priests meant that many couples who wished to marry did so by means of a marriage bond. The parties would post a monetary bond promising to forfeit the bond if they failed to marry the next time a priest came to their settlement. After they posted the bond, they co-habited and lived as husband and wife. Couples would sometimes live as husband and wife for years with no more legal or religious sanction than the marriage bond. A Visit to Texas; Being a Journal of a Traveler Through Those Parts Most Interesting to American Settlers, New York, Goodrich and Wiley, 1834 contains a description of colonists receiving Catholic marriage at San Felipe. Travelers were often amused to see couples being married and several of their children being baptized on the same day.

Many couples who began living together with the sanction of marriage bonds didn’t bother to go through with the wedding. On June 5, 1837, the Congress of the Republic of Texas declared those marriages to be valid without the benefit of clergy. The Congress of the Republic of Texas also enacted marriage laws very similar to the ones with which we are familiar. Ministers of the gospel, civil magistrates, and ship captains were authorized to marry couples. On July 23, 1837, the Rev. Henry Matthews signed the first marriage license issued in Harrisburg (later Harris) County, Texas, as Mary Smith and Hugh McCrory wed. There was no more need for marriage bonds.


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