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Hovey's Dance Hall at Clifton, Arizona. Taken 1884. Courtesy of the National Archives.
eddings were special events on the frontier. If time, money, and weather permitted, settlers might hold a dance or a picnic to celebrate their wedding day. But weddings were made most memorable by the "charivari," or "shivaree," that neighbors exacted on the newlyweds on their wedding night. The closest modern equivalent of the shivaree would be a combination of trick-or-treating, fraternity hazing, and Christmas caroling.

Shivaree participants would gather at a neighbors' home to "warm-up" and sometimes have a few drinks. As darkness descended, the shivaree party would converge on the home of the newly wed couple, hoping to catch them shortly after they got into bed. Shortly after arrival, the shivaree party would begin banging pots and pans, singing, and yelling to get the attention of the couple. If the couple refused to come out, the shivaree leader would bang on the door, demanding admittance, so that the party could come inside and to celebrate the wedding and toast the bride and groom's good health.

Many frontier newlyweds spent the first night of their marriages at the home of the bride or groom's parents.
If the groom appeared at the door and gave the party some money or another treat, the party might be convinced to go and celebrate elsewhere. If the party's noisemaking was ignored, it was not uncommon for them to break into the house, abduct the groom, and carry him miles away on horseback, leaving him -- in varying stages of undress -- to find his way home in the dark. One Kansas newspaper provides the following description of a shivaree party: "They performed such tricks as shooting bullets through the windows, breaking down the door, dragging the couple out of bed and tumbling them about on the floor, and indulging in other equally innocent tricks." The editor added, "It requires backbone to get married out this way."

Advertisement for Stoves and Ranges. Livingston Courier, 1800.

Holidays on the frontier were a time of celebration and feasting. Christmas was a special favorite, and homesteaders began preparing for it weeks in advance, though many struggled to make or procure simple Christmas gifts for each other. Despite the lack of lavish offerings, many homestead children seemed content with the simplicity of their Christmas celebrations. Margaret Veasey reported years later, "Until I was six years old, I used to have dolls made from my father's red underwear. We never had a sled or a little red wagon that most children have nowadays, but we had improvised toys which were the source of much pleasure."

Aside from Christmas toys, basket socials, shivarees, and play parties, the frontier offered entertainment that was definitely more of an adult nature. Almost as soon as new towns sprang up, a saloon opened its doors to willing customers. Though many homesteaders may have frowned upon alcohol, there were plenty of people around who were more than happy to imbibe, though the drinks they got were often "stretched" with water, or laced with a variety of toxic substances to give them an extra "punch." If a town had a saloon, it was frequently the "home base" of the town's "bad women" or "ladies of easy virtue." For a fee, homesteaders, miners, and cattlemen could enjoy the company of women who went under such descriptive names as Contrary Mary, Peg-Leg Polly, and Velvet-Ass Rose.

Mining camps and cattle towns in Montana even had their own "red-light districts," where prostitutes lived in a row of makeshift wooden shanties. This area became known throughout the West as "the line," and in Montana it gave rise to an oft-repeated phrase: "First came the men who work in the mine, then come the ladies, who live on the line."

As towns and farms grew, homesteaders' recreation and leisure time became more structured and slightly less raucous and rowdy. When schoolhouses were built, they were used for a variety of community functions, including debates, amateur theatricals, and spelling bees. Homesteaders joined fraternal organizations such as the Masons, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Pythias. Women created charitable organizations, sewing circles, and literary societies. A few communities developed circulating libraries. As the hand of "civilization" brought order to the wilderness, settlers developed activities and relationships that softened the impact of what one homesteader called "the ceaseless, terrible solitude of life on the frontier."


Works Consulted:

"Dances, Basket Socials, and the Occasional Christmas Party": Recreation Brown, Dee. The Gentle Tamers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

---. Wondrous Times on the Frontier. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.

Dary, David. Seeking Pleasure in the Old West. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Lynes, Russell. The Domesticated Americans. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Pioneer Memories. By the Pioneer Society of Sweet Grass County, Montana, 1960. From the collection of the Montana Historical Society.

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