How common were common-law marriages in the Old West?

How common were common-law marriages in the Old West?

Joel Conway
Doraville, Georgia

On the remote frontier, common-law marriages were fairly common. Oftentimes couples…well…coupled without a license or ceremony, because they could not find a preacher or judge near them who could marry them. This practice went beyond just living together. The couple had to publicly acknowledge that they were spouses.

Wyatt Earp is a good example of how the West made its own rules when it came to such matters. Mattie Blaylock lived with him as his common-law wife, as indicated by the 1880 Tombstone census. They parted ways without a divorce around 1881, and he took up with Sadie Marcus; no record exists of their marriage either. The other “Fighting Earps”—James, Virgil and Morgan—also had common-law wives.

Informal marriages were valid under English Common Law (hence the name). In the 1877 case Meister v. Moore, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a non-ceremonial marriage was a valid enforceable marriage, unless a state’s statute forbade it.

Today, nine states and the District of Columbia allow common-law marriages.

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