A young and plucky eastern girl moves to the Wild West to be swept
off her feet by a handsome and muscular cowboy: it’s the stereotypical
plot of countless romance novels set in Montana.
But what are Montana romances really like? Author Martha Kohl researched hundreds of historic Montana weddings from the 1860s to the present. Her book, I Do: A Cultural History of Montana Weddings, reveals far more interesting, and yes, romantic, Montana love stories.
Frances Battle and Jim Williams’ romance could have come straight from a novel. Twenty-nine-year-old Frances’s family disapproved of Jim, and so for years the couple was forced to meet secretly and exchange letters when they could. “I believe that some of your folks object to your keeping company with me,” Jim wrote in 1893. “But dear Frances if you feel as I do, nothing in the world can ever make any difference in our feelings. If anything should happen to part us the sun would never shine for me any more.”
Finally, in 1895, Jim left a note for Frances proposing marriage. He also left a bit of pencil and paper. Too anxious to wait long for a reply, Jim instructed: “you may get a chance to write a few lines in answer…If you do keep the letter where you can get at it and I will ride close up behind you as you are going home and you can drop the note on the ground. I will stop to fix my saddle and will get it. Your own Jim.”
With the help of a neighbor, Jim and Frances rendezvoused in Virginia City, where they finally wed.
But not all Montanans experienced fairy-tale bliss. Kohl is a realist, and unlike fiction, I Do doesn’t deny the hardships that life in Montana brought, as it did to Josephine Goldman and homesteader McKee Anderson. Josephine remembered that “when the weather was too cold and the snow too deep for his Model T Ford, he saddled up an extra pony and came for me, bringing warm clothing and a pair of chaps to keep me warm. No one had ever taken so much interest in me and my welfare.”
The couple married in Glasgow that summer, though Josephine had reservations: “Homesteading looked like dire poverty to me,” she said, “but McKee could foresee a great opportunity.” Before marrying, she had to file on a homestead to keep McKee from bankruptcy.
Kohl says that these true stories of romance offer a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Montanans. Her book I Do includes the stories of rich and poor Montanans alike: Finnish homesteaders, Blackfeet students, Chinese restaurateurs, Métis fiddlers, Jewish merchants, wealthy mine owners, and struggling miners. And yes, there are even some hunky cowboys.
I Do: A Cultural History of Montana Weddings is available at local bookstores, or can be ordered directly from the Society by calling 1-800-243-9900. The 224-page book with more than 70 historic photos sells for $34.95 in hard cover.