Before E-Harmony, There Was…Eliza Farnham?!

Isn’t she just a sight?

In doing research on how the scarcity of women impacted the nineteenth century gold rush phenomenon, I found one particularly interesting “nugget” of information. Apparently, someone attempted to create a virtual dating site back in the mid-1800s, or, at least a close equivalent. Eliza Farnham concocted a scheme in the 1850s to provide wives to miners and other men in moral-lacking California through shipping women via vessel.

Now, hold on a minute, how does this bear ANY resemblance to a virtual dating site? Well, first of all, the “matchmaker” (that being Farnham) set certain criteria for prospective wives. According to Farnham’s California In-doors and Out, women needed to be “not under twenty-five years of age” with “satisfactory testimonials of education, character, capacity, etc.” [1] Not only that, they had to provide $250 to help cover the cost of a ship to carry them to San Francisco.[2] Pretty good deal, huh?

Well, not entirely. Think about it. How would you feel if you were shipped to a foreign-ish land (considering California was an official state until 1849) just to find a husband? You had no inkling who would be out there, especially if women were needed to purify gold rush California. As occurs with many ideas, it sounded better than on paper than in practice. Owing to illness and a sad response of only three women out of a target one hundred to Farnham’s circular, the marriage emigration scheme failed. Our lovely women’s right activist took the failure of her endeavor with good grace and even relief. She writes:

“I may say, however, that since I have experienced the moral and social poverty of the country, I have felt grateful that my endeavors failed. It would be a painful responsibility, which I could never throw off, if I had to reflect that there were persons here through my instrumentality who were less happy or good than they might have been remaining at home.”[3]

But the simple fact Farnham attempted such a scheme is remarkable. Her desires both reflected traditional ideas of the time, that women tempered men’s excesses and without women, men regressed to a caveman-like state (okay, maybe not THAT extreme), as well as marked a progressive idea in itself. A woman organizing a marriage emigration scheme of bringing women to California was very unusual and shows extreme initiative. And, the men in California probably would not have minded another one hundred women running around camp. As Farnham noted, the scarcity of women in camp probably contributed to such a demoralized territory in which to live…and, more women=more se…procreation!

Unfortunately, e-Harmony has more success than Farnham did…


[1] Eliza Farnham, California In-doors and Out, (New York: Dix, Edwards, and Co., 1856): 26.

[2] Ibid., 26.

[3] Ibid. 23-24.


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