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A Same-Sex Marriage In 1877

Homer Thiel

August 15th, 2011

[Homer Thiel is a Tucson-based historical archeologist, genealogist, and a good friend of mine. An article he wrote, “An 1887 Same-Sex Marriage In Nevada,” appears in this month’s issue of American Ancesters, published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Copies of the magazine can be purchased for $4.95 plus shipping by calling 888-296-3447. And you can check out the day-to-day happenings in Homer’s World at his blog.]

Opponents of same sex marriage would like everyone to think that the desire for gays and lesbians to marry their partners is a very recent phenomenon. A while ago, when I was reading through 19th century Arizona newspapers, I came across a cryptic mention of a same sex marriage that took place in 1877 in Nevada. Further research revealed the fascinating life story of Sarah Maud Pollard, who, as Samuel M. Pollard, married in Tuscarora, Elko County, Nevada Territory to Marancy Hughes on September 29, 1877. An article I prepared on Pollard has just appeared in American Ancestors magazine, published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society. A condensed version of Pollard’s life story is presented here.

Sarah Pollard was born in 1846 in New York, the daughter of a middle class merchant family. After working in a shoe factory in Massachusetts and sewing shirts in New York, she headed west to Colorado in the 1870s. She caused a stir because of her masculine appearance. Around 1876 she moved to Nevada and took up wearing male clothing in order to find work and she started calling herself  “Sam.” She met young Marancy Hughes, born in 1861 in Missouri, and actively courted her. Hughes’ family hated Pollard and the couple eloped on September 28, 1877.

New Orleans Times-Picayune article about the Pollard marriage, June 23, 1878. (Click to enlarge.)

They were happily married for six months, and then Marancy broke the secret. The small silver-mining town of Tuscarora, Nevada was transfixed by the story. The matter ended up in court and after Marancy testified, a dramatic re-union took place. Stories about the troubled marriage were carried in newspapers across the country (even appearing in a New Zealand paper). The couple broke up two more times, before Marancy moved on to a marriage with a man in 1880.

Sarah moved to Minnesota to start a new life by 1883, working by herself on a farm. The story of her successful farming career again made national newspapers, which noted she wore a bloomers-type outfit while plowing. By the 1890s she had met a woman named Helen Stoddard, a schoolteacher who was born in 1864 in Vermont. In later census records Helen was listed as her partner or companion. Sarah died in 1929, and Helen paid for her arrangements at a local funeral home, the owners puzzling over the relationship of the two women.

The stories of gay and lesbian Americans prior to recent times have largely been lost or hidden. Within my own family, a lesbian great aunt has been “straightened up.” Sarah Pollard is an unusual case in that is has been easy to locate information on her unconventional life in late 19th and early 20th century America. Like thousands of modern-day Americans, she wanted to marry her same sex partner. Her first relationship failed, large because she took on a masculine role, a major taboo of the time. Later she returned to feminine attire, while taking up a typically masculine career, and settled into a second, long lasting partnership with Helen Stoddard.

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JCF
August 15th, 2011 | LINK

Her first relationship failed, large because she took on a masculine role, a major taboo of the time.

I think that’s waaaaaaay too simplistic an assessment. I’m not sure anyone can look back and say why “Her first relationship failed” . . . but the thing that stands out to me is that she (or he: it’s not clear which was Pollard’s preferred gender ID) married a 16 year-old, 15 years her junior. A different gender and/or sexuality ID may not be something that someone that young, in that (sexist/heterosexist) context, could really deal with. [But that, too, is just a guess.]

Raven Biker
August 15th, 2011 | LINK

It happened so-o long ago and the sky hasn’t fallen yet and nor has God smited us. H-mmm.

Timothy (TRiG)
August 15th, 2011 | LINK

Like JCF, I’m uncertain from this story whether Sarah/Sam Pollard was a lesbian woman or a trans man. (Or indeed whether, in that culture, the distinction existed as clearly as it does in modern Western culture.)

TRiG.

Erin
August 15th, 2011 | LINK

I know plenty of lesbian women who identify just as that- lesbian women, who dress in male attire and have very masculine physical features. Sometimes women choose to wear masculine clothes because they have masculine frames to begin with and girly clothes kind of don’t look right on them. Also, male clothing is just generally more comfortable. They figure, they already look masculine, so why not be comfortable in men’s clothes? Wearing clothing of the opposite gender doesn’t always mean one is transgender. Of course it’s possible Sarah was transgender as well. It’s certainly not a new thing that was invented by the “Gay Agenda” as some may assert. It is something someone knows about them self and feels inside of them.

Timothy Kincaid
August 15th, 2011 | LINK

History is full of gay people if we knew how to look. Sadly, the records – usually consisting primarily of marriage, birth and death – don’t tell us much.

But sometimes a relative will. In college, before I was comfortable in my own skin, I lived with my grandmother. At one point she mentioned – with just the slightest inflection – that she had two “bachelor uncles”.

It’s hard to be certain.

Women were genuinely scarce in the northeast corner of California at the turn of the 20th Century (one of her uncles ordered a bride out of a catalog and traveled by train to New Orleans to collect the French-speaking girl from an orphanage/convent).

But my grandmother certainly was implying something when she mentioned these uncles. And if I had been able to be open with her, maybe that part of my family’s history would not now be gone forever.

TJ Davis
August 16th, 2011 | LINK

Yes, before he died my dad told me of two, “uncles” that never married. They lived in the hayloft of the barn on grandma’s farm.
That statement of and in itself says nothing about the sexual identity of those two old men, but the implications are all too clear.

Ted
August 16th, 2011 | LINK

That sort of cover-up is still going on today. I’m 21 and I have an Uncle (whom I have never met) who has always been a bachelor and who lives in San Francisco. I’m next to certain that he is gay, but my family never talks about him. All I can really gather is that he’s some sort of black sheep.

DC Benson
August 17th, 2011 | LINK

@ TED I also had an uncle that the family never really spoke about ar visited with. Mine lived in NYC. I made it a point to seek him out and we enjoyed a great relationship wit his being gay as well as myself. He was able to relate to most problems I had, was always avaialble to listen when I needed a shoulder to cry on among many, many other things. Take the time to try and locate yours and see what you might be missing.

Danielle
August 17th, 2011 | LINK

Reading the linked image of the article makes it rather clear that the person described was a trans man, e.g. used the name “Samuel” and “stoutly asserted that he belonged to the male sex.”

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