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The wealth that he could bring to the table came from his kinsfolk: the ones who could promise money, land, and support.

The problem was that a swain eager to start a household of his own often had to wait until his father or guardian saw fit to dispense his property in the son's favor.

The well-heeled were aware that there were scurrilous and ruthless fortune hunters looking to ensnare wealthy heiresses. For some couples there was heartbreak; for others, resignation.

And for a couple determined to buck tradition and marry without the blessing and support of their families, it was a choice between love and money. Since the Middle Ages, it had been accepted in England that a couple could have a common law—in effect, a do-it-yourself—marriage arrangement, and as immigrants flowed into the New World, they brought the custom along.

The higher up the colonial ladder of success and status, the greater was the pressure for the children to marry well.

The survival and consolidation of the families' power and prosperity were at stake.

At left, a coach waits for a pair leaving by the back fence in John Collet's The Elopement, from ca. Starting a family at times leapfrogged a wedding—baby-to-be making a party of three. The anxiety is quickened by the feeling that society has been on the road to ruin since maybe Miles Standish's day and that the prospects of their offspring walking the path to the altar with a nice young man or sweet young woman have greatly diminished since John Alden and Priscilla Mullins made the trip.

In such situations, couples had to wait into their late twenties before formally entering the connubial state—which some historians say created fertile ground for extracurricular shenanigans, broken promises, and court battles.Court records are a trove of intimate tittle-tattle and gory details that shamefaced ladies and gentlemen would have preferred to keep private.Lawsuits transcend social class, and the documents of the disputes leave the impression that all the way up to the lesser gentry, there was dirty linen.As far as chaste courtship is concerned, the good old days have been overrated, almost as mythical as the Standish-Mullins-Alden triangle that Longfellow invented.Blame human nature if you like, but for want of a better phrase, hanky-panky was as prevalent among some eighteenth-century folks as it is among some of the twenty-first's.