What is Shivaree? The Traditional Hazing of Newlywed Ancestors

When you research the ancestry of your family, you might find some traditions and customs that are no longer practiced. In this article, we'll look at the history of Shivaree and how it was commonplace in frontier communities as far back as the 19th century.

There are some truly sweet marriage customs around the world and rightly so because it is such a special time for the happy couple. Alternatively, there are also some very odd, sometimes distressing customs, for example, the practice of Shivaree.

This now largely abandoned practice was, at one time, very commonplace in frontier communities in the United States. On the night of the wedding just as the happy couple are settling into their new home the community had a surprise for them.

What is/was Shivaree?

As a way to induct the newlywed couple into married life the adults of the community would gather together often carrying pots and pans. They would march through town banging their pots and shouting all the way to the happy couple's door.

A raucous scene would ensue which often resulted in the townspeople breaking in and kidnapping the couple carrying them away through town. Depending on the local tradition they may be dunked in a horse trough or even abandoned outside town.

This was a common practice in the Appalachians and Midwest from the 19th through to the mid 20th century and was often an expected part of the wedding. It was considered an important first ordeal for the couple to face together and an initiation of sorts.

It was not all disruption, however, as it was also common practice for the housewives among the group to bring gifts for the bride's household which they left in the home.

The Origins of Shivaree

It is thought that there were many versions of Shivaree practiced around the world but that the American version was based on the Canadian and English practice known by the French word Charivari. This more brutal practice was not a celebration of a marriage in the same way that Shivaree was.

The Charivari was a practice that the community would use to actually break up a relationship that was not approved of. This may include adulterers, wife beaters or couples that were considered illegitimately married.

This practice was sometimes extremely brutal, featuring noise disruption, humiliation, parading around town and in some cases murder. Charivari was far from the lighthearted and good-natured ribbing of the American Shivaree but it is easy to see that the American tradition likely originated from it.

All in fun – it was just a shiveree, you know, and nobody got mad about it. At least not very mad.

- Johnson (1990), p. 382.

This quote from an American shivaree in Kansas is a classic example of how the American Charivari was a more lighthearted version of the traditional version.

In some parts of the MidWest, like Kansas, Shivaree customs continued in the mid 1960-1970s. Imagine the musical Oklahoma! for an example of the type of good natured humor.

The rituals would include things like wheeling the bride in a wheelbarrow or typing cowbells under a wedding bed. This tradition might even be where the more modern tradition of tying tin cars to the newlyweds car came from.

What It Means Today

The practice is essentially discontinued today although it may arise on occasion in some small rural communities. As a term, Shivaree is still used in some areas but merely as a descriptive word for a cacophony or a celebration.

Neil Edwards

Neil Edwards

Genealogist and family-tree research specialist

Neil was born in Shropshire, England surrounded by centuries of living history. His interest in the past has been a lifelong passion leading to undergraduate degrees in both Economic History & Geography and History & Politics.

This interest in history quickly translated to family history when he moved to the U.S. in 2010. It was here that he began working on his own family tree as well as that of his American wife. That research allowed him to gain a wealth of experience working with both U.S. and European genealogical documents and studying their best uses in researching family history.

Following 9 years of honing his genealogical research skills, Neil was proud to have earned a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University in late 2019. Neil also took part in the research process for a Duke University study into the families of 19th Century UK Members of Parliament.

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