October 27, 2019
Most genealogical articles that discuss divorce emphasize how rare it was in earlier times. I’m sure that’s true in colonial or early American eras, but, at least in my own experience, divorce was more common than many genealogists might imagine during the mid 19th and early 20th century. In my extended family, there are multiple divorces beginning about 1880 and continuing through the 1920s, even though divorce laws in many places were fairly strict up until the last half of the 20th century.
For example, my great grandfather Durbin Terry had six sisters who lived to adulthood. All of them married; three of them divorced. Of the three who divorced, two were divorced twice, and the other was married five times and divorced three of her husbands. At least in this particular family, divorce was quite common. I’ve found multiple divorces prior to or just after 1900 in other branches of my family tree, as well. While this might just be evidence of my family’s propensity to pick poor marriage partners, it also seems to point to the fact that divorce was perhaps not really as uncommon as all of us have been lead to believe.
Part of the high divorce rate in my family undoubtedly had to do with where they lived. Most of them were from Utah, where divorce was surprisingly easy to obtain. Other states with comparatively lax divorce laws included Ohio, South Dakota, Nevada and New Mexico. Some states such as New York had extremely strict divorce laws, so people who wanted to divorce sometimes moved to a state such as Nevada where residence laws allowed a divorce after only six weeks residency. To find out what divorce laws were like in the state where an ancestor lived, the Family Search Research Wiki is a great starting place; just enter the name of the state plus “divorce” to get an idea of what divorce laws were in effect at what times.
If your ancestor lived in a state where divorce was fairly simple to obtain, it’s a good idea to check whether an ancestor may have obtained one, especially if you find a youngish woman living without a husband listed as “w” for widowed on a census schedule. Although divorce may have been possible, many women felt it was socially unacceptable so they often lied when asked their marital status. The fact of divorce apparently was not as unacceptable for men because they are more likely to be listed as “d” for divorced. My great grandparents George and Maria Dawson are a good example of this. In the 1910 census, my great grandmother was listed as widowed, while my great grandfather was listed as divorced. Since they were definitely divorced in 1906 and only lived a few miles from each other, it’s hard to know who my grandmother was trying to keep in the dark, but perhaps the appearance of propriety was enough.
Once you have cause to look for a possible divorce record, it’s usually easy to access them. Like marriages, divorces are enacted at the county level and are considered public records so they’re open to anyone. Some entities, such as Larimer County Genealogical Society, have indexed their local divorce records and placed the indexes online. The indexes include date and location information for the actual records. This information makes it simple to order copies of the full divorce file. Even if there are no indexes to the county you are interested in, make sure to check any online newspapers for the area. Newspapers were not shy in listing all divorces granted in local courts and often gave graphic details about the circumstances of the divorce. With a specific date and county, a few dollars will garner all of the paperwork surrounding the divorce. Some older divorce records may have been transferred by the counties to the State Archives, but that fact is usually found among the information on the Family Search Wiki, and the Archives will pull and copy divorce records for a minimal fee. Divorce papers are well worth the cost; they can give the exact date a couple was married and the names and ages of any children. All of this is great, but the exact details of why the couple is divorcing is often riveting reading. Tales of infidelity in lurid detail, spousal abuse and alcoholism are often depicted in these records.
Even if all you have is a suspicion that an ancestral couple may have divorced, it is sometimes easy and fairly inexpensive to request a search. Recently, as I was researching a couple from Minneapolis, I began to suspect that rather than the husband dying, the couple had divorced. I had no exact date, merely sometime between 1918 when the youngest child was born and 1920 when the wife remarried. I checked, and Minneapolis, for the sum of eight dollars did a five-year search. Within a week I had a divorce file that spelled out all the gory details – no deaths involved!
I’m guessing that too many genealogists have listened to the “no divorces” mantra and have overlooked the possibility of a divorce in their family. I think it’s definitely worth at least a little checking to make sure that the “no divorce” rule really does apply. It may turn out that it didn’t, and a whole new family story will be born.
Researcher/Director at Large