Mar 4, 2022

A Newspaper Discovery

March 4, 2022

The Morning Examiner article headline from December 23, 1906 was simple: “Many Divorces.” The article itself detailed the many divorces that Judge Howell had granted the preceding day.


Among the list was George Dawson and Maria Dawson, my great grandparents. The newspaper article was the first real source I’d ever seen confirming my great grandparents’ divorce. My mother had told me that her grandparents had an unhappy marriage, and she thought they’d separated. Both of her grandparents had died before my mother was born, so she had no firsthand knowledge about her grandparents’ marriage. Here it was, in black and white. They had divorced.


This set of great grandparents had always been the ones I knew the least about. George and Maria were born in England, married there and immigrated to the U.S. where they raised a large family. My grandfather was estranged from his parents and talked very little about them. My mother and her siblings had few passed-down stories.


The separation/divorce story was one of the very few I ever heard about this couple. By the time I found the newspaper article a few years ago, I had found the Dawson’s in censuses dating from 1880 through their deaths in the 1920s. I’d even tracked them down as children in English censuses. I’d never been able to find any immigration records for them (I still haven’t), and their marriage record eluded me as well.


I’d looked for possible divorce records for my great grandparents. I knew where they lived after they came to the United States, but they lived in a small county in Utah where folks conducted business in any one of three adjoining counties. Without a date or an idea of which county the couple may have divorced, searching for records in the unindexed, undigitized court records was a daunting challenge.


Once I found the newspaper article, I had a divorce date and the name of the judge who granted the divorce. A quick Google search gave me the court at which he sat. I learned that the early court records had been transferred to the State Archives, so on my next trip to Salt Lake City, I visited the Archives. The records are microfilmed, and I was able to find the divorce records for my great grandparents.


Not only did the divorce records give all of the sordid details of my grandparents’ divorce, but they also gave me the date and place of their marriage. After years of looking, I finally had a marriage date for this elusive couple. It was in a county far away from where the couple lived and occurred at a much later date than everyone believed. Add that to the common names of the couple, and it isn’t surprising that I hadn’t found it earlier.


I now know exactly when and where my ancestors married, when and where they divorced and even why they divorced. There are still a lot of blanks in their stories since these were not folks who left much in the way of personal documents like diaries and letters. Without The Morning Examiner article, I’m not sure if I’d ever have found out about the divorce of my great grandparents. Although we’d be horrified by the idea of publicizing folks’ divorces in the newspaper nowadays, I’m glad that it was common practice in the early 20th Century.


Millions of pages of newspapers have already been digitized. Even more are being digitized all the time. Now that they’re so easy to access, there’s no excuse for not checking newspapers. You never know what treasures they’ll contain.


Carol Stetser