Sunday, March 25, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Divorce Records

Janesville Daily Gazette (Wisconsin). 26 June 1891

I'll never forget my first introduction to an ancestor's divorce. I was in Texas, researching my dad's paternal line. One of the couples married prior to 1850 and then all of the sudden she's married to someone else and we can't find what happened to her first husband, our ancestor. My cousin and I are researching at the courthouse and I say to her "I'm going to go check the index to see if they were divorced."

She then gives me the "are you crazy" look.

She tells me there's no way this couple is divorced because after all, people didn't do that in the "good ole' days." She tells me that he probably just died, or went off to war, or something.

Well you can probably guess what happened next. I went, looked at the index and discovered that they did, indeed divorce.

I'm going to let you in on a secret.

People have always hated their spouses, that's not a new thing.

So sometimes when a woman says she is a widow, she's really divorced. Sometimes when she has a new husband, it's because she kicked the old husband to the curb. And sometimes when a man ended up in a new place without his family, it's because he simply left (maybe without obtaining a divorce).

Now obviously the dissolution of a marriage by legal means is different depending on the state and the time period. So you need to learn what the law was where your ancestor lived.

The reasons why people divorced are the same reasons as today.
Abuse, drunkedness, desertion, and illicit liaisons are just some of the reasons for a dissolved marriage.

As genealogists we sometimes make assumptions about people’s lives based on our own experiences. In historical research, you cannot do that. People’s lives are influenced by the time period they live in, social moirĂ©s, laws, beliefs and more. However, the human condition is fairly consistent. Some people have always hated their spouses, or were abused by them,  found out they were bigamists or for some other  reason it became vital to sever the relationship. Married life wasn’t perfect in then or now.

Let's take another look at Texas. My ancestress was actually mentioned in a book about her area of Texas in a chapter about the women who divorced there. Los Brazos De Dios: A Plantation Society in Texas Borderlands 1821-1865 by Sean M. Kelley 

Kelley writes in his book that mid-nineteenth century Texas had liberal divorce laws and that while other southern states allowed divorce through an act of state legislature, Texas heard divorce cases through the county district courts (Kelley, 69). 

Yes, being divorced may have been a social stigma when you were growing up but guess what,  even in colonial times people were getting divorced according to Glenda Riley’s book Divorce: An American Tradition. She writes that the first divorce in America was in  1639 and was granted on the grounds of bigamy (Riley, 12).

Why are divorce records important for the genealogist?  Well, aside from providing some information about your ancestor’s marriage and its dissolution, custody of minor children and division of property can provide you with clues to what the couple’s life was prior to and after the divorce.  In the case of my ancestor, the husband was awarded some property he owned  when they lived in Alabama. That helped lead me to additional records.

The reasons for the divorce can also provide a glimpse into the lives of your ancestor. So, for example, if the divorce is due to bigamy then that would lead you to other marriage records. A divorce due to adultery might lead to records of other children resulting from the adulterous relationship.

So for our purposes here, we want to explore where the records can be found. While my ancestor’s 1850 divorce records were found in a Texas courthouse not all divorce records will be found that way. As mentioned above, in some cases divorces were handled through the state legislature, an important consideration when looking for divorce records. If not at a county court or county archive, check a state archive.

One of the first online places that you should consult in your search for divorce records is the FamilySearch Catalog.  Conducting a search on the keyword “divorce” brings up over 5,000 resources. It can be helpful to consult the FamilySearch Wiki  for the state you are researching to learn more about the history of divorce records for that state and where to search for the records.  

Newspapers might provide information about a divorce. In one instance I was able to find a mention of a divorce proceeding form the 1940s while searching Google News Archive. This notice in the Public Notices section notified the other party to the divorce, she was not living in the same state, that an action was before the court. Other types of articles about a person’s divorce might also exist. Digitized newspaper websites allow a researcher an easier way to search multiple newspapers and years. 

Of course there are divorce records online. However, it’s important to remember that most of these resources are of a more recent nature.  Some examples include the California Divorce Index, 1966-1984 and the Texas Divorce Index, 1968-2002 available on

When researching your ancestors, put aside your assumptions about history and consider all possibilities when you find that an ancestor’s spouse is suddenly missing. A reasonably exhaustive search of extant records can help you solve the mysteries of your ancestor’s less than happy married life.


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