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  • Writer's pictureTheFormidableGenealogist


Although divorces weren't as frequent in decades or centuries past, they did happen. And there may be records available to their descendants of the parties involved.

Some of the historical divorces we've researched have unearthed facts very different from the story that was repeated to later generations. [As have DNA results!] Certainly there are multiple sides to every story. Court records (we hope) represent a plausible summary of those differing perspectives. This can dovetail with what facts a person already has about their ancestor--all with the goal of helping descendants understand their family's past a little better.

If you know or suspect a divorce involving your ancestor, start by checking the availability of court files at the county level. The catalog or another digital resource might have such records available, or you may need to contact the courthouse directly.

Example 1

The snippet below is from a Kansas divorce from the 1930s.

divorce petition

What the husband's petition excludes is that he was very recently a resident of a neighboring state's penitentiary due to a bank-robbing conviction. While that doesn't automatically exclude him from having been "a good and dutiful husband," these facts can be added to the mix of the others of his life [many of which seem objectively despicable].

Example 2

Another case, from the 1850s, was an elderly man seeking a divorce from his wife. Or, as he stated, to "be relieved from the bonds of matrimony." In his petition he claims that he and his wife--roughly 40 years his junior--never lived together, that she had multiple affairs with other men, and that she never once performed any of her 'wifely duties.' Perhaps the Mrs. was truly terrible at sticking to her marriage vows, or the husband (or his adult children) was trying to protect his property. There aren't other clues to their time together. But an unexpected bonus of the divorce paperwork is that it connects the husband to his siblings, information that has so far been found nowhere else.

Example 3

In 1839 in Parke County, Ohio, Fanny Schultz tried to divorce her husband Washington. She was asking for guardianship of their minor children and the farm on which they lived. A dozen years later, in 1851, the case was still ongoing. Washington was summoned to court for beating Fanny and and threatening to kill her.

Fanny and her children had moved to southern Iowa by the 1856 state census. She's noted as a widow on that record. I don't know what happened to Washington after his last court appearance. Perhaps only widowhood or moving two states away were Fanny's options to be rid of her husband.

Like many other court records, divorce documents can offer interesting dimension to your ancestors' lives.


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