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Divorce American Style

As we research the lives of our ancestors, one record source we often forget to consider is that of divorce records.


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Divorce seems like a hot button topic for our modern times. We live in a world where our lives are busy and family life is getting harder and harder. It is said that one in two marriages will end in divorce. Many lament that divorce has become so easy that it is becoming an epidemic. While not as much of a stigma in our modern world, divorce still conjures up heated debates and strong feelings.

As we research the lives of our ancestors, one record source we often forget to consider is that of divorce records. Many family historians operate under the belief that divorce is part of modern day life and not something our ancestors faced. In reality, our ancestors' lives included many of the same scandals and problems. I know that as I researched my 4th great grandmother's life, and saw that she had been married twice; I wondered whether she had been divorced from her first husband. Family members thought that I was crazy for even suggesting such a possibility.

The History of Divorce

The practice of divorcing one's spouse has been around for a long time. In fact, it is believed that the first divorce in America was in 1639 from a Puritan court in Massachusetts. According to Norma Basch, author of Framing American Divorce, divorce has a long history and American courts really set out the guidelines and rules for divorce in the period of time between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.1 Late nineteenth century Americans in the eastern part of the country were concerned about divorce in the West. They felt that the West's liberal court systems were contributing to a moral decline by granting, "quickie divorces" for couples from other states, who would go west just to seek an end to their marriage.2

Lewis vs. Lewis

I was introduced to nineteenth-century divorce while researching my 4th great-grandparents, William Washington Lewis (1809-1863) and Sophia Bell Lewis (1818-1877). The Lewis' were married in 1834 in Alabama. I had followed this couple from the time of their marriage through the births of their seven children to their eventual move to southern Texas around 1850. I then discovered Sophia in the 1860 census enumerated as the wife of another man, Moses G. Wilson. While the usual assumption would be that Sophia's first husband William, had died this conflicted with other information suggesting he died later, in 1863, as a result of the Civil War. This made me start to think that Sophia and William had divorced.

Looking For the Records

Divorce records, like any court record, can be loaded with important information about your family. Just as probate records may give clues to other family members and provide a picture to how a family lived based on the inventory of their possessions, divorce records also provide names of family members and can often include a list of property, possessions that they are dividing amongst themselves.

For the most part, divorce proceedings were a matter for civil court. Divorce is simply the termination of marriage by legal action. So, a divorce is a legal matter where one spouse is suing the other spouse. If you suspect your ancestor was divorced, you'll want to search one of two places. Check websites such as for health department and vital record offices that have verifications of divorces. The listing on this website is by state and lists the date records are available, the address to send for records and the cost involved. Additionally, you will want to write or visit the county courthouse where your ancestor resided. You can find the contact information for county courthouses on the Internet through sites like the or by looking for the county's official website.

If you choose to visit the courthouse in the county of your ancestor's home, ask for the index for the civil court minutes from the time period you believe the divorce may have happened. Once you locate your ancestor's name, note the case number and ask the court clerk to bring out the civil court minutes ledger for that time period. It is possible that case notes from the actual trial might be available in separate files.

When looking through the ledger, don't stop reading at the first reference to your ancestor's case, remember, like today, cases are often continued and extend over several days or weeks. Divorce trials were continued for lots of different reasons. Your ancestor's case may be noted on several pages of the ledger or continue through to additional ledgers. The ledger should provide information about the divorce proceedings, including your ancestor's names and any minor children residing with them. In cases where your ancestor was a slaveholder, in divorce cases prior to 1865, slaves names may be mentioned as property that was divided between the spouses. (The records should indicate jury member's names and if the defendant was found guilty or not guilty and what the settlement was.)

If you are lucky, the actual case notes from the trial may still exist. Case notes are loose papers in a folded paper envelope that will provide more detail on the case and what happened. In my ancestor's case, the notes from the trial were missing, so the only information we have is from the ledger. But for us that was welcomed since we had very little on this family. This ledger entry provided us confirmation of all their children's names, what they owned and where they lived. It also helped us trace the family because the court had ordered the three boys to go live with William and three of the girls to reside with their mother, an older daughter was already married. Unfortunately, although we know that Sophia filed for and was granted the divorce, we do not know the circumstances that led her to do so. The missing case notes would have provided us with that answer.

As genealogists we should take a lesson from modern day business talk and think "outside of the box" as we piece together the lives of our ancestors. Check your assumptions about different time periods and people who lived in them. Be open to lots of possibilities about what our ancestors did. Our ancestors got married, divorced, married multiple times, "shacked up", had affairs and were normal every day people like people are today. Although every era has certain cultural morays, people don't always follow them.

1 Basch, Norma. Framing American Divorce: From the Revolutionary Generation to the Victorians. 1999. Berkley: University of California Press.

2 Riley, Glenda. Divorce: An American Tradition. 1991. Oxford University Press.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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