I have talked here before about the benefit of researching court records when you get to the intermediate/advanced stage of your research. Divorces are found within court records.
I was amazed when I first started looking at these at how many people got divorced. Sure it’s no where near the rate we have today, but still, there were lots more divorces than I would have thought, even back in the 1800s. As we all know, there’s nothing going on today that hasn’t gone on for all of time and human relationships are no different. Divorces can give you unique insight into people and circumstances. Some of them do indeed strike me as funny today, but I’m sure they weren’t funny for the people going through them at the time.
First, you’ll want to find out what was the name of the court for your state that handled divorces for that time period. Many times (but not all) I find them in Circuit Court Records. If you’re lucky, by the 20th century you may find some sort of separate name index like I did for Montgomery County, MD. Earlier circuit court minutes may have indexes in the front of individual volumes. What you want to try to search for is the case number. The case number should lead you to the actual case files, if they survive. The case files are usually the original bound pieces of paper; these may include the original bill of complaint and answer, testimony and depositions, letters from lawyers and the final divorce decree among others.
I recently found one for a relative, John Prather. It had sorts of jewels inside, including his original date of marriage, which I had been unable to find in the marriage records. Sadly, it appears his wife left him, possibly for another man (or men;)). He didn’t see her for 3 years, and the court finally granted him a divorce. Even his older sister testified. Here are a few of the documents:
I do a genealogy lecture on court records where I talk about my ancestor Joseph Harbour. He only appeared on one census record (1880) but when I looked at court records, it looked like he was committing a crime every other week! His divorce was hysterical. If I had just stuck to the typical records, much of his life would have remained a mystery to me.
Here is an example from a divorce in Hardin County, TN. This was between Felix and Matilda Harbour in 1899. It mentions their place and date of marriage, very valuable information because it occurred in another state and county. This case is sadder in that Matilda details physical abuse:
Also, the Family History Library does have court records and some actual case files microfilmed; I found this Hardin County one there, so check for your county/state to see what court records they have.
So…check them out when you can. If any of you have found any interesting divorce records, I’d love to hear about them.