Genealogy Friday: Divorce 19th century style

Have you wondered how ancestors were divorced in the 19th century?

Do you have an ancestor you know was married before but have been unable to find a marriage record?

I’ve ran across this situation on several occasions.  I have searched court records for a divorce but been able to turn up any records.  {Reminder:  do check for these records because in some states they do exist}.

This is what I’ve discovered from my research. broken-heart

  1. I had one ancestor that married and had a child. Family lore says that she was unhappy and left her husband.  She is found on the 1860 census living back at home with her parents and her child.  They both have a different surname.  This surname is a clue to find that husband, but so far we’ve found no viable leads.  Fifteen years later this ancestor would marry my GG-Grandfather and have 10 children together.  A check of the son’s obituary and death certificate did not provide the father’s name.   This was before marriage and divorce records were mandatory and neither have been found.
  2. Ancestor 2—married in 1897. On the 1900 census she is married but living with her parents.  We’ve been unable to find said husband on the 1900 census.  By 1904, city directories show her living in another town with her husband. By the 1910 census, three children have been born and she is living with her husband.  For reasons we don’t know, she decided she did not want to remain married to this man.  {was he a drunk, cheat, thief, etc?—we don’t know; no court records found to answer any of these questions}.  She leaves her husband in another state and returns home with her three children in tow, sometime between 1911-1915.  In 1915, she marries my great-grandfather.  Her new husband is the brother to her first cousin’s husband, so this is most likely how they were introduced.  On the marriage license, she marks that she is a widow.  However, her 1st husband is still alive and moves to the same area where they are living by the 1920 census.  2nd husband unofficially adopts 2 of her children from marriage #1 and they use surname of husband #2.  Ancestor and husband #2 go on to have 3 more children {one of which is my grandmother}.  Husband #1 lives in the area and dies alone with no survivors listed on his obituary or death certificate 20 years later.

So what can we learn from both of these cases?

Certificates of Divorce were rare in the 19th Century
Certificates of Divorce were rare in the 19th Century
  1. Often the woman just left and started over if she didn’t want to remain married
  2. She could lie and say she was a widow, even if her first husband is still alive
  3. Don’t believe everything you see
  4. To definitely check court records, but also beware that there is a possibility you won’t find anything

What interesting cases of divorce have you found in the 19th Century?

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