Searching for an ancestor’s divorce records can trip up even the most intrepid genealogy research. Divorce records were not (and still are not) found alongside the birth, marriage and death vital records. We’ll explore just where to find an ancestor’s divorce records below.
The good ole days were not necessarily so for our ancestors as much as we like to think so. Reading through 19th century court records will dispel that myth. Much more exciting that reality TV, court records can be fascinating and well, full of scandal, too.
Really, the current generations aren’t doing anything new!
Hard times, misfortune and scandals existed for our ancestors, too.
Abuse. Debt. Abandonment. Lack of support. Divorce. Our ancestors just did not broadcast their news through social media!
Finding our ancestors marriage records is one thing and often one of the first things a researcher searches for.
But….what about when our ancestors did not live happily ever after?
What about when they divorced?
Several readers have reported to me searching for an ancestor’s divorce records is one of their biggest frustrations.
Let’s take a look at how we can make it easier.
Where do You Find an Ancestor’s Divorce Record?
Divorce at one time was considered extreme and even scandalous, but a husband or wife could seek a divorce.
Be prepared. The search for an ancestor;s divorce records can be time consuming and even tedious. As with most genealogy searches, the possibility of success keeps us searching!
As with any type of record or event in your ancestor’s life, know the laws and the day’s custom before you start researching. I cannot stress this enough!
In the 19th century, married women held no legal status separate from her husband. She was a femme covert. Wives could be named in suits brought against her husband and any land she owned prior to marriage became her husband’s.
Note: A single woman were considered a femme sole. She could own land, sue, be sued and petition the court.
While our ancestor’s marriage records can be found in the state’s vital records office or the vital records collection in a state’s archives.
Divorce records in the 19th century were not part of the vital records.
Divorce records were recorded in county courts or state legislative records.
This is an example of a divorce petition to the Legislature of North Carolina made by Lucy Hendricks .
Lucy Hendricks petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly for a divorce from her husband John Hendricks of Warren County. Lucy married John Hendricks at “the tender age of thirteen”. John proved to be an abusive husband even threatening to drown Lucy in a mill pond. Lucy left John and returned home to her father. She pursued a legal divorce to be able to marry a respectable man. From the record, it is unclear if Lucy received her divorce decree.
In 1818 Charlotte Street of Orange County, NC petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly for a divorce from her husband. Her husband had abandoned her due to his debts. Charlotte sought a divorce or if not a divorce, protection against her husband’s debtors so she could support her children.
Tips For Finding Your Ancestor’s Divorce Records in State Legislative Records & County Court Records.
Searching for an ancestor’s divorce records in legislative or county court records can be a bit tedious sometimes. Try these tips for improve your research chances.
- Talk with a state archivist to learn which collections (state level or county level) the divorce records for your specific ancestor in a specific time period are located.
- Determine if finding aides such as indices or abstracts exist.
- If so, use these aides to find the original record….Success!
- If no finding aide exist, just start reading. Narrow the date down based on your research of the married couple’s lives and read the records for that time period. (This is the time consuming part I talked about earlier!)
If you do not find a record of divorce for your ancestor in the records you search, you benefit from learning about that record source. You will gain an better understanding of the communities and state politics that affected your ancestors. This is important knowledge to tuck into your genealogy toolbox to possibly use at a later time. Oh, and you also improve your ability to read the old handwriting!
“Read All About It” in the Newspaper!
As genealogy researchers we would be remiss if we failed to check local newspapers for evidence of an ancestor’s divorce.
Mention of an ancestor’s impending divorce might be mentioned in the “legal announcements” of the newspapers. Also, check the “court proceedings” or court actions section for a mention of the divorce. Potentially, a longer article might have been written if circumstances for the couple were particularly contentious.
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5 Tips To Find Your Ancestor’s Divorce Records
1.Make your research plan.
2 .Learn as much as possible about your ancestors in traditional records.
3. Narrow down a possible date range for a divorce based on the couple’s other records.
4. Find out where the divorce records are and figure out how to access them. [If you are not able to research the needed records in person, here are some tips for researching when you can’t travel to the site.]
5. Start researching!
Other Posts of Interests
- How To Confidently Research Your Ancestor’s Marriage Records – Part 1
- How To Confidently Research Your Ancestor’s Marriage Records – Part 2
- How to Determine Your Ancestor’s Birth Date (Even If No Birth Record Is Found)
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