Searching for an ancestor’s divorce records can trip up even the most seasoned genealogy researcher.
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?
Divorce records were not (and still are not) found alongside the birth, marriage and death vital records. We’ll explore where to find an ancestor’s divorce records below.
Why Did Our Ancestors Divorce?
While not as common as today, our ancestors could divorce for a variety of reasons. Abuse, abandonment and lack of support are just some of the reasons.
Finding Clues Your Ancestors Divorced
As you research your ancestor, you may start to pick up clues their union was not a happy one. Clues to search for a potential divorce record can be found in a number of records.
- Beginning with the 1880 census, look for a “D” in the marital status column.
- Indication on a marriage record of a previous marriage for the bride or groom.
- Children listed in the census records with a different last name than the mother
- Deeds or land records executed by a femme sole or a married woman on her own. [Note: A single woman were considered a femme sole. She could own land, sue, be sued and petition the court.]
Where To 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! Depending on where your ancestor lived, determines how a divorce could be sought. Divorce records typically were recorded in county courts or state legislative records. For example, in early 19th century North Carolina, divorces were granted by the General Assembly. In colonial New England, divorce was handled at the civil court level. Still different, the Spanish colonies with large Catholic influences, couples received a dissolution of marriage.
Again, it is crucial to understand how divorce was handled at the time and location your ancestors lived.
This is an example of a divorce petition to the Legislature of North Carolina made by Lucy Hendricks in 1824.
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. 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. Charlotte sought a divorce or if not a divorce, protection against her husband’s debtors so she could support her children.
In other words, Charlotte Street trying to make sure she was not held responsible for her husband’s debts.
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. Tip: Creating a timeline for each involved ancestor can help narrow down the time period you need to search. (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 will still 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.
Here is an example of a divorce announcement in the “City Bulletins” section of The Washington Post on 10 February 1906.
Here is an example of how a newspaper report of a divorce case can lead you to the where to find the court records of the divorce.
James Walker is filing a appeal in the couple’s divorce suit. The appeal will be held in state’s supreme court. Researchers of this couple will want to search the state’s supreme court records for details on the couple’s divorce case. As a researcher, do not be intimidated to research the higher court records. Often the higher court records contain notes if not entire copies of the county or lower court records. This can be especially important if the couple is from a burned county.
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)