19th Century Divorces

Divorce records in the 19th century can be difficult to locate. While in the earlier days of the 19th century some divorces were decreed by a statewide legislative body, the reality is that most were decreed by county-level courts.

The difficulty is knowing in which county of the state the divorce was filed. For families that moved frequently, determining where the divorce was initiated can be even more difficult. Residency requirements before filing for a divorce varied from one state to another and divorces were not easy or cheap to obtain. There’s usually no statewide index to divorce records, so their location requires knowing the county in which the divorce took place so that the appropriate court’s records can be searched. Initial searches should focus in the counties where the individuals were known to have lived and counties adjacent to those counties.

Some ways to get around this lack of knowledge are:

  • Searching for a reference to the divorce in digital images of newspapers.
  • Searching for all military pension records of the couple and other spouses they had for a potential reference to a divorce.
  • Searching land and property records in the county where a couple owned property to see if there were any land transactions that suggest a couple divorced or permanently separated.

Not every couple that separated got a divorce. Some chose to live apart. In some cases, one or both of the former spouses married again–divorced or not.

A List of Options

I’m searching for an immigrant to the United States named Johan Antoine Willi who was born around 1801 in Switzerland or possibly Germany. That ends up being quite a few search variants to use when querying nationwide databases. To keep myself in line and not miss anything, I’ve made myself a list of search options for those sites that use a “*” as a wildcard:

  • Joh* Wil* born in Germany
  • Joh* Wil* born in Switzerland
  • Ant* Wil* born in Germany
  • Ant* Wil* born in Switzerland

The drawback is that this approach catches many names are are not close to Willi–such as Williams, Willems, Wilhelm, etc. I could choose to use a Soundex or sound-based variant option on the last name as well. The key is that I have a list of all the search options that I will use so that I do not leave any search combinations out.

Never Wait to Document

I saw the item in my storage unit and could not remember whose it originally was.

It was in my parents’ home. It was in the room my Mom used as an office. But when I first looked at it, I could not remember whose it was. A few hours later, I remembered that it belonged to my Grandma Neill’s sister–Lillian (Trautvetter) Short.

We moved items from my parents’ home quickly after my father passed. I thought I would never forget who items originally belonged to. It became apparent that I easily could forget and that the risk of that was only getting higher as time marched on.

What I should have done is quickly identified the pieces as they were either packed up from my parents’ home or being taken out of the truck we used to transport them. Video clips of the item with my narration would probably have been the ideal way initially. Envelopes with a brief note of origin could have been included in other items.

I should have done something initially with these items–nothing fancy, nothing full of citational verbiage that would make citation fanatics swoon, but something. Later I could have gotten fancy and clever, but something needed to be done initially so that at least something was done.

Annotated video, pictures along with text as a digital file, and envelopes in the items are what I’m initially doing. But something is better than nothing because many times even that something never gets done.

How Many Details of the Falling Out?

If relative A and relative B didn’t speak for the last half of their lives, it can be difficult determining how much of that estrangement to include in your family history.

One approach is not to mention it at all. The other extreme is to record every personal detail you know. Failing to mention it (when it is known) results in a story that is not complete. Including every detail (especially if you lived through it) may be overkill.

  • Grandpa H. never really forgave James for leaving the farm and not following in his footsteps. They never spoke after James moved to town.
  • Uncle N. accused his brother of stealing gas from his farm tank and they never spoke after that. The brother never set foot on the farm Uncle N. did not attend his brother’s funeral.
  • Grandma S. did not speak to Aunt K. after she married outside the faith. Grandpa S. did speak to Aunt K. and gave her money a time or two when she needed it. Grandma S. did eventually reconcile with Aunt K. after Grandpa died.

If you witnessed the Uncle N. accusation of the gas theft, the some of the fine details of that scenario can probably be left to history (especially anything you might not be remembering correctly). Grandma S. screaming out the front door at Aunt K. that she was a worthless @(*#&@$ may not something you wish to preserve–or it might if you have a reputable source that it actually took place.

It is always important to not report what you do not know to be true. Keep that in mind as you record information about estrangements. Remember that details can get fuzzy and be exaggerated over time.

It’s also important to remember that it is easier to write about these things if you were not personally involved in them. But do not ignore the estrangement. It can explain things to others later.

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I was working on a German immigrant to Davenport, Iowa, who arrived in the 1850s as a single woman. She married a few years later and an older man was enumerated with her family in every federal census through 1880. His last name was her maiden name.

It turned out he was her father. That was my assumption and research later indicated it was a correct one.

What I assumed was that her father immigrated by himself because there’s never a wife with him in a US census. That was a wrong assumption as I discovered him with his wife (whose name was already known from other records) in the 1856 Iowa state census. She must have died by the 1860 census enumeration.

I assumed also that the couple had several children other than the woman I was originally researching. I spent some time looking for them in Iowa because that is where the parents settled and I assumed they would have other children in the area who also immigrated. Research revealed that there were no other children. The daughter who married in the 1850s was their only child. Looking for others was a good idea, but they were not found because they did not exist.

When You “Know Everything”

I first looked at this plat book years ago when I thought I “knew everything” and that the plat book showing properties and landowners would teach me nothing new.

I was wrong.

The 1890s map showed the eighty-parcel in section 10 of Hancock County, Illinois; Bear Creek Township owned my my forebear John Johnson. An adjacent landowner was Henry Sartorius. Sartorius was John’s father-in-law and a man who I had originally thought spent his entire life in Adams County, Illinois, after arriving in the United States. He did not.

Sartorius only owned in Hancock County and lived there for a few years–he is not enumerated in any census records there. This plat book was the first document I found showing he lived in Hancock County–a document I thought I did not need.

You never know what information something contains until you look at it.

Limitations of a Lifetime

People are not usually mentioned in the newspaper before they are born, but they very well can be mentioned after their death. Limiting newspaper searches for a person’s life time can result in missing references to them in:

  • An estate notice;
  • A “days of the past” reference;
  • An obituary where they are listed as a pre-deceased relative;
  • A reference to their home or farm as the former residence of your deceased relative;
  • and so on.

Most newspaper references to a person are during that person’s life time. But there are times when the dead are mentioned in a newspaper. It’s not just the living who make the news.


A reminder…

When transcribing a document or an item from a document, use brackets to indicate when you are “guessing” at a word or phrase or adding a word or phrase of your own. Personally I add words or phrases rarely, preferring to comment later if something warrants it.

For example, “…beginning at a tree in the line of John [Rucker?] and continuing with his line…”

In the above example, I might consider explaining after the transcription why I think the last name is Rucker.

The word sic (Latin for “as is”) should be bracketed as well when it is used to indicate that you copied something exactly as it was in the document–even though it looked wrong.

For example, “…to my son[sic] Elizabeth I leave my farm…”

The Double S

Her name was not Capander Newman. The 1844 marriage reference in Marion County was to Cassander Newman. What looks like a “p” as the third letter of her name in the 19th century script was actually “ss.” Up through much of the 19th century, this usage was common.

Usually the “p” that replaces the “ss” does not look like an actual “p.” If possible read the rest of the document to see if there is a letter you can clearly identify as a “p.” There probably is a difference.

Unless the writer just insisted on making them the same way. It’s also worth noting that not all writers followed all the rules for writing script.

But keep in mind this usage was common. The 1844 was marriage shown as an illustration to this post was for Cassander and not Capander.