In colonial and early-post Revolutionary War times, divorces usually were granted only for adultery and, in most areas, they were granted by state legislatures, not courts. Eventually, as the number of cases increased, overburdened legislatures passed the responsibility over to local courts.
In many cases the parties were granted a divorce mensa et thoro,
sometimes called a "bed and board divorce." It allowed the parties to live separately and provided for the support of the wife and children. It did not allow either party to remarry.Full divorces were called vinculo matri
, and they formally ended the marriage.Like most records that genealogists seek, divorce files can be in any number of places.
State archives hold records of divorces granted by state legislatures. Local county courts hold records for most divorces granted after legislatures passed over jurisdiction to them. Courts in different places are called by different names, so when searching for divorce records, expect to look at chancery, circuit, district, family, probate or superior courts.
A researcher can find these in the local courthouse or at a local archival facility. Most local courts have websites containing specific information about their records.
Locating colonial divorce records may take a little more effort. British law required assemblies in the colonies to submit copies of all laws or legislation to England. Colonial governors or assemblies granted divorces, so they were required to report these to England.
Sometimes the English took several years to review the legislation. In the meantime, the colonists moved forward with their lives and often remarried before the divorce was approved in England.
Divorces submitted to England are recorded in Colonial Office books and are available in some genealogy research libraries. The originals are in the Public Record Office, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW94DU, United Kingdom. In 1773, England said it would approve no more divorces, so British records after that are sparse.
Finding records of a divorced ancestor is worth the search. They usually provide the woman's maiden name, the date the couple married, the names and ages of their children (or a statement that there are none), and the accusations or grounds for the divorce.
Like all record searches, a good genealogist will work his way toward putting his hands on an original document. This will require an order by mail or a visit to a local or state facility.
But the initial footwork can be done online. A good place to start is at the "Where to Write for Vital Records" section of the Centers for Disease Control website at www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w.htm. This provides a broad overview of records available in all state jurisdictions.
Here are a few routes to continue your research online:•Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com) has some divorce records in its annals. Some entries are from actual court records and some are legal newspaper advertisements. Both provide good leads for the researcher to find the originals.•The USGenWeb Project site (www.usgenweb.org) allows the researcher to select a state and county for guides on what records are available. In many cases, volunteers have abstracted local indexes and put them on the site. They are great tools for locating original records.•Google and other Internet search engines will open many possibilities. Beware of sites that want to charge you a fee or give you a free trial membership to check its records. They can't offer you anything that you won't find at the local courthouse or state depository.•No online search is complete without a look at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' website at www.familysearch.org. From the home page, locate the library catalog and search under the county whose records you want. If they have been microfilmed, you can go to the nearest LDS Family Center and order the film for review.•If you have New England ancestors, visit the website of the New England Historic Genealogy Society at www.newenglandancestors.org and search for "divorce" in the "Search our site" box. You will find educational articles dedicated to divorce. •Individual state archives websites can be treasure troves for divorce records granted by legislatures. Many archives have digitized these records.