Should a Family Researcher Consult the Divorce Records?
By Pamela Pattison Lash
As you, the reader, see the laundry list of possible findings in the divorce records, you will hopefully realize the value these records hold. When I began delving into these records, I quickly discovered that they were hidden "gold mines" of data for family research. Most people would never think to consult such records because first of all they never conceived the notion that an ancestor had divorced or had experienced the divorce process. Secondly, if they wondered whether there was a divorce, they did not know where to look or did not want to find anything distressing. If the latter is the reason you, the reader, have never looked at divorce records, then do not do it. The material within may indeed be unsettling. If, however, you share my view that these people were flesh and blood with human frailties and that one can never know all of the circumstances that surround the situation of divorce, then "go for it."
The method I used to compile this publication consisted of a two-pronged attack. First I paged through the first 14 journals of the Williams County Civil and Criminal Court records (1824 - June 1886), from which I created a list of divorces that were mentioned therein. This gave me surnames and dates, such as Phebe Daggett v. Ethan Daggett, Journal 7, November 1869 Term, p 369, 380-381. By the way, this case was the first one I waded through because I was writing a genealogical detailing of the couple for the Williams County Genealogical Society's newsletter, Ohio's Last Frontier, entitled "A Native Daughter Abused: A Bill of Divorce in Williams County, OH (1869)". The reasons for my interest in this case are contained within that two-part article, which I have included in this publication along with an update on Ethan Daggett.
Next, I used the indices to the microfilm rolls of the Williams County Civil and Criminal Court records, which are located at both the Williams County Records Center and the Williams County Public Library, Bryan, Ohio. The index directed me to Roll 21, case numbers 39 and 57, which yielded a great deal of information about the couple and their subsequent divorce. I further learned that Ethan Daggett's attorneys later sued Ethan for failure to pay representation fees.
The indices for the early rolls are listed by surname only. Some divorces were mentioned in the journals but no case file was included in the microfilm rolls or vice versa. Some divorces were mentioned in old county newspapers such as the Bryan Democrat, 21 May 1863, without being discovered in either the journals or the rolls.
I also want to alert you as to what may not be in the divorce records. Each divorce was as different as each couple who experienced this process. Some cases were full of detail and some only contained the bare necessities of the filing process. Also, not all people who sought a divorce received one. In fact, some of the over 360 divorces listed herein were dismissed or continued and then later dismissed because the court felt there was not enough evidence or one or both of the parties requested a dismissal. Some of the dismissed cases were refiled as many as three times before the court acted upon them.
What Are the Contents and the Location of Divorce Records in Williams County, Ohio?
(Series of sequentially numbered, bound volumes with surname index, held in the Williams County Record Center, Bryan, OH)
This is the summary of the final court proceedings of the case and may tell the names of the parties (plaintiff and defendant), grounds for divorce, final outcome, restoration of the maiden or former name, date of the case when finalized, and who paid court costs. This may use the legal phrase, "pendente lite", which means this is a suit in progress where temporary support is granted while the divorce is being heard by the court. Other types of records included in these journals involved assault, theft, bastardy, land disputes, naturalizations, insolvency, and failure to repay promissory notes.
Divorces Found Within the Journal Parts
Journals 1 and 2 - No divorces found
Journal 3 - June 1846
Journal 4 - Nov 1848 -Apr 1852
Journal 5 - Nov 1852 - Mar 1860
Journal 6 - May 1860 - Mar 1865
Journal 7 - Mar 1867 - Nov 1871
Journal 8 - May 1872 -May 1876
Journal 9 -Nov 1876 - Jul 1878
Journal 10 - Nov 1878 - Jun 1880
Journal 11 - Nov 1880 - Mar 1883
Journal 12 - Feb 1883 - Dec 1885
Journal 13 - Dec 1885 - June 1886
Journal 14 - Nov 1886 - Mar 1889
Note that some of the journals had only a few divorce cases while other journals had vast numbers and even overlapped within a time frame.
Roll and Case Number Packet
(Microfilm rolls of the Williams County, OH Civil and Criminal Court Records held at both the Williams County Record Center, Bryan, OH, and the Williams County Public Library, Local History and Genealogy Collection, Bryan, OH)
This is the actual case file of the divorce complaint, which will tell the names of the parties and the filing date. This may reveal any or all of the following:
¨ Marriage date and/or place plus who officiated at the ceremony. [Sometimes this marriage date will conflict with the marriage data in different county registers. In a few marriages the plaintiff stated that a ceremony was to have taken place in a particular county but no record has been located there for this union.];
¨ Statement of residency in Ohio and the county. [Sometimes the number of years is mentioned.];
¨ Names and/or ages of minor children. [Sometimes birth dates of minor children or that of all children born to the couple is included.];
¨ Dates of evidence that corroborate the grounds for divorce. [Specific dates of abuse, adultery, or abandonment may be mentioned.];
¨ Statement that the complaining party performed his/her marital duties in good faith;
¨ Statement of desire for divorce, reasonable alimony, custody of children, visitation rights for the other spouse, restraining order to keep the other party from moving out of the court's jurisdiction or from selling property, restoration of maiden or former name. [Sometimes the maiden name is really the married name of a former spouse.];
¨ Residence if known of defendant in this case or last known residence as of a certain date or number of years; if residence is known or suspected a constable from that geographical location was sent to serve the divorce complaint and would then notify the court of his success or failure;
¨ Guardianship of minor children or incompetent parties. [Sometimes the name of the guardian and the circumstance for this arrangement are included.];
¨ Status of the case: continuance, dismissal, or divorce granted;
¨ Request for alimony by the plaintiff in order to apply for a divorce;
¨ Statement of dissatisfaction with the outcome which may prompt an appeal for a new trial;
¨ Statement of desire for one's own divorce if the other party has obtained a divorce in another jurisdiction;
¨ Reference to another civil or criminal trial involving one or both of the parties such as a bigamy trial, insolvency case, or estate division;
¨ Description of land or real estate with its value and whether it has liens, mortgages, rents due, promissory notes. [Sometimes this may tell whether the wife had property in her own right.];
¨ Description of personal property, sometimes in the form of laundry lists of goods, animals, furniture, farm equipment, books, etc., its value, and date of purchase;
¨ Temporary injunction or restraining order not to sell property or not to leave the court's jurisdiction;
¨ Depositions of witnesses with questions and answers as to the witness' name, age, residence, length of time and nature of familiarity with either or both parties in the case plus pertinent details that offer proof to substantiate the grounds for divorce or to refute these allegations. [Sometimes the witness is underage and a guardian must speak for that person; sometimes a witness may not be physically able or a resident of the county so a court official must take statements outside the court and offer these as evidence.];
¨ Statements from the chambers of another jurisdiction where one or both of the parties were present;
¨ Financial status of one or both of the parties such as the owing of money via a promissory note or holding a promissory note from a third party where monies are owed to one of the parties in the divorce case;
¨ Names and residences of parents or relatives who may be witnesses, deceased persons who left property with a statement that one of the parties is an heir to land or property as part of a will or estate or named as custodians of one of the parties or their children;
¨ Newspaper notification running six consecutive weeks in a county newspaper with proof of this public notice signed by the paper's editor along with a clipping of the actual notification and the initial or last date of notice publication;
¨ Medical or mental condition of one of the parties which could include such afflictions as feeble mindedness, inability to walk, afflictions due to military service, or contracted disease;
¨ Military service which may include dates and company of service and pension application;
¨ Grounds for divorce
¨ Willfully absent for three years or more - [may include circumstances such as abandonment, serving a sentence in the penitentiary, confinement to mental facility; may give date when the defendant left and place of current residence]
¨ Adultery - [may include dates and names of person(s) known, a statement that this occurred with diverse person(s) unknown to the plaintiff, or the house (of ill fame or prostitution), residence, or geographical location (town, county, state) where the "alleged" adultery took place]
¨ Gross neglect of marital duty - [may include failure to provide financial support, clothing, food, housing, or marital rights]
¨ Fraudulent marriage contract - [may mention one party has a living, legally-wed spouse elsewhere (bigamy), a pregnancy which prompted the marriage but is not the issue of the complaining husband, or the promise to live as husband or wife and not complying with this promise]
¨ Extreme cruelty - [may include dates, circumstances, weapons, resulting injuries, profane statements, and witnesses]
¨ Habitual drunkenness for three years or more - [may include dates, circumstances, places, and statements from witnesses such as tavern owners]
¨ Alimony [This may include the cash amount or a fee schedule for payment over a certain period of time, the residuals from real estate, harvests, farm equipment, animals, furniture, and other property; this may also state if the alimony has been increased or decreased over time and whether there are any appeals on this matter from either party.];
¨ Names of the legal representatives for one or both of the parties. [Sometimes other case files are found that show the client was later sued for failure to pay these legal fees.];
¨ Arrest warrants issued by date and place to apprehend the defendant or material witness;
¨ Physician statements as to injuries incurred by the complaining party with anecdotal notes;
¨ Inferred data which may indicate if one or both of the parties was previously married and had children from a prior marriage, where the couple lived in this county, and when they resided there; and,
¨ Residual impact of this divorce case on other divorce actions where the party of one divorce action and the party of a second divorce action end up marrying each other or another individual. [By consulting the marriage records of the time frame after a divorce has been granted, one may fill in the gaps of why the divorce was initially sought.].
Microfilm Rolls of Civil and Criminal Court Cases Including Divorce
Note that each roll has an alphabetical surname index in the front of the roll and is in print form. Also there is a combined surname index for Rolls 1-8 in print form located at both facilities that house these rolls. Case rolls 9-29 each contain a number in the upper left-hand corner and consecutive numbering begins with 1. Case rolls 30-62 begin consecutive numbering using the actual case number from the case jacket. I have included Rolls 1-44, which cover the divorces in this publication, but this microfilmed series finishes with Roll 63 for the year 1900.
Many thanks to Jacque Whetro for constructing this listing after case files were microfilmed a number of years ago due to the efforts of the Williams County Commissioners and a small group of dedicated volunteers from the Williams County Genealogical Society. Prior to that project the case packets were housed in attics and basements of buildings and were subject to conditions that do not encourage preservation of such old records.
Roll 1 - Oct 1824 - Nov 1836 partial
Roll 2 - April 1836 partial - Sept 1839 partial
Roll 3 - Sept 1839 partial - Sept 1840 partial
Roll 4 - Sept 1840 partial - Sept 1843 partial
Roll 5 - Sept 1843 partial - Sept 1844 partial
Roll 6 - Sept 1844 partial - Sept 1847 partial
Roll 7 - May 1847 partial - June 1850
Roll 8 - Oct 1850 - Apr 1854 partial
Roll 9 - Apr 1854 partial - Mar 1856 partial
Roll 10 - Mar 1856 partial - Jul 1857 partial
Roll 11 - Jul 1857 partial - June 1858
Roll 12 - Nov 1858 - May 1859 partial
Roll 13 - May 1859 - Nov 1859 [case boxes 41-43 are missing containing many 1859 cases.]
Roll 14 - Nov 1859 partial - Nov 1860 partial
Roll 15 - Nov 1860 partial - Dec 1862 partial
Roll 16 - Dec 1862 partial - May 1864 partial
Roll 17 - May 1864 partial - May 1866
Roll 18 - Oct 1866 - May 1867
Roll 19 - Nov 1867 - Nov 1868 partial
Roll 20 - Nov 1868 partial - Mar 1869
Roll 21 - May 1869 - Mar 1870 partial
Roll 22 - May 1870 - Feb 1871 partial
Roll 23 - Feb 1871 partial - Feb 1872 partial
Roll 24 - Feb 1872 partial - Oct 1872
Roll 25 - Misc. 1872 - Mar 1874 partial
Roll 26 - Mar 1874 partial - Mar 1875
Roll 27 - May 1875 partial - Feb 1876 partial
Roll 28 - Feb 1876 partial - June 1877
Roll 29 - Nov 1877 - Feb 1878 partial
Roll 30 - 1876, 1877, 1878 partial, case #1-124
Roll 31 - 1877, 1878 partial, case #125-279
Roll 32 - 1877, 1878 partial, case #286-458
Roll 33 - 1878, 1879 partial, case #460-580 [cases missing]
Roll 34 - 1879 partial, case #581-693
Roll 35 - 1880 partial, case #694-805
Roll 36 - 1880, 1881 partial, case #806-898
Roll 37 - 1881 partial, case #899-987
Roll 38 - 1882 partial, case #988-1097
Roll 39 - 1883 partial, case #1098-1199
Roll 40 - 1883 partial, case #1200-1330
Roll 41 - 1884 partial, case #1372-1473 [cases missing]
Roll 42 - 1885, 1886 partial, case #1474-1539
Roll 43 - 1886, 1887 partial, case #1540-1644
Roll 44 - 1886, 1887 partial, case #1645-1740
What Other Types of Records Can Help?
After locating a divorce record one may find other helpful data from the following general types of print, microfilm, or on-line sources if available:
¨ Marriage records
¨ Birth records
¨ Death records
¨ Probate records - wills, estates, guardianships
¨ Land records, atlas entries, city directories
¨ Cemetery records - tombstone inscriptions, burials surrounding the deceased
¨ Census records
¨ Tax records
¨ Newspaper articles - local gossip, obituaries, legal notices
¨ Civil and criminal court records
¨ County histories
¨ Family histories or compiled data from family group sheets, ancestor cards, newsletter articles, Bibles, diaries, letters, or journals
¨ Church records
¨ Funeral home records
¨ Naturalization records
¨ Surname guides, queries, and message boards
¨ Photograph collections
¨ Military records of service, pension application, and veteran facilities
¨ Mental asylums or hospitals
This list is not meant to be definitive but to serve as a springboard for further inquiry.
What Is Included in This Divorce Index?
After compiling the data from the records mentioned previously, I set up a spreadsheet that contains the following information:
¨ An alphabetical index by surname for both spouses. [If the maiden or previously used married name is known, then the wife carries that surname; if no other surname is known, the wife carries the surname of her husband in the divorce action.];
¨ Bold face and underlined format to show the plaintiff or complaining party in each divorce. [In a few cases both the husband and wife brought a suit and that is the reason for the treatment of their names.];
¨ Parentheses ( ) around the wife's previous marriage name if known;
¨ The marriage date which may be mentioned in the divorce records or other sources;
¨ The place of marriage which may be mentioned in the divorce records or other sources;
¨ The journal number(s); and,
¨ The roll number(s)
Extracted Information from the Journals and Rolls
The information that was extracted from the above-mentioned sources was set up alphabetically using the husband's surname and first name as the wife may have a married, maiden, or previously married surname that would be more complex for alphabetical organization. The journal and roll numbers plus dates follow. Information from the divorce data plus other material I gleaned from many sources (birth, death, probate, census, histories, etc) was included with each entry if found. I encourage the reader to view these records first-hand, as not all material was included in this publication.
Genealogical Detailing from the Divorce Records
Some of the divorce cases were so interesting both on educational and human interest levels that I decided to research the couples and compile a mini-history of Williams County, Ohio, 1830-1886, that was different from the usual county history, which includes either prominent individuals or those who could afford to pay the price of inclusion in a "vanity" publication. I took as my example the publications of Civil War soldiers whose commonality was being a veteran of that war. These types of works include biographical details plus data on the service record of the individual. In my detailings the commonality was the fact that each couple had experienced, not a national war, but a domestic war of sorts. I imagine the parties were in financial turmoil, physical distress, and emotional trauma.
I must confess that as I researched these divorces I discovered a gender bias for many of the wives included herein. Most were hardworking women who suffered deaths of children, cheating husbands, unbelievable physical abuse, and financial insecurity for many years. Some of the cases covered women who had terrible tales to tell and then were denied a divorce. Who denied them, you may ask? The court system was peopled with men who may have harbored their own agendas. They may have known the male defendant, treated their own wives with the same heavy-handiness, or as moralists believed that the sanctity of the marital union should be preserved at all cost. Who will speak for these women? That was the task I set for myself.
Furthermore, I found it interesting that few men who sought divorce were denied their request. The great majority of these husbands claimed willful absence of their spouse, adultery, or fraudulent contract, but wives who even had physicians as corroborating witnesses to physical abuse were often denied a divorce. That is not to say that all men were unsympathetic characters as there were many whose wives seemed to take their marriage vows lightly, but again they were a minority within the great majority of abused and misused wives of this period.
Another surprise I uncovered was that the majority of divorces in this county involved future or former Civil War soldiers. Perhaps the brutality of war was a residual effect on their view of marriage and women in general. Next, I must confess a struggle of conscience in the detailings of physical abuse and adultery. Should I provide all that I uncovered or leave it up to the imagination of the reader? Should I list the "third parties" by name or leave them as "adultery with unknown" person? I chose to disclose what was found in the records and again mention that we do not know what was happening in their lives; therefore, we should not judge them, but I believe if their presence is noted in the records, their presence should be noted here.
Lastly, I want to mention "the great cover-up" I found when doing this research. Since divorce in the early years of our country had a negative connotation, it was not mentioned, even as I discovered, in newspaper obituaries or county histories. The writers of those items went to great lengths and careful wording not to divulge this information. Thus, a modern reader may never know about an ancestor's divorce action without consulting these records.
The couples I have included in this publication have both unusual circumstances of life and the usual situations prominent in their time frame. Their social history may give the reader a window through which to glimpse the past. These detailings are not meant to be definitive examples of work completed but to be springboards for further investigation. As most family researchers can attest, the work is never completed, but one must start somewhere and detail something.
Pamela Pattison Lash
Williams County Genealogical Society
<pam_lash at yahoo.com>
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