Publisher of Quality Genealogy Materials
Volume 3, Number 17 Mountain Press, P.O. Box 400, Signal Mountain, Tennessee 37377, 1-423-886-6369 October 19, 2011
With unfortunately so many marriages ending in divorces, you will more than likely run into them as you delve into your family's genealogy. Divorce records are sometimes difficult to track down, but you never know when they can help you in your genealogy search.
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James L. Douthat
With so many marriages ending in divorce, it will affect nearly every level of your genealogical research today and in the years to come. Though the years, divorces have fluctuated between being a church matter and a civil matter. Finding divorce records can sometimes be difficult, but it may provide some information.
In the ancient world, divorce was an informal affair and was primarily dominated by males since women had few, if any, rights in the matter. In most cases, a divorce did not have to be recognized or ratified by the church or state and no public record was kept.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the family life was governed more by the ecclesiastical authority. Under the church’s rule, divorce was almost a thing of the past by the ninth or tenth century. By this time marriage was a sacrament instituted by God, and therefore, was not dissoluble by mere human actions.
Just because divorce was not allowed by the church does not mean that men and women were not separated or had annulments of marriage. This was usually termed “divorce a mensa et thoro” meaning “divorce from bed and board”. At this time, the civil courts had no authority over the couple and the rules for annulment were governed by the church and were applied in ecclesiastical courts.
After the Reformation, marriage came to be considered a civil matter especially in the regions that were non-Catholic. The civil courts could issue a decree of “divorce a vinculo matrimonii” meaning “Divorce from all the bonds of marriage.” The civil courts now had to draw on some kind of guideline and they used some of rules previously set down by the ecclesiastical laws. Since divorce was not in the interest of the general public, the courts had to set strict guidelines to cause a separation of sacred vows. It was also very costly to get a divorce.
In America, the divorce practice entered into the civil courts almost from the beginning as there was no centralized church system to carry the judgment of a divorce into effect. In the early part of the 19th century, the Tennessee State Legislature granted divorces. This was later moved to the local county court and the other legal systems within the state. Keep in mind that the approaches to divorce have varied over the years from state to state.
During World War II, there are a number of cases of women marrying more than one soldier going overseas just to get their allotment. In many cases she hoped they would be killed in action so her adventure was not discovered. When a situation was discovered and brought to the courts attention, severe actions would be taken against the women. This happened in my wife’s family and his family took the woman to court while the brother/son was overseas. She was imprisoned for a time and all marriages were annulled. It is always quite a shock to find something like this in your family tree.
Now into the realm of where and what will you find in the legal records. It is a mine field of stumbling blocks. Most of the state/county records will be closed until recently when the “sunshine laws” began to open up the records for others to view them. In most modern states, a record of the divorce cases is published in local newspapers, but the actual records found in the court records have to be searched out one by one. Most records usually give you names of the husband and wife along with the date of the marriage and divorce. Sometimes it gives you the ages or birthdates of the spouses, property owned, children and reasons for divorce. You may just find that the divorce was granted and there were irreconcilable differences as the cause. All of the other parts of the court records are filed, but not open. You may want to check your family Bibles for mentions of divorce as well, although some may not include them.
Even though it may be difficult to find divorce records, they can provide you a few clues in your family search.
Tennessee Books Mentioning Divorces
Texas Books Mentioning Divorces
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