52 Documents in 52 Weeks #48: Divorce, 1800s Style

Divorce today, sadly, is a very common occurrence. Before the 1900s, it was not only uncommon, divorces were difficult to obtain. Circumstances had to be extreme and, sometimes, might even have to be granted by a state, not via a petition to a county court.

Finding divorces mentioned in county court minutes might well be the only “details” left to be discovered. Sometimes, only the plaintiff and defendant were noted, along with the date of the petition. Occasionally, the reason for divorce was also stated in the minutes. Even rarer were paragraphs in court minutes describing the offenses of the accused.

Multiple divorces granted to one person were pretty much non-existent with the probable exception of Isaac Sturgell, who lived in Barry County, Missouri in 1850.

Isaac married four times: (1) Mary Bandy in 1844, Lawrence County, Ohio (2) Susannah Douthit Alberty, widow of John Alberty, in 1867, Newton County, Missouri (3) Nancy R. Fields, 1876, Boone County, Arkansas and (4) Nancy P. Hensley, widow of John Tredwell and William Cooper, 1877, Pope County, Arkansas.

For a long time, I thought maybe Isaac was killing off the wives and burying them in the backyard. That is, until I discovered that first wife, Mary, was alive and well living in Peoria, Illinois, third wife, Nancy #1, was alive and well living in Boone County, Arkansas, fourth wife, Nancy #2,  was alive and well living in Pope County, Arkansas and, to top it all off, I found the divorce packet proving that Isaac’s second wife, Susannah, sued for and won a divorce from him in 1876.

The Barry County, Missouri courthouse is the only courthouse at which I’ve done in-person research (c1993) and it remains one of the most exciting genealogical days I’ve ever spent.

I can’t find information online stating the time span for which Barry County has divorce records, but they definitely have divorce PACKETS filed away in the vault dating at least back to 1876.

Isaac Sturgell is a great example of how difficult it is to find divorce records, unless he was a bigamist. No divorce record has been found for him in Barry County, Missouri or in Benton County, Arkansas when wife Mary is last found living with him. He moved around a lot and it is possible that they lived in some other county/state between the 1860 census and his 1867 marriage to Susannah Douthit Alberty.

Neither have I been able to find any mention of a divorce in court minutes or an actual divorce packet proving he divorced both Nancys.

However, the juicy details in Susannah’s divorce petition sort of make up for the missing records. Susannah claimed that Isaac plundered the small inheritance she received from the estate of first husband John Alberty and that Isaac brought lewd women home and provided for them while allowing his wife and children to go without daily necessities. The entire packet is 36 pages long and I doubt that it had seen the light of day from the time it was filed in the court vault in 1876 and the day I opened the drawer and took it out.

My favorite page in the entire packet is the divorce “settlement”:

June the 12 the (?)
dear sir i inform you
that i reseived the seid gray
horse that i was to hav
in the compremise with me an
isac sturgell i reseived him
the next week Susan Sturgell
to the clurk of burrey co mo
the demand is setled be
twin me and him

Susan signed her (X) mark and the divorce was granted.

I find no evidence that these divorce records have been filmed by FamilySearch and, as mentioned, I can’t find a time span for extant divorce records in Barry County online.

It is well worth your while to personally contact the county court to inquire about early divorce records. Does the court have custody of those records? If so, are the original packets still in existence? Sometimes, early court records are housed at state archives. It might take some digging to determine if the records even exist.



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