Do you have a married Tennessee couple for whom the wife’s maiden name, or entire name, is unknown OR a known Tennessee wife who disappears into that black hole of time in the first half of the 19th century?
If so, the Tennessee State Archives & Library, which has some fabulous databases, is a place you might want to check out. The database you specifically want to access and scroll through is the Tennessee Legislative Petitions, 1799-1850.
Why would legislative petitions help solve your ancestress’s mystery? Because, at that time, DIVORCES could only be obtained with the consent of the government.
Boy, are there a lot of divorce petitions listed in this database! I always thought of divorce as a relatively uncommon happening before the 20th century precisely because they were so difficult to obtain.
Take a look at a few of the entries, just from 1799-1812:
Source: Tennessee State Library & Archives
There were ten petitions in those thirteen years. Not a ton, but the entries grow in later years.
Look at the 1809 petition of Agness Thompson of Jackson County:
She wants a divorce because she found out husband William was already married to Avy Thompson of Montgomery County, Virginia!
Not only do we learn that William Thompson was a bigamist, but Thompson is a common surname and William as his given name doesn’t cut down the research field very much. However, knowing that his other wife, Avy, was living in Montgomery County, Virginia, certainly gives us a starting place to find more records about William Thompson.
Patsey Berry of Maury County, Tennessee found herself in the same position as Agness Thompson in 1812:
Francis Berry had apparently also married Widow Hamilton of Pulaski County, Kentucky!
In 1799, Mark Noble of Robertson County petitioned for a divorce from his wife Caty Elliott Noble:
If you are a descendant of Mark Noble, this entry is important for several reasons. First, the Nobles were in Tennessee very early. Second, the federal censuses for Tennessee are mostly lost until 1820.
By 1826-1827, there were 61 (!) petitions for divorce made to the Tennessee State Legislature.
Some requests named a minor child and requested custody of said child, like Arrilla Caroline Barham of Benton County in 1846:
It appears that John A. Barham (born c1812) lived next door in Carroll County by 1850. He remarried in 1848 and his Find-a-Grave memorial has no information about a first marriage and daughter! We know now that there is a big missing portion of the story of John A. Barham.
Others had supporting signatures – Rebecca Owens of Rutherford County in 1827 had 107 supporting names in her quest to divorce Francis Owens. Talk about being handed a list of an ancestral FAN (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) club!
In 1819, Polly DePriest of Wiliamson County requested a divorce:
She also asked that her name be altered to Polly Turner Edwards. Hmm. Do we have Polly with a middle name of Edwards or might she be Polly Turner (maiden name) who married a Mr. Edwards first, and was perhaps widowed, and later married Charles Depriest?
Was she the Polly Edwards who married John Smutherman on 2 April 1822 in Williamson County, Tennessee?
One more example – How neat is this?
In 1820, Sullivan County, Eleanor Coen Gurthrey asked for a divorce and one of the statements was from her father, Joseph Coen. This is a pretty good substitute for a birth or baptismal record.
These entries are cross indexed under the petitioners’ names, but you can find all of them together in a consecutive list by scrolling to DIVORCE.
Note that this is a just an index and you’ll have to purchase a copy of the records from the Tennessee State Library and Archives. However, the index is very easy to use and you might find an unexpected clue or proof relating to a mystery female ancestor who lived in Tennessee. 🙂