1800s: My Blakeslee ancestors & Pennsylvania divorce laws

Sepia Saturday 483: First in a new series on the 1866 divorce of my third great-grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee — what the court records reveal.

In July 2019, I made a genealogy road trip to Montrose, Susquehanna Co., Penna. in search of the 1866 divorce records of my third great-grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee.

Unfortunately, I was not able to obtain the Blakeslees’ records during that trip — in part because I was unfamiliar with the divorce procedures in Pennsylvania in the 1800s and where exactly the records could be found.

Historic postcard showing Susquehanna County Courthouse, Montrose, Penna. (undated). Public Ave. is now paved, but otherwise looks much the same as it did when my Blakeslee ancestors’ divorce was finalized in 1866. Photo: Pinterest

So on my return home, I decided to learn more about 19th century divorce in Pennsylvania in hopes of trying again to find my ancestors’ decree — and help arrived from a geographically unlikely source.

Chester County to the rescue

On the official website of Chester County, Penna. — which is located west of Philadelphia — I found an excellent document titled “Guide to Divorce Records – Chester County Archives.” This document provided an invaluable statewide history of Pennsylvania divorce laws that presumably applied to all counties.

The first Pennsylvania divorce law was passed in 1785. This was the first divorce law in the nation to include cruel treatment as an acceptable reason for divorce. This law would be the foundation for future Pennsylvania divorce laws, outlining the divorce process, as well as the acceptable reasons for divorce.

Main hallway, Susquehanna County Courthouse, Montrose, Penna. (2018) While in Montrose, I visited the offices of the Prothonotary (l.) and Register & Recorder (r.) in search of records on my Blakeslee ancestors. Photo by Molly Charboneau

The document then outlined the Pennsylvania divorce process, which remained much the same through the 19th century.

The process began with a written petition from the libellant to the court. After reviewing the petition, the court would release a subpoena for the respondent to appear in court and contest the charges laid against him/her. If the charges held merit, a court date would be set. Both parties would choose whether to be judged by a jury or the court. Court proceedings similar to the ones seen today were also followed in the 18th and 19th century: depositions of witnesses, testimonies, etc.

Two types of divorce

The Chester County document delineated the two types of divorce that were possible when my Blakeslee ancestors parted ways.

There were two types of divorces that could result: bed and board and annulment. A divorce from bed and board was, essentially, a legal separation. The woman would retain her dower rights and could also petition for alimony, but she could not legally marry again; an annulment was a complete dissolution of the marriage vows. With this type of divorce, both parties could legally marry again. The legal grounds for divorce also changed overtime. They began with only a few, such as desertion, adultery and cruel treatment and then expanded to also include fraud and felony convictions.

Since my third great-grandfather Zebulon Blakeslee married again in 1867, it seems likely the Blakeslees had the second type of divorce — “an annulment with complete dissolution of the marriage vows.”

The Blakeslees & the divorce laws

Court of Common Pleas docket books, Susquehanna County courthouse, Montrose, Penna. (2018)  After learning more about Pennsylvania divorce law, I realized that my Blakeslee ancestors’ divorce decree was likely entered into the 1866 Court of Common Pleas docket book. Photo by Molly Charboneau

The Chester County document also gave a timeline of Pennsylvania divorce laws, and several stood out as applicable to my Blakeslee ancestors.

1804, Section II – Any Supreme Court, Circuit Court, or Court of Common Pleas were empowered to rule on divorce cases. This was to compel both parties, libellant and respondent, to appear in court.

1843 – Only Pennsylvania citizen can petition for divorce in Pennsylvania. In order to be considered a citizen, one must have a residence located in Pennsylvania one year prior to writing the petition for divorce.

1878 – Prothonotary empowered to keep a separate divorce index docket

Divorce records found!

From this timeline, I deduced that the Court of Common Pleas docket books (specifically the 1866 volume) were the likely place where the divorce decree was housed. I had seen the docket books on my visit (as shown above) — but at the time I was unaware that divorces might be logged in them.

Also, Zebulon was able to initiate the 1866 divorce because he was a citizen of Pennsylvania — unlike Hannah, who had moved to New York State circa 1860.  And the divorce index didn’t begin until the late 1870s when the Prothonotary was empowered to begin recording divorces — which is why the index was not useful during my Montrose trip.

Armed with new historical knowledge of Pennsylvania divorce law — and the Blakeslees’ divorce date from the newspaper — I got back in touch with staff at the Susquehanna County Courthouse to see whether I had enough information to pinpoint exactly where they might find my ancestors’ divorce decree.

And I am gratified to report that not only they did they locate and send me a copy of the Blakeslees’ divorce decree — but they also discovered fourteen pages of related court documents and sent copies of those to me, too!

More on the Blakeslees’ 1866 divorce in the next post. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

© 2019 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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24 thoughts on “1800s: My Blakeslee ancestors & Pennsylvania divorce laws”

  1. Molly,
    I have been following the story of your ancestors’ divorce for a while now. I love how you have been able to blend the personal story behind the divorce, with your quest to find out more about it.
    Kudos to a story, both well-written and well well-researched!


    1. Thanks, Diane. I try to put my ancestors’ lives in context as the documents alone — although they verify the facts — never really tell the whole story.

  2. How wonderful that they sent you all those documents!
    My grandfather (who lived in Canada) established a residence in Detroit in order to get a divorce from his first wife. One month after the decree was final he married my grandmother in Detroit. She traveled there with her mother. The divorce document was online.
    It was very difficult to get a divorce in Canada at that time. Divorce applications had to be printed in the Canada Gazette. There I found notices for my mother’s cousins.

    Looking forward to the next episode!

    1. What a great story! I first learned of my ancestors’ divorce in a digitized local newspaper. Thank goodness the papers covered so many personal and legal issues back then — so many clues we would otherwise not have!

  3. Great post. And amazing discovery of the old documents. I finally stumbled upon 1857 legal documents that yielded answers after 15 years of research into a paternity case.

    I love the beautiful old postcard!

  4. What a fascinating look into divorce law in Pennsylvania, Molly, and lucky you for receiving such a treasure trove from the Susquehanna County Courthouse. It is always great to see such detailed research conducted in order to contextualise our ancestors’ lives. Well done!

    1. Thanks so much, Sarah! This has been an interesting research process and reinforces the need to “know before you go” when visiting repositories. If I’d had time to look into Pennsylvania divorce law before my trip, I might have discovered these documents while there. Fortunately, the excellent staff at so many repositories — including Susquehanna County Courthouse — are there to help from a distance.

  5. Oh, boy! A treasure box of forgotten documents! In those old detective stories for young readers, Nancy Drew or the Hardy boys, some ancient text always reveals a secret and the mystery darkens.

    While I don’t expect to delve into serious research on divorce anytime soon, I did save that divorce guide for reference. Perhaps if before marriage young couples were required to take a lesson on the whole complicated mess of divorce proceedings, they might pay better attention and learn how to avoid it.

    1. I was a big Nancy Drew fan back in the day, so I know what you mean about the “big reveal” in those texts. Researching the end of a marriage is indeed a sobering experience — but I’m not sure how many in the first blush of young love would pay attention to what might lay years down the road. And at one time, even many of those who lived in the moment — like my maternal grandparents — still remained married for life.

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