Before the 20th century, divorce was quite uncommon and in some areas, even illegal. Because of this history, divorces that occurred before the 20th century are not always documented, but the information that can be contained in their paper trails makes them worth pursuing.
Until the mid-1800s, divorces were granted by courts and through specific acts of state legislatures. In 1866, the federal government declared that a legislative divorce was illegal. Since then, and in many states well before then, divorce has been a civil action determined in local courts. Divorce records, therefore, are found in court volumes containing normal court cases, in separate records books designated just for divorce cases, or in specialized records books.
Court docket books list the plaintiff and defendant and the date the divorce case started. Divorce records contain the court’s judgment. Files in the divorce case include vital facts about the parties to the divorce and their children. Marriage data is also included. Rights to privacy sometimes cause divorce records to be closed for a period of years, so they can be accessed only with the permission of the divorced parties.