Washington Frontier Divorce

The courthouse in Walla Walla, where many marriages ended. (Photograph courtesy of the Washington State Digital Archives)

When Martha wed Nels Hanson in Iowa in February of 1876, she had only dreams of wedded bliss.  However, her feelings towards Mr. Hanson had changed as she marched to the courthouse on April 20, 1886.  After ten years of marriage, Mrs. Hanson had had enough as she reported to the court, “that since said marriage she had been treated in a cruel and inhumane manner.”[1]  Divorce was often the result of years of being unsatisfied.  In the late nineteenth century, the attitudes towards marriage and divorce changed.  Marriage was initially something done for financial reasons.  A married daughter was one less mouth to feed and moving out of the home allowed a daughter to begin to work on the farm with her husband.  Having children meant more hands to help on the farm.  As the twentieth century drew near, marriage began to be seen as more of a romantic endeavor and marrying for love was the true romantic ideal.  Women also began to push back against the cult of true womanhood.  They were not happy with the roles they had been forced upon them by marriage and societal standards.  They felt that “pedestals were not for them, and they intended to do something about it.”[2]  With this movement away from the cult of true womanhood, women began to seek jobs outside of the home and were able to support themselves.  These began to make divorce a better option than staying in an unhappy and possibly abusive marriage.  Divorce also allowed one the pursuit of personal happiness which was a large part of western frontier ideology and therefore more accepted than it was in previous years.

Divorce was usually sought after by the wife.  On a national average, women received approximately two-thirds of divorces compared to men.[3]  However, the women in Western states and territories accounted for two-thirds of divorce decrees awarded nationwide.[4]  In Spokane County between 1878 and 1889, there were 196 divorce cases, with 70 of those filed by men and 126 filed by women.  This falls in line with the national average.  Couples rarely enter marriage expecting it to end in divorce, but with more economic opportunities women were able to find work outside of the home to support themselves instead of staying in an unhappy or abusive marriage.


The feelings towards marriage in the frontier shifted from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1870s, which is essentially from one generation to the next.  During this time, marriage began to be thought of as more of a romantic endeavor versus an economic or social one.  Marriage for love became more important which meant that couples held a higher standard for their partners and were more likely to divorce when those partners did not meet their needs.  Women also had more freedom in choosing their path and not being married by the age of eighteen was no longer a sentence to “spinsterhood.”  Should she not find a partner she deemed suitable, she was more than happy to teach school or to continue domestic work in her parents’ home.[5]  Should a woman decide to marry, she was able to exert more influence in decisions regarding her family’s home life and finances than her mother had twenty years prior.

An 1857 blank marriage certificate prior to being filled out by an excited couple years before the demise of their marriage. (Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)

In the mid-nineteenth century, frontier women and men needed to marry for financial stability and to have more help around the homestead.  During this time, men controlled a majority of the financial aspects of daily life from the acquisition of land to the credit account at the local general store.  Even if the wife was a landowner in her own right, cattle or other types of property was managed by her husband.  He would generally make all decisions regarding her property, even to go so far as to decide how it would be divided between their children as they came of age.

Women’s roles were relegated to the goings on inside the home and work was drawn along gender-lines.  Women often married at a very young age and it was not uncommon for a fourteen or fifteen-year-old girl to be married off to someone ten years older than her.  This difference in age also established an inequality when it came to authority within the marriage.  Being so young and unable to support themselves financially, they rarely made any decisions regarding their household.  These women were fully dependent upon their husbands and therefore had to obey them.  This was nearly always the case in Anglo families as these marriages “generally deprived women of civil rights and declared husbands sovereign heads of families.”[6]  Any man who lacked authority within his household had his masculinity called into question.  If a woman disagreed with her husband, there was very little she could do other than try to influence decisions made in her sphere of the homestead.

Sometime in the 1870s, however, the attitude towards marriage and relationships begins to change.  Both men and women started to abandon the desire to marry for opportunity and economic reasons and begin to look for true romantic partnerships.  Arranged marriages were eventually thought to create nothing but distaste and loathing between the two parties.  Romantic love and marrying the partner of their choice became the norm for the young men and women of the later 1800s.  During this time, women began to experience more independence as the ability to work outside the home became a viable option.  Along with this, there was less available land to homestead on, so men tended to live with their parents and help on the farm for longer than in previous generations.  The desire to make their own money and provide for themselves allowed women to be more selective in who they would like to court or eventually marry as they no longer needed to marry for financial support.

A man proposing marriage. Will she accept? (Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)

This younger generation did eventually marry, although at a later time in life than their parents and the generations before.  Those who came of age during the mid-nineteenth century were married at the average age of eighteen with seventy-eight percent married by the age of twenty.  The following generation married at the average age of twenty with only fifty-seven percent married at twenty years old.  Along with their independence, women believed it was better to not marry at all than to marry the wrong person.  These women were happier to keep searching for a suitable partner instead of relying on a marriage of convenience.  Courting and marriage advice was often the subject of columns in local newspapers as these ideas became part of the mainstream way of thinking.  The Daily Intelligencer explains that the “modern belle does her share of the wooing” when it comes to courting and expresses sympathy for the gentleman who is “fidgety,” “non-communitive,” and “cannot sit in one place for half a minute at a time” while meeting with a lady.[7]  Men did share in this new view of relationship equality and were happy to share in the idea of a romantic partnership.

The roles within the home had also changed once married when compared to those of previous generations.  In searching for a more equal partnership, women sought to move away from the patriarchal type marriage.  Men were still expected to provide for their wife and family yet this generation of men did not use this as a means of controlling their wives.  During this time, men still controlled a majority of the finances and made many of the significant household decisions, but they tended to listen to more input from their wives.  Women were allowed more independence regarding their own personal finances and household duties.  There are many cases where the wife decided to pursue a venture that would provide her with some income of her own and was then in charge of her own profits.  Sometimes this type of work was rationalized as “helping their men,” yet women did earn cash income, held paid employment outside of the home, provided extra income during hard times, and participated in decision making.[8]  This is a huge step away from the total control by the husband in the mid-nineteenth century.


These romantic partnerships did not necessarily mean that divorce rates dropped on the frontier.  Divorce in the West was more common than other parts of the United States and other territories.   Many religious couples held onto the belief that marriage was a lifelong endeavor, but there were others who viewed marriage as a contractual obligation subject to the needs and desires of both parties.  With the ideal of a romantic partnership and the latter view of marriage, some couples felt no remorse filing for divorce if their partner did not meet their standards for marriage.  Life in the West moved at a quicker pace than other parts of the continent as pioneers hurried to settle land, create cities, and begin making money.  This caused the new western states and territories to become known for their “broadminded, or as some said, decadent divorce laws.”[9]  The divorce laws in the West were known as being relaxed, making it easier for couples to break the matrimonial laws if they so desired.

Similar to today, infidelity was a very common reason for divorce. (Image via the Library of Congress)

Even with the ease of divorce, it still carried a stigma that made many people shy away from it, possibly living miserable lives.  According to the territorial Laws of Washington from 1862-1868, there were seven distinct reasons one could be granted a divorce including “force or fraud,” “adultery on the part of the wife or of the husband when unforgiven,” “abandonment for one year,” “cruel treatment of either party by the other,” “habitual drunkenness,” “neglect or refusal of the husband to make suitable provisions for his family,” and “the imprisonment of either party in the penitentiary.”[10]  The most common divorce reasons were abandonment, adultery, and habitual drunkenness.  It was very common for witnesses to appear in court and full testimonies to be made.  Those petitioning for divorce must reside in their county for a period of at least one year with court proceedings following the procedures of regular civil court cases.

Physical violence was not uncommon on the Washington frontier.  Women and men both resorted to violence from time to time, although men were given more leeway.  When women were violent towards their husbands, is was seen as either a joke or as a usurpation of her husband’s authority.  In the case of the former, when these cases were reported in newspapers, “women who used their fists were peculiar” and often described as “plucky.” [11]  It was far easier during this time for the husband to divorce the wife should she become physically abusive.  A man being violent towards his wife was seen as establishing and maintaining authority since his wife had betrayed her vow of obedience.  For example, “men could divorce their wives for punching them once” as this was seen as a “disruption of the power relationship” even though the husband was not truly in any danger.[12]  This type of authority over a woman, even in the physical sense, made it difficult for a woman to leave a harmful situation without evidence and witness testimony.  In the many divorce cases during this time, witness testimony was almost always necessary when a divorce was filed on the grounds of abuse or cruel treatment.

In the case of the Hansons, Martha Hanson needed proof of fault in order for her divorce to be granted.  She came prepared and made her claim of spousal abuse. She said that on May 30, 1883, Mr. Hanson came at her with a butcher knife and a stick, intending to “cause great bodily injury” towards her.  He was not successful that day, but on January 25, 1886, he attacked her again by “striking his clenched hand in and upon her side and back.”[13] Mr. Hanson continued to lay blows to her body and face.  Mrs. Hanson was not alone in her case of domestic violence.  Many women and sometimes men were subject to physical abuse at the hands of their spouses.  Should these situations become a recurring theme in their marriage, many spouses chose to file for divorce rather than stay in an abusive relationship.

The frontier was a male-dominated, patriarchal society in which women were second class citizens. Women usually did not own land, could not vote, and were expected to follow the rules of their father if unmarried.  Once married, it was a wife’s duty to obey her husband and keep in line with his wishes.  To choose not to do so was to choose not to be a faithful wife.  Many times, when a husband chose to raise his hand or fist at his wife, it was simply his response to her behavior.  “If she wouldn’t get out of line, then I wouldn’t have to discipline her,” was most likely his line of reasoning.  Yet, as society moved towards the twentieth century, spousal abuse became less accepted within the general population and was considered a criminal action towards your wife.  It was during these later years that legislators saw the need to make divorce a bit easier to obtain, making divorce slightly less taboo.

A common site for many wives after her husband spent his night carousing about town. (Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)

At the time, most believed drunkenness to be one of the leading causes of spousal abuse.  It was common in society to drink during the day, so the prevalence of drunkenness…exacerbated domestic strife and were widely blamed for wife beating.[14]  This was often included in divorce cases where abuse was listed as one of the reasons for divorce.  In the case of Hanson v. Hanson, Mrs. Hanson testified that Mr. Hanson was “under the influence of strong drink” at the time of her abuse and that she was constantly in fear of him while he was intoxicated.[15]  The link between spousal abuse and alcohol would also give rise to the temperance movement in the years to come.  Women were tired of their husbands coming home drunk and beating on them.

Similar to today, there were abused women who chose not to press charges or to proceed with divorce.  There are situations where abused women would impede investigations or criminal prosecutions by rescinding their statement or refusing to testify.  Dependent solely on their husbands to provide support, many of them had no place to go and no financial means, which left them vulnerable to retaliatory violence.[16]  Women were willing to continue in the abusive relationship because a husband in prison isn’t earning any income and can’t provide for his family.  Mrs. Hanson was brave enough to leave Mr. Hanson due to the abuse, but the couple also had property that was distributed in the divorce, so she was not left empty handed with no means to support herself.

This jailhouse in Steilacoom, WA where many men spent some “cooling off” time after arrest. (Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Another reason women may have decided not to proceed with criminal cases was the use of the pretrial confinement as a means of coercion.  If her husband was abusive, perhaps a few days behind bars would get him to change his ways and get back on track.  She would essentially use the criminal justice system to interrupt his controlling ways, if only temporarily, without having to deal with “the hardships to herself and her family that his conviction and imprisonment would inflict.”[17]

This cycle of being put in and out of jail had the possibility of creating an even more hostile environment for women in domestic violence situations.  A husband could come home from jail even angrier than when he went in.  This could escalate into a domestic homicide situation.  During the late nineteenth century, domestic or intimate relationship homicides were on the rise in the frontier regions of the United States.  These rising rates of both violence and homicide correlated with the balance of power that had begun to change within relationships.  Women, while still mainly relying on their husbands for support, could search for work outside the home and it was more accepted at the time.  This could be seen as a slight to her husband’s ability to provide, but also gave women more of a voice within the home.  There were, of course, husbands who did not agree with this.

The increasing access to handguns was also a factor that led to domestic homicide.  Firearms were always available in the first half of the nineteenth century, but generations before the 1840s did not have access to handguns and “no other kind of murder was committed as exclusively with handguns.”[18]  Handguns allowed for murders to happen quickly, whether as a crime of passion, an accident, or a planned murder.  When alcohol was involved, which was often in many domestic abuse or homicide cases, it caused arguments to escalate into dangerous situations.

Men were not the only abusers in marital relationships.  While not as commonly reported, sometimes women did abuse their husbands as well.  In 1874, Mrs. Mary J. Evans, a woman advanced in her years, was charged with assaulting her husband after his lecture on domestic economy turned into him berating her.  She felt he was coming on too strong with his lecture “so she went for the old man and pounded him into a confession not to repeat such distasteful expressions.”[19]  Later in 1890, it was reported that Etta M. Greeley filed for divorce and William Greeley filed a countersuit.  Mrs. Greeley stated that she was treated cruelly by Mr. Greeley and ultimately, he shot her.  There was no evidence of this and he was never charged.  Mr. Greeley then turned the tables on Mrs. Greeley, stating that she only wanted the divorce so she could marry her lover and that it was, in fact, he who was treated cruelly in the relationship.  He also felt that she was using their child as a pawn in the proceedings.[20]  Mrs. Greeley had expressed to the courts that her child disliked Mr. Greeley, yet upon entering the courtroom, his lawyer saw the child happily sitting upon her father’s lap.

The abuse of husbands was underreported due to the stigma.  Men who were abused or cuckolded were objects of derision.  A man abused by his wife was a man who could not maintain his standing within his household.  It was a strike to one’s manhood to admit that your wife had abused you.  Inn 1890, Dora Ball brought a divorce suit against her husband, Frank, citing his habitual drunkenness, excessive carousing at saloons, and visits to houses of ill-repute. She said in her complaint that he was “a total wreck morally, mentally, and physically” and was guilty of adultery and “general lewd, wrongful, and criminal conduct with depraved women.”[21] Mrs. Ball eventually abandoned both the case for divorce and Mr. Ball altogether.  He later sued for divorce on the grounds of abandonment and cruelty.  In the newspaper, he is portrayed as the “injured” and abused husband.

Domestic violence in the frontier era was sadly a common occurrence.  Women were usually the victims, although they did not always choose to press charges and follow through with investigations.  Even when they did provide testimony, their carefully chosen words would not result in a conviction.  Louis Friedland was brought to court after being arrested by Officer McCuen for abusing his wife.  While Mrs. Friedland did testify in court, her statement did not show that she was unable to defend herself.  The previous Saturday, Mr. Friedland had come home intoxicated and threw his wife outside of their home with a threat to kill her.  Referred to as a “loving husband” even though he was the accused, Mr. Friedland then proceeded to grab a stick with the intent of fulfilling his threat.  Mrs. Friedland ran to a neighbor’s house and, upon seeing her husband heading towards her, grabbed a club and hit him over the head.  He “went down like an ox” and she continued to stay with the neighbor until she had a chance to find an officer to have him arrested.  Several neighbors came to testify on his behalf that he was a nice man when sober, but a very mean drunk.  He was released with a suspended fine of $75, provided he promise “not to do it no more.”[22]

Many men felt that it was their right as a husband to keep their wife “in line” and that she was never to usurp his authority.  However, as the years progressed in the nineteenth century, this was not seen as acceptable behavior within the society at large and abusers were prosecuted and women could divorce their husbands citing this reason.  Sometimes domestic violence escalated into domestic homicide.  Women were not the only victims in either case.  While not as widely reported, there are cases of women abusing their husbands and men had filed for divorce due to being treated cruelly.

Desertion or abandonment, was another common cause for divorce in the west.  This charge often went hand in hand with infidelity, which was woven into many testimonies regarding desertion or abandonment.  While some spouses tried to hide their infidelity, it seems their affairs were often found out in the end.  Jennie Hill divorced her husband of seven years on May 2, 1890 due to his adulterous behavior and abandonment.  Mrs. Hill stated that while she was ill around the first of January in 1888, her husband began an affair with her sister, Mary Quinlan, just fifteen years old.  Ms. Quinlan was staying with the family to assist with their two young children while Mrs. Hill was convalescing.  The affair carried on for several months and was not uncovered until Ms. Quinlan was due to become a mother herself.  Mrs. Hill took her children and left Mr. Hill at that point in time and did not return.  She was awarded her divorce due to his infidelity and abandonment as he did not continue to provide for his family.

An 1859 confession of infidelity, this one by New York’s Theresa Sickle, is written proof of a very flagrant affair. (Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)

In other cases, people were more flagrant with their affairs. In these cases, the spouse would simply move out and not return.  On April 25, 1885, a young Amelia Hoppe married Solomon Sherbeck when she was just fifteen years old.  Five years later, Mrs. Sherbeck found herself in love with Harry Clark, an actor who lived near Seattle.  She left her husband to live with Mr. Clark.  According to Mr. Sherbeck, it wasn’t entirely her fault as she became so “enamored with the glitter of the stage and so fascinated with the trappings of the Theater Comique that she permitted one of its imposing heroes to willfully lure her from a path of rectitude into that of sin and shame.”  Mr. Sherbeck was awarded a divorce on the grounds of desertion.  Mrs. Sherbeck stayed with Mr. Clark, but he was already married and she continued to live with him and his wife in “adultery and shame.”[23]

Many times, spouses would just leave and never return.  In the nineteenth century, it was very easy to disappear.  The United States has always been a country of mobile people since after the revolution, when at least four out of every ten households packed up and moved every ten years. High rates of geographic mobility have continued to be a practice ever since.[24]  In Washington Territory, the lack of communication across large swaths of land meant a person could leave one region and start over somewhere else without ever being discovered.  The amount of anonymity and mobility was different there than in other parts of the country.  This gave both men and women the ability to desert their spouses and begin a new life elsewhere.    Spouses only need live apart for about twelve months before one could claim abandonment.[25]

While women as deserters was more common in the West than in other places, men were most often those accused of abandonment.  Nancy Bowers was only seventeen when she filed for divorce from George Bowers in 1865 after being married to him for only two short years.  She stated that Mr. Bowers was often absent and “failed to furnish suitable provisions for her support” forcing “by his neglect of her to wash for a living.”[26]  Adding to this charge of abandonment, Mr. Bowers also committed adultery and brought home a venereal disease.  He was not present in court to state his side of the story as Mrs. Bowers claimed he had been charged with grand larceny in Wasco County in Oregon and had fled to British Columbia.  He does not appear again in records. Perhaps he did not return to Washington or this area of the United States.

 Another cause for the claim of abandonment was that many spouses did not want to migrate West with their partners.  Police wanted posters from the 1890s show that many people, usually men, chose to use their westward migration as a chance to leave their families behind.[27] While some were possibly happy to be out of a troubled marriage, it did leave women in limbo as a “single” married woman. With no one to provide for her and not accustomed to earning her own way, she did not have the legal authority to make family decisions on financial matters or the moral ability to seek a new spouse or partner.  She was often able to just scrape by to provide for her family, should she have any children.  Being left behind was rarely a pleasant option for the spouse even if it was by choice.  These spouses would wait the required time for divorce, then proceed to file on the grounds of abandonment or even fraud.  A majority of those seeking divorces on the basis of fraud would state that their husbands had knowingly abandoned their families and moved to new locations, where they posed as single men and married a second wife.[28]

By deciding not to move with her husband to Washington Territory, John C. Wells stated that he found himself abandoned by his wife in 1859.  That year, he was excited about his move to Walla Walla.  He made the plans to move and his wife, Martha Ann Wells, had expressed a desire to move as well.  According to Mr. Wells, she would bring their son Hiram with her after he had set up the homestead.  When Mr. Wells had everything in place to begin the move, Mrs. Wells announced that she would not be accompanying him, completely disregarding her marriage vow and abandoning her husband.  Mr. Wells continued with the planned move out west and arrived in Washington in August of 1859.  He wrote letters to cities in California and Oregon trying to locate his wife, but had not heard back from her.  He finally decided to file for divorce and had placed notices in a local newspaper from November 1861 to January 1862, but she had still not contacted the courts.  He was granted his divorce with an official ruling of abandonment, although it is never stated whether or not his son was returned to him.

Some women did not travel far to abandon their spouses.  There are several incidences where the wife chose to move out of the home and across town.  In 1862, Mrs. Ewing left her husband to move in with two men with whom she committed adultery.  For a period of up to ten months, she was said to have “had sexual intercourse with divers persons and publicly exhibit herself as a whore.”[29]  As common in many other divorce cases, witness testimony here was key in assisting Mr. Ewing with his case.  While asking other citizens about Mrs. Ewing’s character, the court became aware that she was known around town as a prostitute and had been living with these two men for quite some time, so his divorce was granted.

Most divorces required a period of time between the court hearing and the granting of the divorce.  However, in the case of W.P. Horton vs. Kate Horton, their divorce was granted

This old brothel in Montana is common of the eral – there was a saloon or store on the bottom floor and rooms where women like Kate Horton took care of their customers. (Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)

on the same day as the case was heard.  The two married on September 21, 1861 and according to Mr. Horton he had intended “to be to her a good, kind, faithful, and affectionate husband” and that Mrs. Horton pledged “to make him a kind, faithful, and affectionate wife.”[30]  This is not how things turned out, at least according to his testimony.  Apparently, the very next day after the wedding, Mrs. Horton began “disregarding her duties and obligations as the wife” and began a series of quarreling and abusive and insulting language towards him.”[31] According to Mr. Horton, she said that she had only married him to get away from her mother.  Furthermore, she wanted to “go away and reside in a house of ill-fame, that she had always wanted to be a whore and that she would be one.”[32]  This went on for a few days until September 28, when she got up out of bed and stated that she was going to a dance hall and that he should not follow, presumably due to the fact that she planned on fulfilling her desire to become a prostitute.

On September 30th, Mr. Horton was in court, providing his testimony.  Mrs. Horton was issued a summons, but court records show that she was not present at the time the case was heard.  The divorce was granted that same day which is very uncommon for cases of abandonment as it did not have the year waiting period required.

Mr. Horton was granted a divorce much quicker than most perhaps because of his standing in the community.  In 1862, not even a year later, it is reported in the local newspaper that he was elected as the county Recorder for Walla Walla.  A few years later, he was a Justice of the Peace himself, granting a divorce for Ned and Mary Clough in 1862.  A few conclusions can be made about Mr. and Mrs. Horton’s divorce – either it was granted quickly due to his influence and connections in Walla Walla County, it was granted quickly due to the very short duration of their marriage, or it was granted due to additional knowledge that the presiding judge may have had.

The stigma of divorce tended not to stick with men as much as it did women.  While women were scarce on the frontier, in some cases women had trouble remarrying due to the stigma of divorce and having several children in tow.  In the already mentioned case of W.P. Horton and Kate Horton, Mr. Horton marries again about a year later, has children, and continues on with is life.  Mrs. Horton is not mentioned again in either newspaper articles, marriage records, or court records, so she may not have married again.  If she did indeed decide to become a prostitute, she may have lived away from the public eye so as not to be arrested.  In 1870, Mr. Horton was still living in Walla Walla, but was now married to a woman with the initials L.A., and their three children, Frank, Owen, and Anne.  By 1887, the couple had relocated to Colfax in Whitman County, and now had 4 children with Sarah added to the family by this time.  In 1889, Mr. Horton is 59 years old, still married, but living alone in Whitman County.  It is safe to say he lived a long life without the stigma of divorce.

Alimony was sometimes paid when couples owned property.  Women who filed for divorce were more often granted alimony compared to men.  If a husband filed for divorce, it was believed that the woman was guilty of whatever she was accused of and she would then forfeit any claim to her husband’s earnings.[33]  However, while rare, there are cases where men were still ordered to pay alimony even when the wife was found guilty in the divorce case.

In the case of Catharine and William Cox, she asked for several of their horses in the divorce.  According to Mrs. Cox, “On or about the first day of October 1862,” Mr. Cox “was guilty of the crime of adultery with an Indian woman names To-houses” and it had come to her knowledge that he had “been guilty of adulterous intercourse with said Indian woman To-houses from a very few days after their marriage up to the time of the filing habitually” which caused Mrs. Cox’s life to be miserable and compelled her to “abandon her home and husband.”[34]  Mr. Cox was found to be at fault for this divorce and was ordered to pay Mrs. Cox a “sum of five hundred dollars” and several horses including “our light cream Indian mare branded D on the left shoulder six years old, one half breed cold on year old, one half breed filly one year old, and one grey Indian filly.”[35]

This ruling does not completely align with Section 8 of Laws of Washington, To Regulate Suits for Divorce and Alimony, which states that the court “shall make equitable having regard to the respective merits of the parties and to the condition in which they will be left by such divorce and to the party through whom the property was acquired,” although in this case, Mr. Horton had an affair for the duration of the entire marriage, which may be why most of the property went to Mrs. Cox.[36]

When couples had no property or money to divide, many times the plaintiff would ask for court costs to be covered by the defendant, if said person was available during the time of the divorce.  When Barbara Dobbins filed for divorce from James Dobbins on April 23, 1888, it had only been ten months that they had been married.  Shortly after they were married, Mrs. Dobbins discovered that her husband had infected her with syphilis. This had unfortunately been passed along to their newborn child who did not live long after his birth.

She further stated that Mr. Dobbins had also been treating her in a cruel and inhumane manner and on April 18th, while she was out riding, he attempted to assault her and drag her down from atop her horse.  While doing so, he was “saying at the time that he would kick the goddamned guts out of her” and calling her every “vile and opprobrious name he could lay his tongue to; calling her among other things a goddamned bitch and a damned prostitute, and repeatedly threatened to kill the petitioner.” [37]  She had left her home as she felt unsafe and that she had been treated in a cruel and inhumane manner.  Since the couple had to property between them, Mrs. Dobbins asked the court to return to using her maiden name and also for Mr. Dobbins to cover the court fees.

In cases where children were involved, custody becomes an issue.  When a husband or wife abandoned their spouse and children, custody went to the parent that was caring for them.  In other cases where abandonment was not an issue, custody often went to the father as he was most likely the only person employed within the family and would be able to best provide for his children.  However, in the West, women did have a better chance at obtaining custody versus other parts of the country and by the twentieth century, women received custody at a three-to-one ratio to men.[38]  This timeframe also sees divorced women entering the workforce in order to provide for their families.  It was no longer considered inappropriate for a woman to make her own earnings and she could take a position as a seamstress, clerk in a shop, or even own and care for her own homestead.  After her divorce was granted, Ms. Jennie Hill chose to support herself and her two children and a launderess, earning $1.45 per day.[39]  Child support was not something they could rely upon and if they were granted alimony, it was usually a one-time sum, similar to what Mrs. Cox was granted in her divorce case.

During this time, women were offered the option to refuse the divorce.  This does not necessarily mean that the divorce would not be granted, but there was some type of absolution for a woman who may object to her husband divorcing her.  According to the law, the wife was entitled to plenty of time to prepare her case, a fair and impartial trial, and to refuse her divorce.  After refusing to a divorce, the courts could then decide that the husband may pay “all reasonable expenses of the wife in the prosecution or defense” when it had been ruled that she did not agree to the divorce.[40]  There was no such requirement should the situation be reversed, which speaks of the times as most women did not work outside of the home and were generally at home with children during most of the marriage.  Contested divorce did not seem to be very common and cases like this were rare.  Many times, if divorce was filed against a woman, it was generally for abandonment or infidelity and she did not show up in court to testify against her husband.

Once the divorce was finalized, women were offered the option to return to their maiden name, although this was not necessarily a common occurrence.  For example, Bell Ford divorced her husband in 1889, but appears in a census later that year and again in 1892 bearing the same last name.  The case of Bell (B.M.) Ford and H. J. Ford featured pages upon pages of testimony from Mrs. Ford and other witnesses.  According to Mrs. Ford, she married Mr. Ford in 1878, yet after 10 years of marriage, he would call her a “damn bitch” and “would refuse me and call me harsh names”.[41] She then states that he “was a daily and constant drinker for the last year.”[42]

This was not enough for her to leave, though.  The final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was his affair with Bertie Rockhold.  Even worse – it happened at the boarding house that employed Mrs. Ford.   According to Mrs. Ford’s testimony, she “had to go into the kitchen to get lunch. After that was over I went back upstairs to finish my work. I went to room No. 3, one of the rooms I had made up.  I found the door locked. I knew there was no one occupying the room. I knocked on the door and received no answer and I heard the window shoved up.  I stepped round to the next room and found Bertie Rockhold out on the shed roof being the roof of the Saloon Building….I  heard Mr. Ford’s voice in the next room and it being locked I forced it open and found Mr. Ford in the room with her.  Mr. Ford was dressing himself.”[43]  Wilfred Baulue and William Parker also provide testimonies corroborating Mr. Ford’s habitual drunkenness and inappropriate treatment of Mrs. Ford.  In each record of her in later years, she remains listed as single.  Mr. Ford moved to Lincoln County by 1885 and worked as a cook, while Ms. Rockhold disappears from records.

When comparing divorce from the late nineteenth century to today’s divorces, there are some stark differences.  Most states within the country moved to a “no-fault” divorce system, starting with California in 1969.  With this system, neither party must prove fault for a divorce to be granted.  In the late 1800s, this was absolutely not the case.  With an at-fault system, there was a specific set of requirements that must be met in order for divorce to be granted.  The plaintiff must prove the fault of the defendant without a doubt.  This often required witness testimony to corroborate statements made by the plaintiff.   The more witnesses available, the better the chances for divorce.  Testimony could be provided by neighbors, friends, or even a bystander who happened to witness the abuse or infidelity.  In the case of Mr. and Mrs. Ford, there were pages of testimony from two separate witnesses who were in the boarding house and corroborated his cruel treatment, therefore allowing her to be granted the divorce.

Today, the state of Washington is a “no-fault” state.  This means that the only requirement is that one party must declare the marriage to be “irretrievably broken,” that it cannot be spared, and there is no chance of reconciliation.  Witness testimony or any testimony in general is not needed unless both parties are fighting for custody or issues regarding separation of property.  Similar to frontier times, the divorce must be filed in the county the filing individual resides in and they must be a Washington resident.  The waiting period for a divorce is ninety days and there are currently no rules regarding abandonment.  If the defending party does not show up to court to fight the case, the divorce will be granted.


Divorce in frontier Washington proved easier in the latter part of the nineteenth century than ever before.  While divorce still carried a stigma, it was far more accepted in society than it had been in previous years.  With the development of the romantic ideal, men and women entered relationships with high expectations.  Women began to move away from the cult of womanhood which required them to remain within the confines of the home, under the rule of their husband.  This pushback resulted in women obtaining jobs outside of the home to bring in extra income, sometimes supporting their husbands while they were out of work.  This newfound freedom allowed women economic stability and the option to leave a marriage if it were not working out the way they wanted it to.

During this time, divorce became easier to obtain, as long as the filing party was able to prove the fault of the other.  The most common causes for divorce were abandonment, infidelity, and abuse.  Abandonment was common during this time due to the ease of mobility throughout the frontier.  Many times, husbands would move west under the guise of moving their family out later, only to never return, yet there are cases, such as the Wells family, where the wife decided not to move with her husband.  Infidelity often went hand in hand with abandonment.  A spouse would run off with their lover and never return to the family home, sometimes even abandoning their children.  In other situations, like the that of Jennie Hill, the jilted spouse would find out about the infidelity and leave with the children in tow.  Abuse was rampant during these times and possibly underreported as there was an “acceptable” amount of abuse a husband could do to his wife before it got out of hand.  There were also women who would have their husbands arrested after an abusive episode, yet choose not to press charges or would provide weak testimony during the trial, so as not to have her husband put in prison for an extended period of time.  Their hope was that a few days in jail would coerce him to stop abusing, but this may have led to an angry husband returning home.

Alimony and custody were common issues with divorce, although division of property and custody often depended on who filed for divorce and the grounds on which the case was filed.  In cases of abandonment, the filing party retained custody of the children and any property as there was no contesting party.  In other cases, women were given custody of children far more often in the west than in other areas of the country.  Due to the pushback against the cult of true womanhood, many women had jobs or were able to obtain jobs to support their children.  Alimony was almost always given to women when it was deemed acceptable in the divorce case.  Many women could choose to return to their maiden names, although it was common for them to retain their married moniker as in Mrs. Ford’s case.

By the time Washington Territory became a state, divorce was no longer extremely rare.  The state constitution Washington adopted was progressive for the time and laws of the state reflected this.  It was much easier for divorce to be granted in the western states within the union than in the east.  While the reasons for divorce were not always amicable, unhappy couples were able to legally separate and move on with their lives, hopefully finding happiness in their future ahead.


[1] Hanson v. Hanson (Asotin County, WA, 1886), pg. 3.

[2] Sandra L. Myers, Westering Women and the Frontier Experience 1800-1915, (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1982) 213.

[3] U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, Marriage and Divorce, 1:24.

[4] U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, Marriage and Divorce, 2:79-164.

[5] Cynthia Culver Prescott, “Why She Didn’t Marry Him: Love, Power, and Martial Choice on the Far Western Frontier,” Western Historical Quarterly, 38 (Spring 2007): 36.

[6] Glenda Riley, Building and Breaking Families in the American West (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 46.

[7] Going Courting, The Daily Intelligencer, June 6, 1879, accessed October 29, 2017, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045610/1879-06-06/ed-1/seq-1/#date1=1870&index=2&rows=20&words=courting&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=Washington&date2=1887&proxtext=courting&y=0&x=0&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1

[8] Riley, Building and Breaking Families in the American West, 53.

[9] Riley, Building and Breaking Families in the American West, 117.

[10] Laws of Washington, A Publication of the Session Laws of Washington Territory Including the General Laws and Resolutions of the Years 1854 to 1858 Inclusive; The Federal and Colonial Orders Treaties Acts and Ordinances Affecting Land Titles in Washington, under direction of Frank Pierce (Seattle, 1896), 329-330.

[11] David Peterson Del Mar, Beaten Down: A History of Interpersonal Violence in the West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 97-98.

[12] Prescott, “Why She Didn’t Marry Him: Love, Power, and Martial Choice on the Far Western Frontier,” 33.

[13] Hanson v. Hanson, (Asotin County, WA, 1886), pg. 3

[14] Carolyn B. Ramsey, “Domestic Violence and State Intervention in the American West and Australia, 1860-1930,” Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 86: 194, accessed November 5, 2017, http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.library.ewu.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=7a4db4b0-efda-42d9-b176-5846394f4c9f%40sessionmgr4010

[15] Hanson v. Hanson (Asotin County, 1886), page 3.

[16] Ramsey, “Domestic Violence and State Intervention in the American West and Australia, 1860-1930,” 203.

[17] Ramsey, “Domestic Violence and State Intervention in the American West and Australia, 1860-1930,” 215.

[18] Randolph Roth, American Homicide, (Cambridge & London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009), 252.

[19] The Washington Standard, August 15, 1874, page 1, Accessed November 4, 2017: https://www.newspapers.com/image/337479739/?terms=abuse+wife

[20] The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 28, 1890, page 5, Accessed November 4, 2017: https://www.newspapers.com/image/332705439/?terms=abuse+wife

[21] The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 16, 1890, page 5, Accessed November 20, 2017: https://www.newspapers.com/image/332705850/?terms=abuse+divorce

[22] The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 29, 1890, page 5, Accessed November 19, 2017: https://www.newspapers.com/image/332693463/?terms=assault+and+battery+wife

[23] The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 23, 1890, page 7, Accessed November 19, 2017: https://www.newspapers.com/image/332706036/?terms=desertion+husband

[24] John Mack Faragher and Robert V. Hine, The American West (A New Interpretive History), (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000),362.

[25] Laws of Washington, A Publication of the Session Laws of Washington Territory Including the General Laws and Resolutions of the Years 1854 to 1858 Inclusive; The Federal and Colonial Orders Treaties Acts and Ordinances Affecting Land Titles in Washington, 329-330.

[26] Bowers v. Bowers (Walla Walla, WA, 1865), pg. 3

[27] Riley, Building and Breaking Families in the American West, 118.

[28] Prescott, “Why She Didn’t Marry Him: Love, Power, and Martial Choice on the Far Western Frontier,” 42.

[29] Ewing v. Ewing (Walla Walla County, WA, 1864), pg. 2

[30] Horton v. Horton (Walla Wall County, WA, 1861), pg. 1

[31] Horton v. Horton (Walla Wall County, WA, 1861), pg. 1

[32] Horton v. Horton (Walla Wall County, WA, 1861), pg. 2

[33] Riley, Building and Breaking Families in the American West, 140.

[34] Cox v. Cox, (Walla Walla County, WA, 1863), pg. 3

[35] Cox v. Cox, (Walla Walla County, WA, 1863), pg. 4

[36] Laws of Washington, A Publication of the Session Laws of Washington Territory Including the General Laws and Resolutions of the Years 1854 to 1858 Inclusive; The Federal and Colonial Orders Treaties Acts and Ordinances Affecting Land Titles in Washington, 329-330.

[37] Dobbins v. Dobbins (Asotin County, WA), 1888, page 4.

[38] Riley, Building and Breaking Families in the American West, 141.

[39] The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 3, 1890, page 7, Accessed November 19, 2017: https://www.newspapers.com/image/332693935/?terms=desertion+husband

[40] Laws of Washington, A Publication of the Session Laws of Washington Territory Including the General Laws and Resolutions of the Years 1854 to 1858 Inclusive; The Federal and Colonial Orders Treaties Acts and Ordinances Affecting Land Titles in Washington, 329-330.

[41] Ford v. Ford, (Stevens County, WA, 1888), pg. 5

[42] Ford v. Ford, (Stevens County, WA, 1888), pg. 5

[43] Ford v. Ford, (Stevens County, WA, 1888), pg. 7