Minnesota was not unknown territory back in colonial days, but it wasn’t particularly well traveled, either. The rule of law may have been a force in concept, but how well the law was really enforced is harder to determine. Legal records likely are scarce for that time.
Such was not the case, however, for more populated centers like the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine points out, legal records going back show that the first divorce issued under the law in the Americas appears to have occurred in 1639. The second came just a little over three years later in 1643.
The two cases offer an interesting glimpse into the period when the Puritan Christian ethic was the cultural norm. And a conclusion that the view offers is that divorces were not as unheard of as we might have thought.
According to the article, divorces were granted at a rate of about one a year in the colonies in what are now Massachusetts and Connecticut. And between 1692 and 1785, the number of cases heard reached 229. Fewer than half of them were granted.
What is less clear in some of the cases is how broader issues such as spousal and child support might have been addressed. For example, the first divorce on record shows that the case revolved around a charge of bigamy against the husband. He was found guilty, ordered to hand over all his property to his former wife, fined and then shipped back to England.
The fate of the family in the second divorce granted is more in question. In that case, the husband had abandoned his wife for another woman. He had two children with each of the women. But the record of the divorce apparently doesn’t say what compensation the wronged spouse and children might have received, and it’s not known how their well-being was assured.
Today, the law is significantly clearer on matters related to spousal maintenance and child support. But understanding how the provisions of the law apply is something that can be complicated unless you have the help of an experienced family law attorney.