By Mary Melcher

Many folks journeyed to Arizona during the territorial period, some without their legal spouses.  Available records reveal that desertion was a leading cause of divorce in the 19th century. 

In the book Women in Waiting in the Westward Movement, authors Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith state, “In a sense, the westward movement legitimized abandonment.”  Deserted wives lacked the status of unmarried women or widows. They often did not have the financial resources needed to carry on family affairs; their legal status was still tied to their husbands, and marrying again raised questions.  Was their spouse really gone or would he be back?

Arizona Territory’s law and that of many other states and territories allowed an abandoned spouse to remarry if one’s spouse was absent for two successive years and his/her residence was unknown.  If the forsaken spouse remarried without securing a divorce, their new marriage was considered “as valid as if such a former husband or wife were dead.” Although it was not necessary for an abandoned man or woman to petition for divorce, many still did so.

The biography of one Sharlot Hall Museum Territorial Rose Garden honoree symbolized the confusion resulting from these unannounced separations.  Jacob Miller came to Arizona Territory to prospect for gold in 1863, leaving his wife, Jane, in Illinois. After living in Arizona for ten years, he returned home to find that Jane had remarried, believing that he was dead.  Jacob then convinced his children to leave with him and move to Arizona Territory.  One of these children, Cynthia, became a Rose Garden honoree.  She was just 14 when she left home and traveled to Arizona Territory.

Jane Miller assumed she had been jilted or that her husband had died.  Desertion was a fairly common reason for wives to divorce.  According to the U.S. government study, Marriage and Divorce in the United States, 1867 to 1886, women in Arizona Territory most often sought divorces due to desertion by the husband or to cruelty.  Men in Arizona Territory, on the other hand, most often sued for divorce due to adultery.  These were also the major reasons for divorce nationally at this time.

Some women from well-known Yavapai County families divorced due to desertion and lack of support.  Louise Genung Earle, daughter of the pioneering Genung family, filed for divorce in 1907.  Louise’s husband, John W. Z. Earle, spent considerable time working in Mexico without informing Louise of his whereabouts.  During their first year of marriage, she learned that John was in Paral, Mexico from John’s cousin. She went there and stayed with him, giving birth to their daughter in Paral.  In her petition for divorce, Louise stated that while they lived there, John did not support her or their daughter.  Citing desertion and lack of support, she received a divorce on December 17, 1907. Louise went on to work as a telephone operator and later remarried.

Sometimes women deserted men.  Flora Banghart, daughter of the prominent Banghart family, married John Marion, owner and editor of the Weekly Arizona Miner, on September 16, 1873.  During ten years of marriage, Flora gave birth to two children. She absconded to California with Marion’s good friend, District Attorney Charles Rush, abandoning Marion and her children.  He divorced her on grounds of desertion on March 29, 1887. 

In Arizona and throughout the nation, women were approximately 66 per cent of those who petitioned for divorce; men were approximately 34 per cent. Twice as many divorces were initiated and granted to women as to men, surprising given the common idea that 19th century women were very dependent on men.  Nearly twice as many women as men petitioned for divorce, demonstrating that women had the necessary independence to leave unhappy marriages.  They could not expect alimony; from 1887-1906, just 4.9 percent of Arizona divorcees received it.

 

During the 19th century, divorce was more common than presumed, especially in the West, where divorce occurred nearly four times as often as in the East and South.  Arizona and the West in general provided a new beginning for many. For some, this new life involved leaving old marriages behind.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlothallmuseum.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.