Nuptial Benedictions: The Divorce Industry In Oklahoma Territory (Part One)

OK Frontier PosterBetween the first “land run” opening up the “Unassigned Lands” of Indian Territory in 1889 and statehood in 1907, Oklahoma filled up rapidly. 

There were a variety of reasons, of course. The “frontier” was rapidly closing and Oklahoma Territory was the last hope of true homesteading on the continent. Early reports had celebrated its fertile soil and cooperative climate – descriptions which would later be recalled in wry reflection by those who'd embraced them. Then there was the sheer newness and unpredictability of it all – in a nation built on restlessness and possibilities, that alone was sometimes enough.

Oh – and of course, it was a great place to get a divorce. 

Oklahoma is trying hard to outbid all of its neighbors in the matter of granting easy and quick divorce. An attorney at Kingfisher, in that Territory, has issued a circular which points out that the statutes of Oklahoma specify no fewer than “ten separate and distinct causes, for any one or more of which a divorce may be obtained,” including that all-embracing term, “gross neglect of duty”…

{T}he statute required only three months’ residence in the Territory; and finally, that “persons coming to Oklahoma will find the city of Kingfisher, with its 4,000 inhabitants and all modern improvements, a very pleasant place to live in.” Apparently Indiana, Chicago, and South Dakota are all to be outdone in the divorce line by Oklahoma. 

--The Nation, July 13, 1893

Divorces weren’t easy to come by in much of the country – especially older states like New York, which were conservative and obsessed with family values, unlike that renegade and reprobate Oklahoma. In some cases it literally took an act of the state congress; in most it at least required proving blatant infidelity or substantial abuse. Even if you moved to a state with less-restrictive divorce laws, establishing residency in the eyes of the law often took a year or more, and the variety of local obstacles could prove dizzying. 

OK Divorce Fam

The spouse from whom one sought separation was generally expected to be physically present in order to secure legal disentanglement – something they might not be willing to do if they were for some reason unhappy with you… say, for instance, if you were in the middle of a divorce. 

But not in Oklahoma Territory. They wanted fresh blood and they weren’t overly particular how they secured it. Besides, Oklahoma was all about new beginnings during this period – fresh starts, few questions, and unlimited optimism. (Ironic, right?) 

The nation’s newest Territory wasn’t alone in promoting the divorce business. South Dakota for a time set the standard for shameless pandering to the corrupted and unfaithful. Oklahoma taught them a thing or two, however about breaking up not being at all hard to do. 

{O}ur divorce laws are both lax and conflicting. A man may be divorced in one State, yet still be married in another; hence in one State he may marry again, while in another he becomes a bigamist if he does. The unsavory reputation which South Dakota has lately enjoyed is but another reminder of the necessity for uniform divorce legislation throughout the country. 

In the inducements, however, by which it seeks to obtain its share of this infamous divorce trade the Territory of Oklahoma goes beyond South Dakota…

The particulars have changed, but Oklahoma’s compulsive need to be the worst in every possible yet preventable category is remarkably consistent over a century later. 

The statutes of Oklahoma Territory require ninety days’ previous residence before commencement of action, as in South Dakota before the change of law.

So O.T. didn’t so much surpass South Dakota on the issue of residency so much as stay put while its rival retreated a bit. (Wimps!) Oklahoma broke new ground, however, when it came to notifying your soon-to-be-ex of your intended proceedings: 

Service upon a non-resident defendant may be made personally or by publication. There is no statute requiring corroborative proof as in South Dakota. 

The Outlook, February 17, 1894 

In other words, for an Oklahoma divorce you didn’t have to prove you’d informed your partner of your efforts to quit them, or go far in giving them a chance to respond or to appear. All you had to do was place notice in a paper they might theoretically read. If they don’t respond, the courts would assume they were fine with it. 

Periodicals of the 1880s and 1890s are full of editorials and investigations lamenting divorce rates across the country. Was there really a crisis, or was this merely media-created drama propagated to drive sales?

Randal S. Olson, a legitimately smart guy who does even smarter-sounding things for a living, likes to toy with data and tinker with visualizations of statistics in useful and/or entertaining ways. He created this chart of marriage and divorce rates from 1867 – 2010:

Divorce Chart

While divorce was certainly increasing in the late 19th century, the changes look fairly tame compared with late 20th century norms – although obviously that would have been impossible to anticipate. There’s no reliable data for such things pre-Civil War, so it’s difficult to say with any confidence what sorts of changes there may have been from, say, 1840 to 1890.

Based on what we do have, however, it seems that overall divorce rates across the U.S. in 1870 (bluntly computed by taking the number of divorces and dividing by the number of marriages during the same year) were right at 3%. By 1880 it was 4%. In 1890 it was pushing 6%. 

This may hardly seem a skyrocketing crisis compared to the rates of a century later, when 40% - 50% became the norm, but it still meant that in less than a generation, divorce rates had doubled across the nation. Given the values and ideologies of the times, that certainly felt like crisis enough. 

There are all sorts of fascinating little patterns and shifts in different regions over time, although trying to make sense of it all can make melt your brain. Data over such things is not compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau as one might assume, but by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC). 

The comedic possibilities are endless, if you’re into that sort of thing. 

Eve Gives AppleSo we have a rough estimation of how many marriages were ending in divorce – what about why they were ending?

The North American Review, one of the longest-running and most literary periodicals in all of American publishing, asked five well-respected authors – all of them female – the rather loaded question, “Is the woman more to blame for unhappiness in marriage?”

Spoiler Alert: Yeah, pretty much. 

The most progressive of the bunch, author and journalist Rebecca Harding Davis, was the least comfortable pinning every sin of Adam on Eve. She was also not convinced the root problem was a new one:

I am not at all sure, either, that there are more unhappy marriages than there were fifty years ago. There are more divorces, and divorce-bills drag the secret unhappiness to light. I remember, in the Virginia town in which I passed my childhood, there was one divorcée, and so rare was the legal severance of marriage in those days, and so abhorrent to public feeling, that the poor young woman was regarded with horror as though she had been a leper. 

But were there no wretched marriages among the good people who held her at arm’s length? no drunken, brutal husbands? no selfish, nagging wives? Nowadays the lax divorce laws bring out all these secret skeletons to dance in the streets. 

And the lax divorce laws of some of the newer states (and territories)?

In our Western States, the consciousness that divorce is easily possible, no doubt, often makes wives restless and insurgent under petty annoyances. When that is the case, it is certainly the woman who is in fault.

Hmph. One might argue that “restless and insurgent” rather nicely describes some of the most interesting and capable women in the world. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” 

In the South, where divorce is still looked upon as a disgrace, and where religious feeling is more stringent than in any other part of the country, the old-fashioned Domestic woman is still to be found. She is gentle; she has infinite tact; she hates a fuss; she knows the art of managing men. I think that she is not often to blame if her home is unhappy.

In some of the New-England States, where the women outnumber the men six to one, it is the hard, lean-natured man who has the game in his own hands…

—“Are Women To Blame?”, North American Literary Review, May 1889. 

You get the idea. The remaining essays are generally even harder on the female in the equation.

Disputes over marital termination, not surprisingly, often ended up in court. Based on surviving records, the official cause of separation circa 1890 broke down something like this:

Desertion or Abandonment – 43.3%

Cruelty – 21.2%

Adultery – 18.8%

Neglect or Nonsupport – 8.3%

Drunkenness – 5.7%

Indignities – 1.2%

Conviction of Crime – 0.9%

Bigamy and Fraud – 0.2%

Incompatibility – 0.0%

Other Causes / Unknown – 0.4%

“Incompatibility” is included because it will eventually become a legally valid reason to file for divorce. It was not one, however, in the 19th or early 20th century, leaving frustrated spouses in the position of having to either prove more concrete abuses or find somewhere that wouldn’t get too bogged down in the particulars. 

Which brings us back to where we started – Oklahoma Territory.

NEXT: Nuptial Benedictions: The Divorce Industry In Oklahoma Territory, Part Two

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