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Research Guide to Divorce Records in Connecticut:

A Brief History and Summary of Sources

Married persons have obtained legal divorces in Connecticut since the earliest period of settlement. Researchers should note that information documenting divorces is found in a variety of published and unpublished sources cited below. The following is based in part on Henry S. Cohn, "Connecticut's Divorce Mechanism, 1636-1969", The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. XIV, No. 1 (January 1970), 34-54, an indispensable article summarizing the evolution of Connecticut divorce law and procedures. Cohn's article and all of the following sources are available at the Connecticut State Library. Researchers should contact 860-757-6580 for more information about archival records cited below and procedures for access, use, and duplication.

In the Connecticut Colony (Hartford, Windsor, Wethersfield), parties petitioned the General Court for divorce. This legislative body heard testimony and gathered evidence in such cases but in reaching a decision followed no formal procedures or established legal grounds. The New Haven Colony's Court of Magistrates, on the other hand, exercised sole authority in granting divorces, basing its decisions on procedures and the grounds of adultery, failure of a husband to fulfill conjugal duties, and desertion. For published sources for the period prior to 1665, see The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut and Records of the Colony or Jurisdiction of New Haven, 1655 to the Union. Original archival records include the Records of the Colony of Connecticut and Records of the New Haven Colony, both in Record Group 1 in the State Archives. The archival records formed the basis for the published volumes of this period.

After union of the colonies in 1665, parties secured divorces through two channels, the General Court, later the General Assembly, and the judicial system, especially the Superior Court. According to Cohn, the Assembly remained the more popular avenue in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Legislators received "memorials" or petitions from aggrieved parties and heard testimony and witnessed exhibits. In some cases the Assembly used special investigative committees or Congregational ministers to gather additional evidence. Conference committees rendered decisions on disputed cases. In the nineteenth century a Joint Standing Committee on Divorces heard evidence and reported out its recommendations to the entire Assembly, thus ending hearings before each chamber. In 1849 the Assembly placed "sole and exclusive jurisdiction of all petitions for divorce" in the Superior Courts, though evidence suggests that for many years the body occasionally passed a bill of divorce.

Researchers should consult the following materials for "legislative divorce". Among published sources are The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut and The Public Records of the State of Connecticut; Private Acts of Connecticut, 1837-1884; Private Laws of Connecticut, later entitled Special Laws of Connecticut, 1789-; Connecticut House Journal and Connecticut Senate Journal, first published in 1840.

Researchers should also consult the following archival records in the State Archives of the Connecticut State Library: Record Group 1, Connecticut Archives: Lotteries and Divorces, Series 1, 1755-1789 and Series 2, 1718-1820. The so-called Connecticut Archives consists of papers of the General Assembly to 1820. Name level indices are available for consultation in the History and Genealogy Reading Room of the State Library. Microfilm of the original papers and indices are available on-site. Original records are are subject to the Guidelines on Use of Restricted Original Archival Records and are available for use only if the microfilm is not legible. Handwritten journals of the proceedings of both houses before and after 1840 are in Record Group 1. Papers postdating 1820 are available, though no index or microfilm are available.

After 1665 the judicial system also offered a means of securing divorces. In 1666 the General Court created the Court of Assistants, empowering it to grant divorces on the grounds of adultery, desertion, fraudulent contracts, and seven years' absence. Researchers will find records of this court in Record Groups 1 and 3 in the State Archives. Those wishing to utilize these records should consult the Rules and Procedures for Researchers Using Archival Records and Secured Collections Materials.

In 1711 the Assembly abolished the Court of Assistants and created the Superior Court. Petitions increased in the county branches of this court throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the 1820s the court began using printed forms for petitions and judgments in order to expedite cases. Uncontested cases were finalized quickly often as default judgments. In contested cases the Superior Court occasionally used committees of investigation, but beginning in the 1880s a mandatory waiting period and other delays extended the time between filing of petitions and final decree. Throughout the nineteenth century, the courts increasingly resorted to writs of execution and other powers in order to enforce divorce judgments. Researchers should expect to find that files evolved and take on a different form between the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries and will see a variety of documents, including but not limited to petitions, depositions, defaults, reports, exhibits, judgments, and executions.

In the early nineteenth century the Assembly empowered the State Supreme Court of Errors to hear appeals on divorce rulings made by the Superior Court. Researchers should consult the published cases of the State Supreme Court entitled, Connecticut Reports, 1814-. The State Archives has several but not all of the original records and files of the Supreme Court, many of which predate 1814. Researchers should consult the descriptive register for State Archives Record Group 3.

Researchers should also consult the following: State Library on-line catalog under Divorce-Connecticut; Connecticut general statutes for the period being studied under Divorce; and the Judicial Practice Book for the period under study for procedures in divorces. Contact the Law and Legislative Reference Unit at 860-757-9590.

Prepared by the State Archives, Connecticut State Library, 11-96.