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Divorce in the Colonies- A History

Posted By Attorney Jim Cairns || 2-Jan-2013

On January 5, 1643, Anne Clarke divorced her husband Denis Clarke- that's three hundred and seventy years ago. This divorce was granted on the basis of the wife being deserted. The Clarke divorce is believed by many to be the first divorce in the U.S. colonies, but an earlier divorce has been recorded and recognized.

In 1639, Mrs. James Luxford was granted the first known divorce in the colonies, Plymouth Colony to be precise. It was recorded that her husband was already married. The divorce settlement not only sent Mr. Luxford back to England, but Mrs. Luxford received the couple's property. It was not until four years later that Mr. Anne Clarke was granted a divorce after her husband refused to return to her.

In the new colonies, maintaining law, order and peace were vital to their survival. Instances of adultery could shatter a small town and the punishment could be severe. Mr. Luxford was not only banished from the colonies for his lapse in judgment, but also fined approximately 100 pounds.

During the seventeenth century divorce began to slowly become apparent as society became more affluent. A higher standard of living, higher wages and shorter work period are believed to be factors which contribute to divorce gathering momentum in the U.S. The most common reason for divorce was desertion. A man was expected to provide for his family and if he didn't that was reason enough to grant a divorce.

Pennsylvania, one of the early colonies, provides a couple of interesting historical divorce facts. The governor and his council or a petition of the Assembly was route to getting a Pennsylvania divorce during the early colonial period. Starting in 1682 a Bill of Divorcement was granted in the case of cheating spouses.

One of the most remarkable divorce occurred between Herodias Long and John Hicks on June 1655. Hicks brought Long to the colonies when she was only thirteen years old. In 1643 Long reported her husband was beating her. The General Court ordered Hicks to pay a ten pound bond. Divorce was finally given on June 1, 1655 on the grounds that Long had run away, had been gone for nine years, married someone else and had five to six children with her new husband.