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Now What? Making Substitutions

By Marsha Hoffman Rising Premium

Q. San Francisco’s post-1906 court records, including divorces, were indexed, but many of the original documents were destroyed. Is there a way to get the information they contained?

A. Destroyed records – whether ruined by fire, flood, earthquake or carelessness – are the bane of genealogists’ existence. Those researching in pre-earthquake San Francisco should see the California Genealogical Society’s <> splendid publication Raking the Ashes by Nancy S. Peterson. Peterson addresses pre-earthquake divorce records and lists newspapers that published names of the parties and grounds for divorce. She also describes how to locate other records that survived.

You’re asking about post-earthquake divorce documents, which often meet their demise at the hands of the courts. Such records may contain embarrassing personal information, and a court has no reason to keep them after it grants and records the decrees.

When looking for any records no longer in the “right” place, think where duplicates, substitutes or replacements might be. A state supreme court, for example, might have retained transcripts and papers for divorce cases it heard. Few divorces were appealed to supreme courts, but if one accepted a case for a hearing, the lower court would forward a transcript.

When separated or former spouses lived in different states, divorce papers (or at least the decree) could have been transferred so a party could sell land without a release of dower. A wife might obtain a divorce in Iowa after her husband went to Oregon. He couldn’t sell a land claim if he was believed to be married, so the Iowa court would send divorce records to Oregon.

Look for information in Civil War pension applications, too. A widowed second wife who wanted a pension had to prove either the death of the first wife or a divorce so the government wouldn’t pay two pensions on the same man.

Newspapers, though, are probably the best alternative sources for divorce information. Listings often give just the name, date and grounds, but sometimes you’ll find the marriage date and place. Or a husband intent on filing for divorce could publish grounds in the paper along with a repudiation of his wife’s debts.

From the September 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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