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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Be Careful What You Ask For
by Rhonda R. McClure

May 25, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

As genealogists we are always seeking for answers to our questions. The question could be about the names of the parents of your great grandmother or where your great-great grandfather was buried. Sometimes we don't even know we need to ask the question until we are on a roll.

As we get that death certificate and discover that our great grandparents were divorced, we immediately find ourselves seeking the answer to the question of when did they get divorced. However, I have found that sometimes finding the answer to that question can stir up unexpected emotions, especially if you don't like the answer when you find it.

Sometimes the answer to a research question can stir up unexpected emotions.

Understanding the Records

Sometimes when seeking the answers to our questions, we do not take enough time to understand the reason for the existence of the record. We have heard from other researchers how useful the record can be and we do not stop to think about the repercussions of finding our ancestors in such documents.

For instance, divorces granted in the 1600s to the 1800s are seldom of the "no fault" variety. What this means for us is that someone is going to be at fault. And we may not like the accusation that is hurled.

Pension records can also take a researcher by surprise. We have been taught by many respected researchers that pension records can offer useful family history data. However, we forget what our ancestor is seeking in the pension. I found myself recently feeling sad for my ancestor as he desperately tried to get more than the eight dollars a month he was then receiving for his injury.

Different Reactions to the Same Record Type

At this point I have only located two divorces on my pedigree that I uncovered through my research. Each of them resulted in a remarkably different reaction from me. This surprised me somewhat, but got me to thinking about the questions that we are often seeking answers to.

The first case involves my paternal great-great-great grandfather. He is one of my more colorful ancestors. He was in the Civil War, briefly. He was married at least three times. And my cousins and I have discovered that he was divorced by his second wife. When we discovered this I was practically jumping for joy. After all, the divorce meant more papers on him. And since he elected to avoid the census taker much of the time, I was always thrilled to find more paper on him. And I read with interest the court records of this divorce. Basically he was a cad and his second wife decided she wouldn't stand for it, so she divorced him. To do this, she had to have witnesses to explain what he did , which included deserting her and taking up with another woman. As I read through this divorce record, I happily gleaned tidbits about my ancestor and then filed it away. He was my black sheep and I was happy to claim him.

The Other Divorce

I had known for many years that my grandmother's parents were divorced. I discovered this when I received her mother's death certificate. And while my grandmother was still alive, I wisely chose to keep that to myself. She'd not elected to tell me and so I respected her privacy by not revealing that I knew.

While I knew they were divorced, it was some years later when I discovered an index to the divorce records where the divorce took place. I was thrilled that there was an index. I busily set about getting the right microfilm of the index for the surname I was searching for and then happily began to crank away.

I was about a third of the way into the film that I realized that among other information, the index cards included the action that precipitated the divorce. And suddenly I found that my cranking was a little slower. My excitement had been tamed a bit.

Despite slowing down my cranking, I did eventually arrive at the correct index card. As my eyes scanned the card and settled on the cause for the divorce, I saw the words I had hoped not to see "Brutality." The wife was suing for divorce on the basis of brutality. Within the second that my eyes found the cause, they were already moving again to the date of the divorce. My first thought was for my grandmother. I worried that she was old enough to remember the abuse. And it was with relief that I saw she was about two years old when her parents divorced.

In Conclusion

While we continue to dig deeper and deeper, remember that some of the answers to your questions may stir up emotions you didn't expect.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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