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Divorce, Dakota Style

 

Dakota Territory was a place for a new start in life, its legislators figured in the late 19th century, and they wrote laws in line with that belief. Among these were the most liberal divorce laws in the country. Partly the laws were an expression of individual liberty; partly they were a matter of territorial development, making settlement here attractive to those desiring to escape from marriages back east; and there were other motives, too, which I’ll get around to later.

North Dakota and South Dakota inherited these divorce laws when they became states in 1889. Divorce here was quicker than anywhere else in the country, the two states imposing a mere 90-day residency requirement prior to filing. Divorce-seekers flocked to the Dakotas, especially to the cities of Sioux Falls and Fargo.

Then in 1893 South Dakota increased its residency requirement, which made Fargo, North Dakota, the divorce capital of America. This situation prevailed until 1899, when Bishop John Shanley galvanized moral reformers in the legislature to impose a one-year residency requirement.

In the meantime, the Cass County District Court was the leading divorce mill in America. Fargo had ready railroad connections via the Northern Pacific; it had commodious hotels and good restaurants; and it had a battery of attorneys who were more than willing to serve any and all desiring to dissolve their vows.

Over a period of a couple of years I set a gang of bright students, the Senior Seminar in History at North Dakota State University, to study this remarkable interlude in American social history. The records are ready and open, thanks to the staff of the Institute for Regional Studies, which received them from the county.
Reading these records is an eye-opener. In the first place, there has prevailed among historians an interpretation of divorce in America that has emphasized changes in values as the cause of rising divorce rates. According to this line of thought, people in the 1880s and 1890s, the Victorian Era, read too many romance novels. Whereas previous generations had regarded marriage as a practical matter, a covenant done to establish an economic unit and a child-rearing household, these Victorians believed in love.

They had, historians say, “great expectations” of marriage. When their partners failed to be great lovers and devoted companions, they bailed out.

Well, the records tell many stories of expectations disappointed, but they are not expectations of the fluffy, romantic sort. The records tell of people who cheated on one another, abused one another, and simply refused to live with one another. Defying conventions of the time, men failed to provide, and women failed to make homes. All this stuff about true love-that wasn’t the issue. Not great expectations, but minimal expectations, were the points of contention.

These cases are American tragedies, but there is also this whole other story more directly concerned with Fargo. To put it bluntly, people made bundles of money in the divorce industry. Hotels and restaurants flourished, newspapers prospered by publishing notices, and especially attorneys waxed fat on the nation’s marital misery.

The students got into the papers of a Fargo attorney named Melvin A. Hildreth, which were candid and most enlightening. Hildreth maintained an elaborate correspondence recruiting divorce-seekers from across the country, then catered to their every need once they arrived in Fargo. He wrote to a female client who had completed her 90-day residency that she should come to his office and file her complaint, “and be sure to bring some money.”

It was not the case, of course, that Fargo was some cesspool of immorality. It’s just that for a few years there, much of the nation’s marital misery flowed through this channel. It’s not the stuff of a romance novel, but there’s a heck of a soap opera in there.

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