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Divorce in the new year - first in America and Texas

Divorcing early in the new year dates back to the first divorce ever granted in America.

On this day, January 5, in 1643, Anne Clarke of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was granted a divorce from her absent and adulterous husband Denis Clarke, by the Quarter Court of Boston. According to, Anne filed an affidavit with a community leader where Denis admitted to abandoning his wife, with whom he had two children, for another woman, with whom he had another two children. Denis also stated his refusal to return to his original wife. The Puritan court was left with no option but to punish Denis and grant a divorce to Anne. The Court’s final decision read, “Anne Clarke, beeing deserted by Denis Clarke hir husband, and hee refusing to accompany with hir, she is graunted to bee divorced.” (sic)

Divorce wasn’t legal in the U.S. until 1701 when the state of Maryland passed a law legalizing divorce. In 1949-50 South Carolina legalized divorce, and in 1970, Alabama legalized no-fault divorce. But divorce regulation was originally introduced by the Code of Hammurabi in ancient Babylonia. Rome also had a method of informal, private divorce and in 449, the emperors of Rome changed the law to allow for divorce in the event of certain acts such as homicide, robbery, or if the husband could prove the wife was “(1) going to dine with men other than her relations without the knowledge or against the wish of her husband; (2) going from home at night against his wish without reasonable cause; (3) frequenting the circus, theatre or amphitheatre after being forbidden by her husband.” By 700’s the Catholic Church, and Italy, disavowed divorce.

Conflicting stories exist as to when Texas granted the first divorce. In Texas history, possibly as early as the 1500s, Caddo Indian women were permitted to divorce their husbands by placing his belonging outside of their lodge. But after becoming part of America, two stories conflict about when the first Texas divorce took place. One source states that the first divorce in Texas, as an American state, seems to have been granted in 1840 in Nacogdoches between Susan Calenelly Johnson and Y.C. Johnson. But another source cites the first divorce in Texas being granted on march 24, 1838 in Harrisburg (later Harris) County to Susanna Dickinson because her then husband John Williams, who she married on November 27, 1837 beat her and her daughter who would have been 3 years old at the time.


First divorce in the colonies, History Channel

Women in Texas History, A Project of the Ruthe Winegarten Memorial Foundation for Texas Women’s History

Dickinson, Susanna Wilkerson, Texas State Historical Association

The Texas History Teachers’ Bulletin, Volumes 10-14

History of Divorce: Around the World by Molly Kalafut