Genealogical research often yields surprises. One day my husband and I were looking through the index to court records in Fayette County, Penn., and up popped his grandparents’ names. 

A divorce action? In a good Catholic family? Now this was a surprise.

We asked the clerk to pull the file and began to read about the divorce, filed in 1924. It seems Grandma had filed against Grandpa on grounds of desertion. She claimed he left her in 1915 because of “too many children.” True, they had 15 children, but surely he had a part in it.

In the 1920 census, Grandma said she was a widow, as did most separated or divorced women of the day. Grandpa told the census taker he was married, technically true at the time. Some of the children were living with her and some with him, so it appears there were other factors not spoken about in the divorce petition. 

My husband couldn’t get over the fact that he never knew his grandparents were divorced. His Grandpa lived next door and was a positive influence in his childhood. 

True, Grandpa and Grandma lived in separate towns. On Sundays they went to visit her and her husband, “Uncle” Charlie, but as a child he never wondered about the reason she didn’t live with Grandpa. 

When Joe talked to his cousins about finding the divorce, they refused to believe the truth. He had to have made a mistake, they said. 

Another divorce petition I located in a court index solved a family mystery. 

My third great-grandfather was Reuben Farley, a Universalist minister from Massachusetts who migrated to Greenwich, Huron County, Ohio, to start a church around 1830. 

I had accounted for seven children of Reuben and his wife, all named in his will in 1857. But there was a marriage in the county in 1847 for a second Reuben Farley and Pruella Lawrence. 

I knew it wasn’t the elder Reuben as his wife was still alive. A younger Reuben lived with Pruella and a son in the 1850 census for Norwalk, Huron County, but was gone in 1860. 

I could find nothing to connect him to the elder Reuben other than the similarity of names.

The Huron County index to court cases produced a divorce action filed in October 1859 by Pruella Farley. She sued for divorce from Reuben and for support of her three children on grounds of desertion. 

She also asked the court to award her the inheritance due to her husband following the death of his father, Reuben Farley. Bingo!— the father/son link I had been seeking.

What Pruella apparently didn’t know was that her husband had been left out of his father’s will, likely because of his unacceptable behavior. 

The court awarded her custody of the children and $500 alimony, a sizable sum in 1859. Whether they were ever able to find her errant spouse and whether she was ever able to collect the money due her was not recorded.

These two divorces are not characteristic, as they were initiated by women. 

When a man wanted out of a marriage and had no grounds for divorce, if he left, the wife had grounds to file and he was free. 

Besides divorce records, there are many other reasons for court actions. 

Inheritance issues, land disputes, name changes, and adoptions are just a few of the types of cases that may help to resolve family problems. 

Betty Lou Malesky, Certified GenealogistSM, is a past president of Green Valley Genealogical Society. Contact her at or visit the society’s website at