Disappearing Husbands: the Old West legitimized abandonment, desertion

Go West, young man, go West! And if you find a wife there, don’t venture away too long on another mission, or she might not wait for you to return. “In a sense, the westward movement legitimized abandonment,” authors Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith state in Women in Waiting in the Westward Movement.

“This book fills a void in Western American history by providing details about 19th-century frontier women’s experiences … a mesmerizing look at the frustrations and hardships faced by women left in charge of the home front and by their husbands, who went to look for gold, land, and adventure in the West. Relying on censuses, newspapers, letters, and photographs, along with journals, diaries, business records, and genealogies, the authors have interwoven six personal histories along with the experiences of 50 families that were separated during the rush for gold in the last century. The correspondence between these wives and husbands provide an insightful view into their daily lives.” —Vicki L. Toy Smith, Univ. of Nevada, Reno  (Library Journal)

51tK4fb6lrL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_[1] Available records reveal that desertion was a leading cause of divorce in the 19th century.

During the last half of the nineteenth century, thousands of men went west in search of gold, land, or adventure-leaving their wives to handle family, farm, and business affairs on their own. The experiences of these westering men have long been a part of the lore of the American frontier, but the stories of their wives have rarely been told. Ten years of research into public and private documents-including letters of couples separated during the westward movement-has enabled Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith to tell the forgotten stories of “women in waiting.”

Though these wives were left more or less in limbo by the departure of their adventuring husbands, they were hardly women in waiting in any other sense. Children had to be fed, clothed, housed, and educated; farms and businesses had to be managed; creditors had to be paid or pacified and, in some cases, hard-earned butter-and-egg money had to be sent west in response to letters from broke and disillusioned husbands.

This raises some unsettling questions: How does the idea of an “allowance” from home square with our long-standing image of the frontiersman as rugged individualist? To what extent was the westward movement supported by the paid and unpaid labor of women back east? And how do we measure the heroics of husbands out west against the heroics of wives back home?

Deserted wives lacked the status of unmarried women or widows. They often did not have the financial resources needed to carry on family affairs; their legal status was still tied to their husbands, and marrying again raised questions. Was their spouse really gone or would he be back?

“Desertion was a leading cause of divorce in early Arizona” by Mary Melcher, Special to the Courier

… Arizona Territory’s law and that of many other states and territories allowed an abandoned spouse to remarry if one’s spouse was absent for two successive years and his/her residence was unknown. If the forsaken spouse remarried without securing a divorce, their new marriage was considered “as valid as if such a former husband or wife were dead.” Although it was not necessary for an abandoned man or woman to petition for divorce, many still did so.

The biography of one Sharlot Hall Museum Territorial Rose Garden honoree symbolized the confusion resulting from these unannounced separations. Jacob Miller came to Arizona Territory to prospect for gold in 1863, leaving his wife, Jane, in Illinois. After living in Arizona for ten years, he returned home to find that Jane had remarried, believing that he was dead. Jacob then convinced his children to leave with him and move to Arizona Territory. One of these children, Cynthia, became a Rose Garden honoree. She was just 14 when she left home and traveled to Arizona Territory.

sharlot-hall-museum-logo ….Desertion was a fairly common reason for wives to divorce. According to the U.S. government study, Marriage and Divorce in the United States, 1867 to 1886, women in Arizona Territory most often sought divorces due to desertion by the husband or to cruelty. Men in Arizona Territory, on the other hand, most often sued for divorce due to adultery. These were also the major reasons for divorce nationally at this time.

… Sometimes women deserted men. Flora Banghart, daughter of the prominent Banghart family, married John Marion, owner and editor of the Weekly Arizona Miner, on September 16, 1873.  1-po1659p_WATERMARKED_FOR_WEB_t715[1].jpgDuring ten years of marriage, Flora gave birth to two children. She absconded to California with Marion’s good friend, District Attorney Charles Rush, abandoning Marion and her children. He divorced her on grounds of desertion on March 29, 1887.

… Twice as many divorces were initiated and granted to women as to men, surprising given the common idea that 19th century women were very dependent on men. Nearly twice as many women as men petitioned for divorce, demonstrating that women had the necessary independence to leave unhappy marriages. They could not expect alimony; from 1887-1906, just 4.9 percent of Arizona divorcees received it.

During the 19th century, divorce was more common than presumed, especially in the West, where divorce occurred nearly four times as often as in the East and South. Arizona and the West in general provided a new beginning for many. For some, this new life involved leaving old marriages behind.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.

REBLOGGED from the Daily Courier. Read more here: https://www.dcourier.com/news/2016/aug/28/days-past-desertion-was-leading-cause-divorce-earl/

About carolkean

novelist, reviewer, editor, book critic for Liberty Island and Perihelion Science Fiction; native prairie/guerilla gardener; champion of liberty, indie authors & underdogs; one of the top two reviewers in Editors &Preditors Poll 2015; Amazon Vine, NetGalley Top Reviewer
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