Yankton, Dakota Territory. January 27 - May 29, 1879. Six documents, totaling seven pages, two docketed on verso. Original folds, light toning. Overall very good. Item #WRCAM56118
A small but interesting collection of documents regarding the divorce of Walter C. Harris and Mary W. Harris, residents of Yankton in Dakota Territory. Walter Harris, a North Carolina man, moved to the Dakota Territory in 1879 and filed for divorce from his wife at a time when such actions were uncommon. Information on nineteenth century divorce cases is scarce; the first year for which national marriage and divorce data is available is 1867, and in 1890, just three couples per thousand were divorced.
Here, Walter C. Harris (1846-?) files for divorce from Mary W. Harris (1847-1924) "on the grounds of extreme mental cruelty and willful desertion and that said action is for a divorce on civil grounds and that Mary W. Harris is not a resident of this territory" but resides in Henderson, North Carolina. Little is known of Walter Harris. Census Bureau records show Harris (age twenty-four) living with his wife, Mary C. Harris (age twenty-three) and a four-year-old son named William in Henderson in 1870 while working as a shoe salesman. At the time of the divorce filing, he would have been thirty-three years old and likely traveled West seeking better opportunities or following the promise of riches after gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874. At this point in the Dakotas' history, the territory was organizing and experiencing a population boom as a result of the growth of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Very little is known of Mary W. Harris, either, except that she died as a widow in 1924 at the age of seventy-seven.
The documents present here include two copies of a summons dated January 27, 1879 for Mary W. Harris to appear before the Second Judicial District Court, filed by Walter Harris' lawyer, C.J.B. Harris, who moved to the Dakotas and opened a law and real estate office in Yankton, the capital of the territory from 1861-1883. Attached to the summons is a two-page handwritten explanation of the divorce case and its causes of action, as well as a notice to publish the summons in Yankton's DAKOTA HERALD newspaper, as well as sending a copy of the summons and complaint to Mary Harris in North Carolina. A handwritten, legal-size affidavit dated January 27, 1879 with an official seal, swears that Mary Harris had not been seen in the territory. Two handwritten letters, dated in April and May 1879, from E.T. White, attorney at law, claim Harris never received a divorce in the Dakota Territory and that Walter Harris "is talking to hear himself talk." White's letters are written on legal stationery, with a full-page "Commercial Directory of the Leading Business Lawyers in the Western and Northwestern States for the year 1876" printed on the verso of each sheet. White is the only lawyer listed on this directory for the Dakota Territory.
Documents from early divorce cases in western territories are uncommon.