Answering the “Divorce Question”: The Influence of the Sioux Falls Divorce Colony, 1891-1908
AbstractIn the late nineteenth century, the United States was facing a divorce crisis. Data released in 1889 highlighted the country’s rapidly rising divorce rates, and headlines showed the public’s growing fear of this breakdown of the traditional family. At the center of the “divorce question” was the small, frontier city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. South Dakota had some of the country’s most permissive divorce laws, and Sioux Falls was the state’s most comfortable destination for unhappily married women and men who came seeking a remedy that law or society would deny them at home—the “divorce colony,” as they would come to be known in 1891.
In retrospect, the number of divorces granted to the “colony” was relatively small—a fact that has caused many historians to dismiss it as a mere curiosity—but Sioux Falls played an outsized role in perpetuating the American divorce debate between 1891 and 1908.
An analysis of contemporaneous observations of the divorce colony—in local and national newspapers, legislative records, diaries, and letters, among other sources—reveals Sioux Falls as a microcosm through which historians can better understand the evolution of divorce in the United States. In Sioux Falls, we see the complex interplay of the legal, political, religious, and societal concerns at issue as the nation grappled with divorce; the era’s shifting social attitudes toward divorce; and the emergence of the pro-divorce voices, especially the women divorce seekers whose actions drove discussion at all levels of society, despite their absence from formal decision-making structures.
When South Dakota’s laws were changed in 1908 and the Sioux Falls divorce colony “closed,” the nation’s attention shifted to Reno, Nevada, where a new colony was forming. Many of the same debates would play out in that city but the shift in social attitudes and the emergence of the pro-divorce voices during the days of the Sioux Falls divorce colony made the outcome clear: divorce would become a legally and socially accepted part of American life.
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