The Second Divorce in Colonial America Happened Today in 1643

The Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans weren’t as conservative as you may have thought

Stony Ground by Edwin Austin Abbey
Stony Ground by Edwin Austin Abbey Brooklyn Museum/Corbis

Puritans, the early settlers of the American colonies, might have the reputation for being the strict and chaste, but the truth is that the sect of English Protestants could be relatively socially progressive, particularly when it came to divorce.

Three-hundred and seventy two years ago today, the second ever legal divorce in the New World took place. On January 5, 1643, the Court of Assistants of the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay finalized a divorce between Denis and Anne Clarke on the grounds of bigamy. (Though some sources name the Clarkes as having received the very first divorce in the colonies, that dubious honor appears to go to Mr. and Mrs. James Luxford, whose case hit the Massachusetts Bay Colony Court of Assistants on December 3, 1639.)

Denis was said to have abandoned his wife to live with another woman, with whom he had two children. The court received a signed affidavit from the adulterous husband indicating his refusal to “accompany with hir”—that is, to go back to living with Anne at their home. Though the divorce was granted, there’s no word on how Anne, who also had two children with Denis, fared on her own.

At least some jilted colonial wives came out on top. In the Luxfords' case, James (who was charged with managing governor John Winthrop’s money and later lost it) was found by the Boston court to be unlawfully married to two women at the same time. His penalty would be severe—he was ordered to forfeit all he owned to Mrs. Luxford, the wife he most recently married, fined 160 pounds and placed in the stocks. In the end, he was banished to England.

Though divorces like these weren’t common in the American colonies, they weren’t entirely rare, either. During the 17th century, about one divorce was issued each year in the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies. The rate steadily increased over the following years, with the Massachusetts General Court hearing 229 petitions for divorce between 1692 and 1785 (though the court only granted 143). According to one historian, the first settlers in New England viewed marriage as a civil rather than religious contract, so the social stigma around marriage split-ups wasn’t nearly as harsh in early America as it would come to be in following years.

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