In the nineteenth century, private family life was meant to mimic the ideal republican society, providing the necessary foundation for future patriotic citizens. When families failed to adhere to the idealistic notions of the private sphere and descended into conflict or divorce, however, the very foundation of American society was in danger. An analysis of divorce and family disputes in local contexts like Vanderburgh County can provide a window into the realities of private conflict within American families, especially in comparison to wider national trends.

This paper uses a small sample of divorce records from Vanderburgh County in Indiana to reveal local changes in family law that mirror divorce trends in wider nineteenth-century America. These records provide unique, in-depth snapshots of familial disputes and the agency of individual men and women within a narrower, more focused context during the latter half of the nineteenth century. This analysis of Vanderburgh County divorce petitions offers a perspective on divorce and troubled family life from within a local Midwestern community, and uses details from the petitions to reveal common complaints within unhappy marriages. The intimate and occasionally gruesome details of private family conflicts are areas of American life that are not often discussed in the open because of their sensitive nature. As a result, looking at divorce records from a relatively small community like Vanderburgh County can open up a window into the intricacies of private life that one doesn’t often encounter while studying the nineteenth century.