My Grandmother’s Divorce

Wyoming State Archives website
Wyoming State Archives

I working to declutter my home and put valuable and rare genealogical documents in order. In this process, I have been going through some, until now, neglected documents that were passed down to me, and finding some surprises.

I had been thinking about seeing what I could do about getting my grandmother Helen Harris’s divorce papers from the Wyoming State Archives. Divorce records are available 50 years after the date of the event, if you can provide enough detail to locate the records. Of course, I would have the names of both the parties (F. Ralph Harris and Helen Hill Harris), though I would not have known who the plaintiff was and who the defendant was. I did know the rough timeframe (some time between 1941 and 1947).

However, I know all of this information now, as I may have more documentation on the divorce than the state of Wyoming does. I certainly have different documentation: In addition to the signed divorce petition and decree, and the property settlement and child custody agreement, I have the letters sent to my grandmother from her attorney.

Here is a transcription of the decree of divorce.






The above entitled matter coming on regularly to he heard upon the Petition of F. Ralph Harris, the Plaintiff above named, to which an Answer has been filed by Helen Hill Harris, the Defendant above named, and the said F. Ralph Harris being present in Court in person and by his attorney and said Helen Hill Harris, the Defendant above named, being represented by R. G. Diefenderfer, Esq., her attorney, and said Plaintiff having been put to strict proof the Court finds that each and every allegation in Plaintiff’s petition contained is true and that the prayer thereof should be allowed.

The Court further finds that on or about the 17th day of June, 1943, the parties hereto entered into a Property Settlement and Child Custody Agreement and that said Property Settlement and Child Custody Agreement should be made part of this Decree.

IT IS, THEREFORE, HEREBY ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that F. Ralph Harris, the Plaintiff above named, be and his is hereby granted an absolute decree of divorce from Helen Hill Harris, the Defendant above named.

IT IS FURTHER HEREBY ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that that certain Property Settlement and Child Custody Agreement made and entered into upon the 17th day of June, 1943, a copy thereof being attached to Plaintiff’s Petition, be and the same is hereby made a part of this Decree.

DONE IN OPEN COURT on this the 11th day of February, 1946.

James H. Burgess

Approved as to form

As I said, there is also the correspondence between R. G. Diefenderfer and my grandmother, or at least his side of it. Additionally, the documents include a dual notarized copy of the Property Settlement and Child Custody Agreement.

The letters from the attorney to my grandmother contain some notable moments. They begin on August 9, 1945, with:

Dear Mrs. Harris:

Your letter of August 7th was at hand this morning and I note that you will not accede to your husband’s desire that your ring be returned to him. I will govern myself accordingly.

Later in the letter we see references to the attorney having seen Mrs. Harris “when I last talked with you at your apartment.” She was claiming payment was due per the agreed settlement. He noted that the due date was the 10th, and advised her thus: “you must keep your husband advised of your address and if you have not already done so, please inform him thereof at once.” She was now living at 312 7th Avenue, Spencer Park, Hastings, Nebraska, and the attorney and her husband remained in Sheridan, Wyoming.

On September 25, 1945, there is this:

Dear Mrs. Harris:

Your recent letters have remained unanswered because I have been extremely busy in the trial of cases. However, I contacted Mr. Garbutt yesterday morning and he will hand to me a copy of your husband’s Petition and of the Summons.

What I do not have in F. Ralph Harris’s petition for divorce. This may or may not be with the divorce papers, but now that I have the exact date of the divorce, and know who the plaintiff and defendant are, getting these documents should be simple.

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Archival Publications: Newspapers and Magazines

"A Stage Ride to Colorado," Harper's Magazine, July 1867

Many genealogists are aware of historical newspapers, and search them out on,, and the Library of Congress. But there are some important archival publications that are available with the original publishers.

Harper’s Magazine has been publishing monthly issues since July 1850. Current suscribers to the magazine have access to all of the content of the magazine from its initial run until the current month.

If you are lucky, you will find an article, as I have done, which talks about an event your ancestor was involved in.

The article, “A Stage Ride to Colorado” by Theodore R. Davis covers the stage coach route through Kansas to Denver, which was guarded by the 1st US Volunteers. My 3rd great grandfather, Thomas David Via, was a teamster in the 1st US Volunteers. This group of soldiers, the first “Galvanized Yankees,” joined the Federal army from Point Lookout Prison Camp for Confederates in order to avoid what was a probable death in the prison. Because they had been Confederates, they ended up getting sent out to the West to fight the wars against the Indians, who had been in rebellion because the Federal troops were preoccupied with combatting the Confederates.

Harper's Magazine
Harper's Magazine

But, even if your family and its experiences are not covered by Harper’s Magazine, it remains an important chronicle of American life and culture. Genealogists would be served well by reading contemporaneous journalism to understand the times, if not the life, of the subjects of their research.

You might also consider looking at the archives of the New York Times. The Times posts every article published since 1851. (There is a small fee for downloading the content.)

Tomorrow, I will write about what I found at the Times about an ancestral cold case from 1854.



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WDYTYA Episode 205: Lionel Richey

Morgan W. Brown, Possibly Lionel Richey's Great Great Grandfather
Morgan W. Brown: Lionel Richey's Great Great Grandfather?

Friday night, NBC aired the fifth episode of the second season of Who Do You Think You Are?, its flagship genealogy reality TV show.

The show is more compelling, with a quicker progression of facts and discoveries, and a focus on the emotional and very human reaction the celebrities experience as they discover, or are presented with genealogical facts. Lionel Richey is presented with a reality about his great grandfather, John Louis Brown. Brown appeared both to have abandoned his family and been sued for divorce by his wife. In addition to being apparently about 35 years the senior of his wife, he was also a man who was born a slave, educated and freed, and who was the leader of a national black fraternal organization, the Knights of Wise Men.

It’s quite an interesting and powerful show. Richey is confronted with the legacy of slavery, but also with incredible strength of purpose to raise former slaves to equality of station. He may also have discovered an ancestral connection with a white slaveholding family.

Professional genealogists will continue to quibble about the way documents are handled (usually without gloves, and with much more contact than is warranted), as well as how, every time we turn around a researcher says, “I have another document.” However, realistically, none of these documents is being seriously damaged, and as for the suddeness of the discoveries, this is television. In order to keep audiences interested, there must be quick results. There are fewer than 45 minutes available to complete the show. But I still think that a simple title card at the end could give a sense of the amount of research required to produce the show.

I was glad to see J. Mark Lowe featured as one of the researchers. He is a well-known professional genealogist and lecturer, who lives in what we call “Western North Carolina,” but which a lot of other folks now call Tennessee…. He’s a friend of mine, a top-notch researcher, and an amazing raconteur. Hopefully, Mr. Richey got some time to chat with Mark with the cameras and time pressure off.

Until the 18th of September 2011, the show is available in its entirety on the NBC website. I have also embedded it below.

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iPad 2 Run Down

Genealogy Apps for the iPad

Apple introduced the iPad 2 yesterday.

This is about 9 months since the first iPad was released. The device has sold 15 million units. According to some analysts, this makes it the fastest selling consumer technology product ever.

I have to admit that I did not think the iPad would catch on. It seemed a little heavy in the hand, and was rumored to run hot. I figured that this product was over priced, at $499 for an 8GB WiFi model and $829 for a 64GB WiFi / 3G model. While the usability features, such as “instant on,” would make it easy to use it was really just, as one commentator said, “An iPhone for Hagar the Horrible.” It seems a device for content consumption, not content creation. I’m also simply a contrarian, and never bothered to get an iPhone. I have an Android, and prior to that had smartphones from Palm and Handspring since, oh, about 2001….

In the last nine months, tens of thousands of apps were delivered. $2 billion dollars has been paid out to the software developers of those apps. While many of the apps are content creation apps, most are content consumption apps. But of course, we do an awful lot of that on the web anyway.

The new iPad sports both front- and rear-facing cameras, with the rear camera capturing 720p video. It’s 1/3 lighter, 2x as fast, and with 9x the video processing power. I look at those specs, and, seeing a lighter unit, with this many apps, and this kind of performance, and I myself am tempted. Not only could this be a lightweight way to travel, it looks like a lot of fun, and the apps keep coming….

The iPad 2 is officially available next Friday, 11 March 2011, at Apple Stores and on the web at The new iPad supports Verizon as well as AT&T 3G networks.

Here’s a comparison of the specs, with specs that are either iPad 1 specific or iPad 1-only (as found on the Wayback Machine) with iPad 2 specs highlighted.

9.56 inches (242.8 mm)
9.50 inches (241.2 mm)
7.47 inches (189.7 mm)
7.31 inches (185.7 mm)
0.5 inch (13.4 mm)
0.34 inch (8.8 mm)
1.5 pounds (0.68 kg) Wi-Fi model
1.33 pounds (601 g)
1.6 pounds (0.73 kg) Wi-Fi + 3G model
1.35 pounds (607 g)
9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit glossy widescreen Multi-Touch display with IPS technology
1024-by-768-pixel resolution at 132 pixels per inch (ppi)
Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating
Support for display of multiple languages and characters simultaneously
16GB, 32GB, or 64GB flash drive
1GHz Apple A4 custom-designed, high-performance, low-power system-on-a-chip
1GHz dual-core Apple A5 custom-designed, high-performance, low-power system-on-a-chip
Three-axis gyro
Ambient light sensor
Audio playback
Frequency response: 20Hz to 20,000Hz
Audio formats supported: HE-AAC (V1), AAC (16 [iPad 2: 8] to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 (16 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3, and 4, [iPad 2: Audible Enhanced Audio, AAX, and AAX+] Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV
User-configurable maximum volume limit
Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound pass-through with Apple Digital AV Adapter (sold separately)
Cameras, Photos, and Video Recording
Back camera: Video recording, HD (720p) up to 30 frames per second with audio; still camera with 5x digital zoom
Front camera: Video recording, VGA up to 30 frames per second with audio; VGA-quality still camera
Tap to control exposure for video or stills
Photo and video geotagging over Wi-Fi
TV and video
Support for 1024 by 768 pixels with Dock Connector to VGA Adapter; 576p and 480p with Apple Component AV Cable; 576i and 480i with Apple Composite AV Cable
H.264 video up to 720p, 30 frames per second, Main Profile level 3.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats; MPEG-4 video, up to 2.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats; Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) up to 35 Mbps, 1280 by 720 pixels, 30 frames per second, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo audio in .avi file format
Video mirroring and video out support: Up to 1080p with Apple Digital AV Adapter or Apple VGA Adapter (cables sold separately)
Video out support at 576p and 480p with Apple Component AV Cable; 576i and 480i with Apple Composite AV Cable
Video formats supported: H.264 video up to 720p, 30 frames per second, Main Profile level 3.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats; MPEG-4 video, up to 2.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats; Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) up to 35 Mbps, 1280 by 720 pixels, 30 frames per second, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo audio in .avi file format
Battery and power
Built-in 25-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery
Up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music
Up to 9 hours of surfing the web using 3G data network
Charging via power adapter or USB to computer system
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RootsTech 2011: The Changing Face of Genealogy

The following is a video of Curt Witcher’s keynote address from RootsTech 2011: “The Changing Face of Genealogy: Curt Witcher, Allen County Public Library.” Thanks to Geniaus and Randy Seaver of Genea-Musings for pointing this out.

On a personal note, it’s been a difficult day, what with failures at Network Solutions taking down this blog, as well as my wife’s crochet blog (, and 6 other websites I manage. At first, the issue was a database sync-ing issue. When I called them to work on that, at about 1:00 a.m. last night, they obliged by removing all the files under /htdocs. The files, as well as the databases were up by about 4 p.m., meaning that it was only (!) about 15 hours of downtime, but I noticed that some of the more recent uploads to a couple of the sites were not in evidence; I had to upload files again. So, they restored the site from backups….

Amazon EC2, here I come!

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WDYTYA Episode 204: Kim Cattrall

I have been traveling, and only today got a chance to see the Kim Cattrall episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, or at least the last 45 minutes of it.

In this episode, Ms. Cattrall, with the help of genealogists in the United Kingdom, runs down her missing grandfather. He had abandoned her grandmother, mother, and two aunts some 70 years ago.

If anything the shows are getting more and more engaging. This episode was less about the documents and more about what must have been going on in the star’s bigamist grandfather’s head.

You can see why the show has been renewed for another season. This is engaging television. While, as a genealogist, I could quibble that most stories are not this heart-wrenching, nor do they involve this much deception, I simply cannot deny that this is popcorn-munching entertainment, designed to keep people coming back for more.

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Ancestry Increases Subscriber Base by 31%

Now that Inc. is a public company (ACOM: Google Finance), they are required to divulge more information about their performance than they did as a private venture.

For them, the news is good. Earlier this week, they announced their year 2010 figures, which included notably subscriber growth of 31% year-over-year and a 34% increase in revenue year-over-year. (At the end of December there were 1,395,000 paid subscribers of Total revenue for the year was $300.9 million. EBITDA (earnings before income tax, depreciation, and amortization) was $101 million.

Monthly churn (membership turnover) is 3.9%, which is basically equivalent to the 3.6% in the fourth quarter of 2009, and the 4.0% in the third quarter of 2010.

For 2011, Ancestry expects to have 1,700,000 t0 1,725,000 subscribers and bring in revenues of $370 – $375 million, leading to an EBITDA of $125 – $130 million.

These are very healthy numbers and bode well for the genealogy industry. While a lot of us have some qualms about the size of Ancestry, as well as some of its business practices, it’s still important that this major player is healthy and continuing to invest in digitization and technology.


Black History Month at FamilySearch

FamilySearch made the following announcement on Monday:

Salt Lake City—This month, millions of individuals of African descent are celebrating Black History Month by exploring their family history roots. In the U.S., FamilySearch volunteers have been busy helping digitize historic documents and create free, searchable indexes to them online. Throughout Africa, from Accra to Zimbabwe, where irreplaceable family information and traditions are at risk of being lost due to neglect, war, and deterioration, FamilySearch volunteers are also helping preserve this valuable history so Africans can connect with their roots. Researchers can search the millions of African-related records as they are published online at

They conclude their announcement with the following:

Many of the records collected by FamilySearch are now available for free on More African records will be posted on the site in the coming months. Following are a few samples of some types of records at that may be of interest to those doing African or African-American research. Many of them are works in progress.

    • Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Letters, 1865-1872
    • U.S. Arkansas Confederate Pensions, 1901 to 1929
    • Ghana 1982-1984 Census
    • South Africa, Orange Free State, Estate Files, 1951-1973
    • U.S. Southern States Births, Marriages, and Deaths
    • U.S. Naturalization Petitions

This is tremendous amount of material being made available. Their blog entry about this release says that the Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau records total more than 1 million records. It’s an important delivery of documents, and will provide a great deal of help for African-American researchers.

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Keeping Your Computer Up-to-Date


The computer is one of our most important genealogical tools.

Many of us remember when this was not the case. I have my fair share of mimeographed family group sheets filled out in fading pencil waiting in a stack to be scanned. But today, with your research findings stored in a digital database and your research consisting of a blend of pay and free websites, with the local and state repositories you want to visit tagged in a Google Map, and with your latest photos of gravestones shared on Flickr and FindAGrave, you need a computer and you need it to work.

Whether you have a Mac or a Windows machine, the key to keeping your system working is maintenance. Just like with a car, you should have a schedule for maintaining your computer. With a car, every 3,000 or 5,000 miles, you need to change the oil; periodically, you need to rotate the tires. It helps to check the air pressure, air filters, and oil level from time to time. There is a similar regimen you should follow to keep your computer running smoothly, so you can focus on your research and not on recovering from a catastrophic computer issue.

Virus Checking

Those of us who use Macs often come off as smug about the lack of a need for virus checking software. This implication is that the superior design of the Macintosh wards off all threats. (We can be such pains!) Of course, the Macintosh is just as vulnerable as any other operating system. Since OS X has been released, not as many viruses written for the Mac, but it takes only one virus to endanger your data or your privacy. So, while Macs are less likely to get viruses, the Mac OS is not without its vulnerabilities. Additionally, with cross-platform files (such as Microsoft Word files) can arrive with a virus and be sent on with that same virus, whether or not the virus infects your machine.

In addition to viruses, it is important to understand that there are spyware applications that are designed to gather data about you and your online identity. These often run based on your browser, and are therefore often platform independent. So, no matter what kind of computer your have, you should have anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and keep the virus and spyware definitions up-to-date.

For both the Mac and the PC, the two mainstays of the security market, Norton ( and McAfee ( offer a suite of products that provide protection against viruses, adware, spyware, and a variety of other online threats. The biggest hurdle for me in using virus protection like the programs sold by McAfee and Norton is hat they sometimes take over your computer when you are not expecting it to do so. For the Mac, there is also ClamXav (, a free open-source virus protection software package. While ClamXav is free, it does not proactively scan new or changed files; you have to remember to run it. Therefore, you get less protection, but also more control over what your computer is doing at any given moment.

Virus and malware protection fall in the category of adaptive maintenance. They are ways of adapting to changes in the environment.

System Security Updates

Both the PC in Windows Vista and Windows 7 and the Mac in OS X provide periodic updates to the system software. Some of these are optional. They might be updating a component of the operating system that you do not use, for example. But, often the updates will be issues to close up security holes in the operating system. This is known as “adaptive maintenance.” The Whenever you receive a security-related upgrade for your operating system, you should allow it to install. The software vendors will usually not announce security issues with their software until a fix is available, so you will probably not even know there is a problem. However, those who would like to exploit security issues with the operating system are constantly on the lookout for these issues, so you should let the experts at Microsoft and Apple give you the benefit of their attempts to keep you and your genealogical data safe.

Security issues are often also discovered with desktop application, especially Adobe Acrobat and the various browsers, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. Be aware of how your software vendor will make updates available. Some updates, such as system updates for Windows or the Mac OS and many applications will be delivered to your system automatically, whenever it is connected to the Internet and there has been a patch released.

In general, you should install these system and application updates as soon as it is feasible to do so. If you have any concern with whether the updates you are receiving are authorized by and delivered from the vendor, go to the support or downloads area of their website to verify that the change is valid, and learn what defect or vulnerability the change is intended to address.

Simply Staying Current

You have invested money in the software you use every day. More importantly, you have invested time in it. You have spent time learning how to use it, figuring out its features and foibles. Any software that you use a lot for your genealogy research, whether as a database for your records, or as a way to write or share your findings, should be protected in another way. It should be kept reasonably current. This does not mean that you need to be as assiduous as you should be with installing OS security patches. However, you should not be more than two major releases behind the released product. In other words, if the product is on version 7, you should be running at least version 5. This is a general rule of thumb, and may vary depending on how much the vendor has changed its product.

There are a couple of powerful websites and desktop applications that can help you keep on top of keeping your applications current. For both the Windows OS and the Mac OS, there is CNet’s TechTracker (formerly VersionTracker), with both free and subscription services ( For the Mac OS, there is a handy desktop software package, AppFresh ( which uses the website to keep track of changes to applications, widgets, preference panes and application plug-ins. In addition to checking for new versions of all the applications submitted to, AppFresh also keeps track of Apple and Microsoft Updates (and soon, Adobe updates), to help you keep your system current with the latest releases of the software you use on a regular basis. The tool also allows for Sparkle updates, which are built into many Mac OS products to automatically keep an installed product aware of updates.

Regular Maintenance

With your computer operating system and the applications you run on it safe, you can focus the bulk of your energy on the search for and analysis of genealogical data. After all, your computer is simply a tool for your research, for finding, gathering, arranging, and storing your genealogical findings. You are doing the key intellectual work of assessing sources, thinking through unique ways to find your way past “brickwall” problems. It would be a shame if this work were lost because of a virus or a security hole. More commonly, simply by neglect of a standard process, your system may degrade in its performance, and you will lose the benefit it can provide you and get drawn into many hours of maintenance and repairs, of trying to reassemble the content you have brought together. We all know, and I have talked about in this column, the need for backups. In addition to backing up your system, you should also maintain what you have.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the National Genealogical Society Magazine. Used  by permission.
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Pam Slaton: “Searching for …”

Pam Slaton, host of "Searching for ..."
Pam Slaton

Update: 9 March 2011

I am not Pam Slaton, and do not even know her. A lot of folks are posting here thinking they are contacting Pam, but, unfortunately, they are not. I wish I could pass information on to her, but I am not in touch with her.

This was news to me: Oprah Winfrey’s OWN television network has a show that follows a professional genealogist. The show, entitled “Searching for …” runs Monday nights at 9/8 Central. Pam Slaton, the genealogist the show focused on helps reunite the adopted with their birth families, and other family members with one another after they have been separated for some time and lost touch with one another.

On the OWN site, they write:

“Searching For… is a documentary series that follows the real-life work of Pam Slaton, a professional investigative genealogist, stay-at-home mom and New Jersey housewife.

“Viewers can expect an intensely personal ride when cameras follow Pam and her clients through each step as they track down lost loved ones. Each searcher’s story is different, and the results are unpredictable and emotionally charged. Whether Pam’s clients find a joyous reunion, painful rejection or tragic loss, they all walk away with the closure they were desperate to find.

“Pam Slaton’s career as a professional investigative genealogist began nearly 20 years ago. Wanting to find her own birth mother, Pam hired to a professional searcher. The experience was the most devastating of her life, and Pam vowed that no one else should have to go through what she did. She keeps her own pain in mind when helping clients on their journeys. And her results are astounding! Pam has an 85 percent success rate, follows a strict “no find, no pay” policy, and is one of the most sought-after professional searchers in the country.”

I will have to take a look.

One of the key aspects of genealogy shows, which this one looks to have in spades, is an emotional component that most non-genealogists seem to not expect. With a focus on re-uniting living people, Pam Slaton’s niche in genealogy seems to be focused directly on emotional content which should drive the show. Unfortunately, I don’t know how many people know about this show.