The Divorce Capital of the West

Long before Nevada became known for its "quickie" divorces in the 1940's, Fargo held the title as divorce capital of the West. For several decades, the combination of too many lawyers and easy divorce laws made Fargo the place to go for thousands of unhappily married people.

In 1866, the Dakota Territory legislature passed a divorce law that allowed an an applicant for divorce to begin action immediately upon arrival in the territory. The territorial code was amended in 1877 to require three months for residency for a divorce. U.S. citizenship was not required. While establishing the "residency" required for divorce, soon-to-be divorcees stayed in elegant hotels, attended the opera and symphony, and ate at fine restaurants. People seeking divorces often registered at a hotel for the required three months, left town, and returned several months later when their "residency" had been established. At that time the Northern Pacific train stopped in Fargo at noon for 10 minutes for lunch. So many people used that 10 minutes to check into a hotel, leave a bag, and return to the train that it came to be known as the "Ten Minute Divorce."

The law, of course, applied to all of Dakota Territory and, later, North and South Dakota. Fargo, however, was the largest city in the territory, was located on the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads making it very accessible, and, importantly, was the first city travelers from the east encountered in the Dakotas. Fargo's reputation was so widespread that people came from as far away as Europe to take advantage of Fargo's special service. There is no accurate count as to the number of such divorces, but one Fargo judge granted 350 divorces in one year. The cost of coming to Fargo for a divorce was not insignificant and, therefore, attracted the 'well-to-do" more so than the average person. In addition to the many lawyers in town, hotel proprietors, restaurateurs and others seemed to benefit substantially from the law.

Citizens of North Dakota, however, became concerned about Fargo's reputation as a divorce mill and lobbied to have the law changed. In 1899 North Dakota lost its reputation as being the national divorce Mecca when the legislature changed the law to require a petitioner for divorce to have lived in the state for one year and be a U.S. citizen. It was signed into law on April 1, 1899 by Governor Fred Fancher.