The Missing Story of Sarah Richardson

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Sarah Richardson never came to Arizona, but in September of 1864 she was divorced here. There wasn’t much law in Arizona then because the Legislative Assembly for the Territory was just meeting for the first time. Without having had any chance to delegate its power, the assembly had to handle divorces directly. Mr. Elliot Coues (Richardson’s husband) petitioned the assembly.

Two of the first four laws passed in Arizona were for divorces, and “For the benefit of Elliott Coues” was one of them. The divorce essentially erased Richardson from the records of Coues’s life. However, the documents Coues presented to the assembly to support his petition became assembly records, and they are now curated by the Arizona Historical Society. These documents can help us understand a bit more about Richardson’s story.

According to the documents Coues presented, the couple had met just the year before. They had been “illegally intimate,” and a “certain event” was due to occur. Richardson’s brother asked Coues, who was on his way to Arizona, to protect the Richardson family’s reputation by meeting Richardson in Ohio to marry her. After an appropriate time, the couple could be divorced in a manner “not dishonorable to either.”

That agreed-upon divorce was exactly what Coues seemed to be pursuing. However, the Arizona Legislative Assembly might not have looked kindly on having its time taken to divorce a couple who had never planned to remain married. This may have prompted Coues to say a bit more. Coues claimed that the week before their wedding Richardson had suffered a “natural miscarriage.” Because no one outside her family knew about the pregnancy to begin with, the family’s reputation had been safe. Richardson’s brother, however, had threatened to speak to Coues employers if Coues did not go through with the marriage.

This is the story that Coues told using documents said to be excerpts from others’ letters — but one is left feeling something is missing. Sarah Richardson has no voice in this story. Biographies of Coues during his life and just after his death contain no trace of Richardson, but they mention each of his other two wives. Whatever happened to Sarah Richardson? Even today one great grand niece wonders.

Certainly two things are clear: the assembly never heard Sarah Richardson’s story; and, thanks to the work of the Arizona Historical Society, it’s easy for a researcher to recognize that her story is missing. We can hope that it was she who decided to keep it secret.

From the documents curated by the Arizona Historical Society: MS 178.
This book helped me find the story in the archive’s documents: Elliott Coues: Naturalist and Frontier Historian, by Paul Russel Cutright and Michael J. Brodhead.

HT to David DeCabooter, Sarah Gotschall, Sabrina Davis, and the staff at the Arizona Historical Society’s Archive.

Last Updated: February 3, 2013

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