William Rountree Divorce Case in 1822

William Rountree and Sally Hopt were involved in what is thought to have been one of the first “modern” divorce cases in Alabama.  There was no judicial process for divorce at that time, as courts lacked the authority to dissolve marriages — courts could only approve what we would call separations, in which the parties were free to live apart but not to remarry.

William and his wife Sally separated about 1814 and lived apart for several years.  On 2 July 1822 William Rountree filed for divorce, stating:1

…he states he has resided in this county 11 or 12 years.   About 31 or 32 years ago he married Sally Hopt.  In the spring of 1816 orator left home to go to North Carolina to purchase some negroes for some of the elder children of the marriage who had married about that time.  (This statement seems to mean that Sally was indeed the mother of the elder children.  Seaborn and Nancy, and perhaps Mildred, were the elder children who married around 1816 or so.)   He was absent about three months and during his absence, his wife set out for South Carolina; on his return orator met her on Cumberland Mt. and to his astonishment he learned she intended to leave him.  She went on and stayed in Carolina three years and then returned to Alabama and has since lived with her children.  Divorce asked.

C. B. Rountree as Deputy Sheriff, delivered to defendant a copy of the bill on 1 Aug. 1822. On 5 October 1822 she filed her answer:

…she went to South Carolina and stayed three years. About two years before, she had been to South Carolina to see her parents and was gone about eight weeks and on returning found complainant had contracted a disease which he communicated to respondent. Upon he recovery she came to a solemn resolution never again to remain with complainant as a wife. She therefore went to South Carolina and remained there as charged.

The suit was dismissed by complainant. But on 29 April 1823 Sally counter sued:2

She states that in the year 1793 they were married in the District of Lawrence [read Laurens] in the state of South Carolina and lived together until 1814.  In 1809 William Rountree removed from South Carolina to Madison County, then a part of Mississippi Territory, carrying with him oratrix and his family.  In 1814, oratrix hearing of the death of her mother, went on a visit to her father in the State of S. C. remaining there seven or eight weeks.  On returning she found him infected with a contagious disease which he communicated to her.  She left him and remained away three years.  He wrote saying he had to raise a young child (of) his son by a young woman who had no place of residence and asked oratrix to return and raise this infant child of his son3  promising to deed her one half of his property…was a man of very large estate…but did not do so…

Answer of William Rountree:

…he states the date of her visit to S. C. was the latter part of 1812 or early 1813.  In the spring of 1816 he went to purchase some negroes to settle some of the older children of this unfortunate marriage and was absent three months.  On returning he met her on Cumberland Mt. on her way to Carolina.  She and her little son [William Jr.?] had taken up for the night at the same house at which respondent arrived later the same evening.  He requested her to return with him.  She remained away four years, then came to visit her daughter in Limestone County; she came to his house and selected what she wanted and returned to her son-in-law Mr. Tate’s, later left Tate’s and went to another son-in-law’s Donahoo.  “The conduct of a perverse woman baffles all calculation.  She pursues the phantoms of her own disordered imagination.  Forgets the realities of her side of the question and charges crimes on your respondent and his neighbors which exist alone in her own fancy.”

The Huntsville court granted William Rountree a divorce a mensa et thoro from Sally Rountree, allowing them to live apart but not remarry, and Sally was ordered to pay court costs.  Since the county courts were empowered only to grant a divorce a mensa et thoro (i.e., from bed and board), it was necessary for the state legislature to pass a bill granting the dissolution of the marriage, which it considered in late November 1824 and granted a few weeks later.4  Madison County was not the only site of their disputes.  They had two children living in Lauderdale County, and a history of that county states:5

Alabama’s divorce laws have come into national attention in recent years and have been subject to much criticism.  It is interesting to note that divorce suits made an early appearance in Lauderdale County.  Sally Roundtree (sic) became involved in a dispute with her son-in-law Zedekiah Tate over property that had been intended for her support.  The property had been left in Tate’s care for Sally by her husband William Roundtree when she and William had separated in about 1816.  Sally eloped from the bed and board of William Rountree as the records state.  In the subsequent litigation it appears Sally remained absent for about four years and engaged in acts of adultery.  She sued for a divorce in Madison County, but the court granted the divorce to William in 1824 and required her to pay court costs.  The legislature confirmed the divorce decree in 1825.   After she had returned from her elopement, her conduct continued to be so scandalous that her children would not have her live with them.  The Lauderdale County court ruled that Tate must continue to hold the property conveyed to him by William Rountree for the support of the latter’s former wife.


  1. Madison County Chancery Court Record Book A, pp 212-3 as abstracted in Alabama Records, Pauline Jones Gandrud, Vol. 138. []
  2. Ibid., p359. []
  3. This “infant child of his son” was almost certainly Thomas Paine Rountree, son of Chesley B. Rountree. []
  4. The Journals of the Alabama House mention that the bill of divorce was introduced on 22 November 1824.  I would note that the courts did not have the authority to grant a full divorce at this time.  They could only grant a “divorce from bed and board” which permitted the parties to separately own property and live apart but which did not permit them to remarry.  A dissolution of the marriage itself required an act of the state legislature. []
  5. A History of Lauderdale County, Alabama, Jill Knight Garrett, (1964), pp 188-9. []