A man has an affair and leaves his wife for the other woman. He plans to sell the family farm and other property, leaving his wife and children virtually penniless. Wife discovers the scheme and files a restraining order. She eventually divorces the man and receives a substantial settlement. Sound like a story from today’s headlines? Well, this story happened in the 1850s. In honor of Women’s History Month, I tell the story of Elvina Masters Cole, a woman who fought for her rights.
This is a true story gleaned from various records. I discovered the basic information as I researched my brother-in-law’s adoptive family. Another descendant of Elvina’s graciously contributed his extensive research on this matter. Both gave permission to share her story here.
Elvina Masters was born 25 April 1813 in Bowling Green, Warren county, Kentucky, the daughter of Richard Clement Masters and Agnes Cochran. She married Thomas J. Cole on 10 November 1831 at Springfield, Illinois.  Children followed quickly with their oldest son, William, born on 16 October 1832. William would later become embroiled in the family scandal. About 1835, Thomas and Elvina moved to Bureau County, Illinois. In June 1838, Thomas J. Cole was accused of adultery and fathering a child with Pyrena B Ellis. Although Pyrena claimed that he was not the father of her child, Thomas was indicted for adultery.
In March 1849, William married Ellen Emeline Bradshaw, a servant in the Cole household. Ellen was later named in Elvina’s divorce. The year 1850 finds Thomas and Elvina with six children in Berlin, Bureau County, Illinois.  The children were Catherine, age 16; John,age 12; Albert, age 10; Thomas J., age 8; Elizabeth, age 4 and Mary, age 1. The family farm was valued at $5000. Two more children would be born to Thomas and Elvina– Cornelia in 1851 and Enos in July 1857.
On 20th February 1857, Elvina Cole filed for divorce from Thomas J. Cole in Bureau County, Illinois. Her complaint stated that, about November 1848, her husband, Thomas, brought “ into their family as a house servant Ellen Emeline Bradshaw.” After which, Thomas’ “affections became alienated and estranged and at the same time showing a criminal fondness and regard for Ellen. . . “ (Note: Ellen is recorded as Emaline/Emeline in some documents). Recall that William, son of Thomas and Elvina, married Ellen in March 1849 and reportedly lived with his parents during the first months of their marriage. In September 1849, William and Ellen “removed to a small tenement upon the farm of her [Elvina’s] said husband and lived there for about 18 months, when the said William Cole left her and departed from this County.” Thomas moved Ellen back to the family home and moved himself into Ellen’s bedroom.
By March 1856, Elvina had had enough of this arrangement and forced Ellen out of the house. Ellen supposedly moved to her father’s home. Thomas left home for weeks at a time “to find Ellen.“ On February 20, 1857, Elvina filed for a divorce.  (Bureau County case #395). Her complaint stated that “Thomas left home on 5th January 1857 and has not returned. “ William Cole filed for divorce from Ellen on August 12, 1857. 
Before he left, Thomas “tried to sell and dispose of all his property. . . “ including two farms with an estimated worth of $25-30,000 plus “a large amount of stock, grain & money.” Elvina asked for a restraining order to prevent Thomas from selling and disposing of the property “then abscond” with the funds which would leave her and her children “helpless and destitute.”
The outcome? Elvina was granted a divorce on 29 September 1857 by order of default. According to Neal Smith:
The documentation as being in Township 17, North Range 10 East (now known as Berlin Township in Bureau County). In Section 6, the property was the west half of the northwest corner, and the west half of the southwest quarter. In Section 7, the property was the west half of the northwest corner, along with 50 acres on the west side of the east half of the northwest quarter.Neal Duane Smith, “Documents preserved in the divorce proceedings,” page 11.
William Cole was granted his divorce from Emeline/Ellen on April 19, 1858, also by default. 
Elvina was deeded the 140+ acre farm on which she was living, worth about $10,000 or more (equivalent about $335, 000 today). She was also to receive alimony payments of $700 yearly (about $21,000 today) with the property to be held as a lien.  If alimony was not paid, Elvina could sell the property or remain and take the profits. In September, 1867, Elvina finally received all rights and title to the farm. She was now a wealthy woman.
March is Women’s History Month. I decided to write about at least one woman in the family tree. I am going to make this a specific goal each year from now on. As I mentioned earlier, I encountered Elvina as I researched my brother- in -law’s adoptive family. Her story impressed me then and it still impresses me. She exerted her rights at a time when women had few rights. I am grateful to my brother- in- law and to Neal Smith for allowing me to share Elvina’s story.
What I learned: the power of collaboration with others.
What helped: previous work done and documented. Neal Smith’s extensive work copying and transcribing handwritten county court records.
What didn’t help: incomplete entries for some items.
To do: still looking for Elvina in the 1860 census. Neal Smith also mentioned that she seems to have disappeared from the records in 1860 although there is an 1862 tax record for her in Bureau County Illinois.
 Neal Duane Smith, transcriber and compiler, “Documents preserved in the divorce proceedings of Thomas J. Cole (1810 to 1873?), among the first persons of European descent to reside in Bureau County, Illinois, as well as documents relating to the divorces of his three oldest married children“ (PDF digital copy, 2012); privately held by Neil Duane Smith, [address for private use], Davenport, Iowa, 2021.
 H.C. Bradsby, editor, History of Bureau County, Illinois, (Chicago, Illinois: World Publishing Company, 1885); digital images, Hathi trust (https://babel.hathitrust.org : accessed 14 March 2021); pages 274 & 295.
 1850 U.S. Census, Bureau county, Illinois, population schedule, , p. 206B, family 343, Thomas C Cole 40; digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed & printed 31 December 2019); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C., microfilm publication M432_99.
 Bureau County, Illinois, Circuit Court Case 395, Elvina Cole vs. Thomas J. Cole; County Clerk’s Office, Princeton, Illinois. Original handwritten documents photographed, with permission of County Clerk, by Neal Duane Smith, 2012; included affidavits from William T. Cole, Elvina Masters Cole, John L. Cole, Catherine Cole Murphy and William Masters.
 Neal Duane Smith, “Documents preserved in the divorce proceedings,” pp. 19-26.
 Neal Duane Smith, “Documents preserved in the divorce proceedings,” pp. 99-117.
 Neal Duane Smith, “Documents preserved in the divorce proceedings,” page 11.
 Neal Duane Smith, “Documents preserved in the divorce proceedings,” page 77. Transcription of Bill for Divorce, filed 29 September 1857.
 Public Member Photos & Scanned Documents, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/mediaui-viewer/collection/1030/tree/119526247/person/390182674740/media : accessed 13 March 2021); “Masters, Elvina Death,” death certificate, posted 23 December 2012 by “erbowdle” ; citing Bureau County, Illinois, certified copy or abstract of vital records, issued 9 August 1999, certificate no. 98.
 Find a Grave, database and images (http://www.findagrave.com : viewed & printed 10 March 2021), memorial page for Elvina Masters Cole, Find A Grave Memorial # 198838221, citing Pioneer Cemetery (Dover, Bureau, Illinois), memorial created by Good Oman, no gravestone photo.
 “U.S., IRS Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1918,” digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : viewed & downloaded 10 March 2021), no page numer, Elvina Cole, Dover; citing The National Archives and Records Administration; Washington, D.C.; Internal Revenue Assessment Lists for Illinois, 1862-1866; Series: M764; Roll: 20; Alphabetical list of persons residing in Division No. 11 Collection District no. 5 of the state of Illinois.