In "The Divorce Colony," historian April White quickly points out that for "as long as there has been marriage, there has been a debate over its dissolution." Long a (wealthy and white) man's privilege, could a woman also seek release? On what grounds? At what cost? And who renders judgment?

White documents an unexpected advance in divorce law as it played out in Sioux Falls, S.D., then the Dakota Territory.

In the mid- to late 1800s, divorce laws in the settled Eastern states were a mish-mash of vague grounds and lengthy residency demands. The territories proved more lenient, with Sioux Falls seeking a mere 90 days' residence. "Going to Sioux Falls" become a euphemism for seeking to escape marital bonds.

This efficiency was "a simple acknowledgment of the itinerant nature of pioneer life," White wrote, but also a hopeful tactic to attract new residents to the prairies. Certainly, the strategy attracted income to both the city's lawyers and to its landmark Cataract Hotel, which became a three-month home to many of the women who could afford its relative luxury.

White, a senior editor at the online travel magazine Atlas Obscura and a former editor at Smithsonian magazine, crafts a historical arc through the experiences of wives of four wealthy men who were variously adulterous, cruel or simply not fit to live with. While the lenient law was an early version of "irreconcilable differences," their divorce filings rarely were met with mutual agreement.

Two other forces were at work: The Episcopal Bishop William Hobart Hare adamantly opposed divorce, working intently and loudly to drive it from the state.

But media coverage that stretched as far as Europe brought the most attention to "the divorce colony," as gossipy revelations about the wealthy, miserable and vengeful have always intrigued.

Through well-documented research, White melds the changing stances within the worlds of politics, religion, the courts and the growing nation's social culture, all of which were moving slowly, incrementally, more tolerant of necessary divorce. Here's lawyer Robert Green Ingersoll, who represented Mary Nevins Blaine, whose marriage proved a collision of religion and class — and with a wrathful mother-in-law.

"Is it possible," Ingersoll asked, "to conceive of anything more immoral than for a husband to insist on living with a wife who has no love for him? Is the wife to lose her personality? Has she no right of choice?"

White does not craft a defense of divorce, but a history of its advance. Few participants emerge without flaws. Some of the women remarried within the week. Very few remained in Sioux Falls, despite duplicitous assurances that they would.

Ultimately, Sioux Falls' 20-year era as a divorce colony came to an end in 1908, when voters approved a one-year residency, putting it in line with many other states. The new law fell short of Hare's fervent fight for far more stringent restrictions, but it was enough to move the needle.

In all, the state had issued just over 7,100 divorces over those two decades — far fewer than the public had imagined, White wrote. The newest, laxest divorce laws moved further West to Reno, Nevada. Each decade brought more acceptance to the reality of necessary divorces.

Today, the headlines document a declining interest in marriage altogether.

Kim Ode, a South Dakota native, is a former writer for the Star Tribune.

The Divorce Colony

By: April White.

Publisher: Hachette, 304 pages, $30.