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Kevin Airrington is a professional genealogist & historian with 15+ years experience. Specializing in adoptions - It's Who I Am!™
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Family Traditions – Theres no truth without proof

Family traditions are stories about relatives who lived and died before us. Some traditions have been kept alive hundreds of years and portions of the original story are being told today; however it’s doubtful that a single tradition still exists in its original form. Before a family historian can accept all or part of a family tradition it must be verified. It is reasonable to assume that the more recent a tradition’s origins the easier it will be to prove it. That isn’t always the case. Traditions included in the case study to follow unfolded within the last hundred years but adoption and an urban setting complicate research just as the absence of colonial records frustrates proving older traditions.

As family historians and genealogists of this generation become more experienced and better skilled they are discovering that the rules of evidence required to establish guilt or innocence in today’s courtrooms are also used to prove or disprove familial relationships that existed hundreds of years ago. Those same rules and the preponderance of evidence at hand are used to test and verify family traditions. There are instances in the following case study when material evidence proving an event or relationship no longer exists but a preponderance of circumstantial evidence allows the researcher to reach a reasonable conclusion in the absence of better proof.

case study

I knew Bertha Ruth West nee Smith for twenty-eight years. She told me she was born on 14 February 1889 in Kansas City Missouri and was placed in a Catholic orphanage there. Before Bertha died on 28 August 197 in Kansas City Missouri I tried to dig up some information about the Carroll family but my research skills didn’t measure up to proving a complicated family tradition involving both adoption and an urban setting. Finally nearly eighteen years and hundreds of research hours later a second tradition surfaced which explained part of the mystery. By 1988 enough direct and circumstantial evidence had been gathered to draw reasonable conclusions about Bertha’s parentage.

Thomas and Mary Alice Smith raised Bertha as their daughter but never adopted her legally. They provided the few facts Bertha remembered about her natural parents. Those facts comprise what genealogists call a family tradition.

family tradition

  • Bertha’s natural father whose last name was Carroll died in a mining accident at Argentine Kansas before she was born.
  • Bertha’s natural mother died from tuberculosis shortly after Bertha was born.
  • Bertha was placed in a Catholic orphanage immediately after birth.
  • A Mrs. Moore who lived in Rosedale Kansas took Bertha from the orphanage and gave her to Thomas Albert Smith a Baptist minister and his wife Mary Alice Smith nee Karr.

Kansas City Missouri was a big city in 1889. It’s geography is important to this case study. It borders Kansas City Kansas — a smaller metropolis — on the west and the Kansas River runs between the two cities. Several bridges allowed access to and from both cities and commercial transportation was available in 1889. Armourdale Rosedale and Argentine Kansas are immediately south of Kansas City Kansas. They were the home of the stock yards railroad yards and meat packing companies when Bertha was born and for decades afterward.

Residents of Kansas City Missouri were required by law to register births marriages and deaths in 1889 but no such law existed in Kansas City Kansas. When research began in 1966 record clerks refused to provide a copy of Bertha’s birth certificate because the only entry for a female born on 14 February 1889 belonged to an unnamed child. Twenty years later rules had changed and Bertha had been dead for fourteen years. In 1986 I went to the city’s vital records office and purchased a certified copy of her birth record.

birth certificate of female carroll

  • Surname: Carroll Female
  • Date of Birth: 14 February 1889
  • Name of Father:_____
  • Birthplace: _____
  • Name of Mother: Kate Carroll
  • Birthplace: Ohio
  • Birth reported by: H. S. Douglas
  • File Number: A-307
  • Date of Filing: February 1889
  • Sex: Female Color: White
  • Place of Birth: City Hospital

It’s reasonable to believe a deceased father would be listed on his child’s birth record thus the absence of a her father’s name suggests illegitimacy but that omission alone is not sufficient to support that belief conclusively. The document corroborates a number of statements in the family tradition.

corroborating evidence in the birth certificate

  • The mother’s last name Carroll matches the father’s surname in the tradition.
  • The child’s birth date and birth place listed corroborate what Bertha was told about her birth.

Reportedly Catholic Charities of Kansas City has possession of early orphanage and adoption records for the Archdiocese but gaining access to those records even if all parties involved are long deceased is difficult. After an adoptee claimed falsely to need information about his natural parents to contact living relatives who might qualify as donors for a bone-marrow transplant Missouri officials passed a law requiring all requests for adoption information be approved by the court. Adoption agencies and record keepers are allowed to disclose only the presence or absence of information in their files about a specific adoption or a child’s presence in an orphanage. The court decides if there is sufficient cause to release the details. St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum and Home was the only facility of its kind in the greater Kansas City area in 1889. Catholic Charities of Kansas City will not acknowledge the existence of records created at St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum and Home. They state only that there is no record of a female child born to a woman named Kate Carroll in 1889. Whether a careful and thorough search was made remains unknown.

Although Bertha said the Smith’s never adopted her legally court records had to be searched. Formal adoption was a rapidly growing practice in American cities during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. The Smiths lived in rural Kansas where the courts still appointed guardians to take care of orphaned children. Perhaps Mrs. Moore who is said to have taken the child from the orphanage was involved in some legal proceeding to gain custody. A thorough study of Jackson County Missouri and Wyandotte County Kansas court records failed to produce any record involving a child from St. Joseph’s or a child named Carroll.

Without other clues from records related directly to the child’s birth attention turned to the natural parents. One of Bertha’s children thought her grandfather’s name was John Carroll but had no idea of where that information originated. Bertha told me her father died in a mining accident in Argentine Kansas. There were no mines in Argentine when she was born but it was the site of a gold silver and lead smelter. While discussing Mr. Carroll’s death with family members one of Bertha’s daughters said that her mother also said that he fell into a vat of hot lead. These two versions of one event reportedly given by the same person are classic examples of how family traditions become distorted by omitting key parts of the story.

Kansas City Missouri marriage records do not mention of anyone named Kate/Katherine/Catherine marrying a man named Carroll between 1880 and 1895 but Wyandotte County Kansas records include the following entries involving the surname Carroll:

carroll entries in kansas city kansas marriage records

  1. Carroll John E. age 26 of Wyandotte County Kansas and Garnier Katie age 19 of Wyandotte County Kansas were married 1 October. 1885 at Wyandotte by Frances M. Hayden Catholic Priest.
  2. Fleming James age 40 of Wyandotte County Kansas and Kate M. Carroll age 29 of Wyandotte County Kansas were married 19 June. 1894 in Wyandotte County at St. Catholic Church.

All of the events spoken of in the family tradition involved Wyandotte County Kansas except the child’s birth. Since the father was said to have worked and died in that county then surely the child’s mother had some connection with the area. Mrs. Moore lived in the town immediately between Argentine and Kansas City. The heavy emphasis on Wyandotte County suggests that the answers would surface in Kansas but Kansas City Missouri became the focal point again when the first marriage record surfaced.

studying john carroll and kate garnier of kansas city missouri

Based on the contents of their marriage record it would have been easy to conclude that John and Kate (Garnier) Carroll were the child’s parents. They had the right names were the right age and were married prior to the child’s birth not far from Argentine. They fit the facts perfectly at first glance but a marriage record alone is insufficient evidence to link them to Bertha. It doesn’t mention the child nor does it explain what happened to them between 1 October 1885 and 14 February 1889. Their whereabouts and activities after 1885 were the important facts to be considered.

According to city directories John and Kate worked in Kansas City Kansas for awhile after their marriage. The 1889 city directory Kansas City Kansas shows Katie Carroll working as a tailoress at London Tailors and residing in Kansas City Kansas. Her husband is listed as “John E. Carroll Com’l trav T.D. Samuel r K.C.K.” John is listed in the 1890 city directory as a resident of 2034 Holmes in Kansas City Missouri and his place of employment is the same. There is no entry for a Kate Carroll but a Catherine Carroll widow of Dennis residing at 1611 Cherry is listed.

According to the 189 city directory John and Kate [also known as Kittie] Carroll lived at 1611 Cherry in Kansas City Missouri. He was a clerk at T.B. Cunningham but her occupation is not listed. The following year his employer was the same and Kate worked for Bullene Moore Emery & Company. They resided at 1611 Cherry in Kansas City Missouri along with Dennis Carroll’s widow Catherine. The 1900 Federal Census shows John and Catherine Carroll as the widow Catherine Carroll’s grown children living at 1611 Cherry in Kansas City Missouri. Both were employed as sales clerks. The John Carroll of Kansas City Kansas who married Katie Garnier and Catherine Carroll’s son John were white-collar workers. There is nothing to indicate that either of them worked in or lived near the Argentine smelter. John Carroll of Kansas City Kansas moved across the river to Missouri and cannot be identified in city directories or census records after 1890.

others in the area named kate carroll

Two others named Kate Carroll appear in city directories. One is a domestic in a section of Kansas City Missouri that is quite distant from the Kansas state line. None of the records examined linked her to Wyandotte County Kansas. She no longer appears in city directories after 1897. There is no marriage or death record on file for her in Kansas or Missouri.

The other Kate Carroll lived in Kansas City Kansas between 1887 and 1900. She is enumerated as a single woman living at 429 Oakland Avenue Kansas City Kansas in the 1900 federal census. She was born October 1855 in Iowa to natives of Ireland. There is no indication in the 1900 census that she gave birth to any children. City directories list her as the daughter of William and Bridget Carroll living at 429 Oakland in 1887. She taught at a girl’s school in Kansas City Kansas. She could have given birth to a child in 1889; however she is mentioned in the school’s annual report without interruption for pregnancy leave. Standards prevalent at that time suggest an unmarried pregnant woman would be let go from her position at a private girl’s school. Kate Carroll the school teacher did not leave a broad trail to follow. She seems to have led an ordinary existence. Thus the scant information available about this school teacher does not offer the circumstantial or direct evidence to tie her to the family tradition.

kate carroll wife of james fleming

The Kate Carroll who married James Fleming in 1894 left a broader trail to follow. She and James stayed in the Kansas City Kansas area the remainder of their lives. They were enumerated there in the 1900 federal census as residents of 241 Mill Street. The census states James was born in June 1854 in English Canada and Katie M. his wife was born in September 1865 in Kansas. Their children Michael M. (born Oct 1896) and Anna (born September 1898) were born in Kansas. James Fleming was a foreman at the railroad track and he owned the house they lived in free of mortgage. He arrived in the United States in 1881 and was a naturalized citizen. His parent’s were born in English Canada. The census says Kate had given birth only to the two children listed.

James and Kate are listed at different addresses within a one mile radius in Kansas City Kansas between 1895 and 1929. Understanding the geography of the area was critical to solving this research problem. Geography and events combined show Kate Carroll Fleming is the right age in the right location and the best prospect to document further. Looking at a map of the area depicts the area. It took standing in St. Thomas’ parking lot and seeing in the distance many of the places involved in this case to understand how small an area it encompassed.

  1. City Hospital in Kansas City Missouri where Bertha was born is less than a mile from the Kansas state line and less than a mile from St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum.
  2. Rosedale Kansas is about a mile from the state line and the smelter in Argentine was another mile east of Rosedale.
  3. St. Thomas Church in Kansas City Kansas where Kate and James Fleming were married is approximately a mile north of Rosedale and within two miles of Argentine.

discrepancy check

Researchers encounter discrepancies between two or more records in every research case. Sometimes discrepancies can be resolved by checking other records to corroborate one of the facts in question. More often information in other records checked adds another discrepancy. Some discrepancies exist in the documents examined above discussed here.

  1. The child’s birth certificate states Kate Carroll was born in Ohio but the 1900 census lists Kansas as her birthplace. Both sources state that her parents were born in Ireland.
  2. If Bertha’s mother died of tuberculosis shortly after giving birth in February 1889 how could she have married James Fleming in 1894?

Obviously proving the identity of Bertha’s natural parentage would require some exhaustive research to determine if possible which record contains the correct information.

James and Kate Fleming were Catholics and as such they would have been buried in a Catholic cemetery. Kansas City Kansas Catholic Cemeteries Office on the grounds of Mt. Calvary Cemetery maintains records for all Catholic cemeteries in the area. Records there state James and Kate Carroll were buried at Mt. Calvary Cemetery on 1 May 1920 and 2 January 1950 respectively. Michael T. Fleming who died 20 March 1940 is buried next to his parents.

Obituary notices for James and Kate Fleming were printed in the Kansas City Star; however they offer little information of value. Michael’s obituary states that he was survived by his mother Mrs. Kate Fleming of 270 North Seventh and a sister Mrs. Paul Newell of 654 Shawnee. The birth information on Kate’s death record conflicts with census information; thus her birth is estimated to have taken place between 1860 and 1865 in the month of September. Having traced the Flemings to Anna Fleming Newell their only living descendant in 1950 when Kate died it was crucial to identify Anna’s living descendants. Paul and Anna Newell operated a dry cleaning business in Armourdale in the 1950′s. They lived within the boundaries of St. Thomas’s church where Anna’s parents were married. They are buried at Mt. Calvary Cemetery and their tombstone includes their names as well as the name of their only child whose death date is not recorded on the stone. The obvious next step was to interview the only living descendant of Anna Fleming Newell.

Contacting distant relatives often produces valuable information. In this case it was vitally important because direct evidence had not been found to support a mother-daughter relationship between Bertha and Kate Fleming nee Carroll. Anna Fleming Newell’s child an adult when Kate Fleming died had daily contact with her grandmother when they lived in the same home after Michael Fleming’s death. Confronting relatives with information suggesting a possible illegitimate birth requires asking carefully phrased questions that will not end the conversation prematurely. In this case a telephone discussion with Anna’s daughter offered few details of Kate Carroll’s life. The key piece of information came in the admission that Kate had worked at the Argentine smelter before she married James Fleming. The family had no knowledge of Kate having given birth to a daughter in 1889 and her sole living descendant refused to consider the possibility that such an event had taken place. The fact that Kate had two sisters named Mary and Norah was the only other information of value that came from the conversation.

The 1885 Kansas State Census of Leavenworth lists a Thomas Carroll age forty-five laborer born in Ireland with wife Anna (age 45 born in Ireland) daughters Mary Kate (age 19 born in Kansas) and Norah. The family lived in Ohio before moving to Kansas perhaps the source of Kate’s birthplace listed on Bertha Ruth’s birth record. While much of the information gathered is circumstantial in nature the evidence suggests a mother-daughter relationship between Kate Fleming nee Carroll and Bertha Ruth Smith. Exhaustive searches for a Mrs. Moore in Rosedale Kansas have failed to produce a single indication that she lived there between 1880 and 1900. Thus if a woman by that name took part in the transfer of the child to the Smith family it could not be proved using records available in 1986.

what about john carroll?

Throughout the search for documents relating to Kate Carroll every record examined was also searched for evidence of John Carroll’s existence. Newspapers cemeteries and Catholic church records for Argentine Armordale Rosedale and Kansas City Kansas do not mention a John Carroll who died in an accident at the smelter or having been buried locally. Not a single piece of evidence surfaced in the more than 100 records searched to corroborate John Carroll’s existence in that area between 1885 and 1900. The absence of information can be as strong a statement as one or several documents. In this case the absence of any reference to the Bertha’s reputed father offers support to the belief that she was illegitimate. At that point several nagging questions remained unanswered.

  1. Who took the child from the orphanage?
  2. Who was instrumental in placing the child in the Smith’s home?
  3. There had to be a connection between someone in the Rosedale area who knew the Smith’s but who was that person?
  4. What Catholic organization would allow a Catholic child to be adopted by a Baptist minister and his wife?

solving the mystery

Two years later the last shred of a clue surfaced by accident. While unpacking Bertha’s collection of old studio portraits a crumbling newspaper slipped out from behind the photograph. The newspaper written and distributed by Reverend Thomas Albert Smith in 1941 included an obituary marking the death of James Marion Karr the minister’s brother-in-law. The obituary states that James served as the Police Chief of Rosedale Kansas when the child was given to the Smith’s. It also states that Chief Karr had married Emma Smith nee Lane the the former wife of the minister’s brother. James and Emma Karr had three sons the youngest of whom was living in Florida when his father died in 1941. The elderly Fred Karr was living in Florida in 1988 and he offered the key facts to solve the mystery of Bertha Ruth Smith’s natural parentage.

According to Fred Karr his father and Kate Carroll were the unmarried parents Bertha Ruth Smith. They did not marry because of religious differences and the mother placed the child in a Catholic orphanage. As her father James had the right to take the child from the orphanage without court approval. He allowed his childless sister Mary Alice Smith nee Karr and her husband to adopt his daughter informally. Fred could not corroborate Kate Carroll’s employment at the Argentine smelter. Although Fred Karr could not produce proof in the form of documents to support his family’s tradition his comments fit most of the evidence accumulated over more than two decades.

Can one family tradition be used to verify another tradition? In this situation Fred Karr had never discussed his father’s illegitimate daughter with anyone in Kansas or Missouri. He’d never returned to Kansas after moving to Florida as a child. His knowledge of Bertha’s birth and adoption came from his father not the Smiths. Those circumstances upgrade the quality of Fred’s here say evidence.

This family tradition was difficult to prove because it involved an urban area adoption and illegitimacy. As is true in similar cases the conclusions drawn were based on the preponderance of circumstantial evidence and oral testimony. Evaluating genealogical evidence is an art that requires patience and exhaustive deductive reasoning. Despite the exorbitant amount of research devoted to this problem over twenty-five years it was worth the effort to follow every available clue even those that fall into your lap from behind a photograph.

There’s always a bit of irony in everyone’s life. In this case Bertha and her husband moved their family to Kansas City Missouri in 1936 and lived less than five miles from Kate Fleming for fourteen years. Bertha died thinking that her biological father was her uncle-by-adoption.

by Johni Cerny B.S. F.U.G.A.


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