Saturday, April 2, 2016

Luck of the Irish Reveals Orphan History

Who were the parents of my 2nd great-grandfather John Francis O'Connor? I've puzzled over this question for years, confused by conflicting information that points at different individuals.

Records recently made available online now provide some clarity, but may also reveal a forgotten set of difficult circumstances that placed John's childhood in turmoil and ultimately led to his surname being changed.

The 1900 US Federal census indicated that John was born in December 1880. His SSN application gave Des Moines, Iowa as his birth location.

In oral histories, his grandchildren remembered him fondly. My grandmother said he was "very nice, very kind." Her half-brother, my great-uncle, agreed, "Grandpa John was without a doubt the nicest, kindest man that you ever wanted to meet. [He] always wore a little fedora hat and always had a cigar shoved in his mouth."

John Francis O'Connor
His parents' identities were always of particular interest to me because on several census enumerations John indicated that they were born in Ireland. The prospect of tracing them to the Emerald Isle was exciting.

But, as I mentioned, there was confusion and uncertainty about the identities of his parents. First, there was John's death certificate. His son, also named John O'Connor, was the informant and indicated his father's parents were Peter O'Connor and Margaret Fahey Flynn.

These names were repeated on another record. In his elder years, John Sr. was admitted on September 5, 1964 to the Little Sisters of the Poor care home in Denver. The enrollment record required his parents' names and birth locations, which were written, again by son John Jr., as Peter O'Connor and Margaret F. Flynn. Both were reported to have been born in Ireland.

Clearly, John Jr. believed his father's parents were Peter O'Connor and Margaret Fahey Flynn.

The 1900 census in Rolla, Missouri is the only record that shows John F. O'Connor living with his purported father Peter O'Connor. However, Peter's wife's name on that 1900 census was not Margaret but rather Catherine. Was this part of Margaret's full name, or was this a second wife altogether? It sure would be handy to have the 1890 census right about now!

Curiously, the only record created by John himself - his SSN application signed December 1936 - listed his parents as John Flynn and Margaret Fahey. Was John Flynn a mistake? John listed his own surname as O'Connor on the record. Was it supposed to be John Flynn O'Connor and the surname was mistakenly left off? I couldn't reconcile the discrepancy between Peter O'Connor and John Flynn.

There was another clue in John F. O'Connor's 1972 obituary published in the Rocky Mountain News. It said that he was survived by a sister, Mrs. Annie Campbell of Denver.

I found a 1974 Denver obituary for an Anna Flynn Campbell who was also born in Des Moines, Iowa (same location as John). According to her obituary, she was the widow of Charles Campbell whom she had married in Iowa in January 1904. Frustratingly, it provided no information about the identity of her parents.

The Iowa database on includes a marriage record for an Anna Flynn to a C Campbell in January 1904. The record included Anna's parents' names: John Flynn and Margaret Fahey. The names were an exact match to the those that John F. O'Connor listed on his SSN application!

I plugged the name John Flynn into FamilySearch and found an index of an April 1881 death in Des Moines, Iowa. It stated this particular John Flynn was widowed at the time of his death and born in Ireland (sadly, the indexed record cuts off his Irish birth county). I'm still working to locate a copy of the original death record.

I next turned to the Iowa probate records on Ancestry and found this John Flynn's packet. The file included an August 1881 petition by John's brother Michael Flynn, who asked the court to assign him as guardian for John's minor children who were all under the age of 14. Seven children were named and included both an Anna Flynn and, drum roll please, a J. F. Flynn. Was this my 2nd great-grandfather John Francis O'Connor?

The court did eventually appoint Michael Flynn as the guardian for his nieces and nephews. For eight years, he reported to the court on expenses incurred in support of the minors and requested reimbursement from John's estate. Ultimately, it appears two daughters emancipated themselves and Michael eventually resigned his role as guardian in 1889. If he was in fact the youngest ward, John F. O'Connor would have only been about eight years old at that time. Who took him in when Michael resigned as guardian?

Was this where Peter O'Connor entered the story?

The evidence uncovered makes a strong argument that John F. O'Connor was originally John F. Flynn son of John and Margaret (Fahey) Flynn. After his parents' untimely demise, John F. O'Connor somehow wound up in Rolla, Missouri living with a Peter and Catherine O'Connor as their, I presume, adopted son. Where was this Peter O'Connor before 1900? Was he a neighbor in Des Moines, Iowa who decided to take in and adopt the orphaned John F. Flynn? Or was he a distant relative? Was Catherine O'Connor's maiden name Fahey? Was she a relative to John, perhaps a sister to Margaret Fahey?

None of John F. O'Connor's surviving grandchildren - my grandmother or her half-brother - recall ever hearing anything about him originally being John Flynn. With these questions now swirling, there is certainly a role for DNA to play in this case. My great-uncle recently submitted a Y-DNA sample to FamilyTreeDNA. Will the majority of his surname matches be O'Connors or will they be Flynns?

While I've built an interesting circumstantial case with plenty more to investigate, I do feel as though I had the luck of the Irish pointing me to these documents and revealing an unknown bit of family history. Perhaps, as this case continues to unfold, I'll have a different surname to trace in the Emerald Isle.