Hidden History: Small town girl stands up to small-minded scorn – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Hidden History: Small town girl stands up to small-minded scorn

A family photo of Peter and Kate Peterson and sons, Roy, Clyde and John. Wendi Bevitt collection.

History becomes hidden for many reasons. At times it is because the person or event is surrounded by some shame. Attempts to suppress the shame cuts that part of an individual’s story out of the historical record. Living in a small, rural community amplified any shame a person had because town gossip mills could and still can be devastating.

Emily Kate Bratton, “Kate” for short, was born in 1867 in Pennsylvania, the youngest of eight surviving children born to John and Catherine. Her birth came right before her family and a group of others from the same area moved to Burlingame, Kan.

Kate’s uncle, George Bratton, had been one of the first settlers of Burlingame in 1854, when it was known as Council City. Kate grew up on a farm not far from town. As a girl from a rural middle class family, she would have conformed to the norms of the day – helping her mother with the household chores such as cooking, cleaning, and mending.

However, unlike other girls her age, as the youngest in her family, she did not have the responsibility of helping to look after younger siblings, which gave her a certain amount of freedom. As a student, school attendance was not regulated at this time, and particularly with farming families school was optional compared to farm and home responsibilities. Even though there was a school within a mile of the Bratton home, northwest of Burlingame, by the time Kate was 13, she was not attending school.

A gem photo of Kate Bratton when she was a teenager. Wendi Bevitt collection.

Kate lived in a time where teen girls were expected to follow certain rules of etiquette, dress conservatively, making sure to cover their ankles with their skirts, and act in a certain way. Instead of dating as we do in the modern era, in order to find a future spouse, teens went to group activities and eventually courted, which was an explicit intent to marry.

Kate’s carefree days as a teen were cut significantly short, however. When she was 16, she became pregnant. What was she to do? Socially, this was devastating. One option would have been an immediate marriage to the baby’s father, another option was to find a willing young man to step in as a husband and father. Marriage would have maintained some respectability even if people talked. Other options included a home for unwed mothers, adoption or abortion (which was not only illegal, but highly dangerous). At times, consequences for having a baby out of wedlock also included banishment from the girl’s family or community.

Kate’s path did not include any of the above options. She stayed with her family, forging through unmarried, but with their help. Living in a rural setting would give her some protection from prying eyes, but what would happen when the time came to deliver the baby? A local doctor would surely be called, and then news would spread like wildfire, if it hadn’t already.

At the time of Kate’s second trimester, the papers made mention of her father making a seemingly normal trip to visit her brother, James, in Winchester, in Jefferson County, Kan. The previous summer, James had taken a position as a pastor in the Winchester Methodist Episcopal Church, where he was respected in the community and noted for his joyful and eloquent sermons.

John stayed with James and his wife for two weeks and then returned to Burlingame. No mention of Emily was made on this particular trip, but we can assume that the safety of a family member’s home, far from her home community, was the perfect place for Kate to deliver her child. In addition, within a couple weeks of the conclusion of John’s trip, James was facing charges from the Methodist Episcopal conference for “lying,” “slander,” and “defamation of character” against one of his Winchester congregation members – quite out of the norm for this jovial preacher. What would have spurred him to such fury against one of his congregation? One can certainly read between the lines and deduce that it is highly possible that the congregation member made a sharp judgmental comment regarding Kate, prompting James’ outburst to defend his family’s honor.

Rev. James D. Bratton. Wendi Bevitt collection.

James was expelled from the ministry and membership of the church (although he would be eventually restored to both). Kate’s son, Roy, was born on Christmas Day in 1884. Kate and Roy were living with her parents by spring of 1885 and Roy had taken the Bratton surname. One can imagine the whispers and judgment that followed Kate in a small town. Hushed whispers also passed speculations for Roy’s father through the ages, but as a point of shame, it was something never fully talked about.

Kate’s reputation was surely ruined. Without the support of her family, she would have faced even more hardships. Social views on illegitimacy, and in general on sex out of wedlock, would not change until about 1920.

Some form of social redemption manifested for Kate when she married Jacob Irick, in March 1886. Jacob had recently moved to the area, and had some freedom from the small town rumor mill. While the marriage offered some security for Kate for a time, it didn’t last, Jacob deserted her just two short years later.

Kate was again on her own but this time with Roy, plus Clyde, a son that she had with Jacob. Divorce was tricky at this time in history, it required proof from both parties, and was looked down upon by society. Men especially took advantage of desertion as a means of ending a troubled marriage, and it was effective, regardless of its legality. The ease in deserting a spouse was spurred by inefficient communication and inconsistent record keeping, and it saved expense, time, and scrutiny. But for the spouse left behind, who wanted to remain in the home community, the burden fell solely on them to file for an official divorce and go through all that was avoided by the deserting spouse.

With the divorce finalized, Kate would have found herself again as a social outcast. This time though, her father had passed away. Without a strong male figure to lead the household in a time where women were vying for more rights, surely that put additional pressure on her to forge her own way. How could she stay near the support of her family but cover up both the shame of both a divorce and an illegitimate son? One of the ways was to marry again. And that’s when she met Peter Peterson. Peter was an outsider in his own right, a recent immigrant from Denmark.

Kate and Peter were married in 1889. They had two more children together. Peter adopted Kate’s other two boys, and they took the Peterson name. Peter became a prosperous farmer, and life became some semblance of normal. But in 1916, just when Kate and her family were preparing to move to Colorado where they had purchased a large farm, the past, seemingly buried after 30 plus years, came back to haunt her.

In its “Thirty Years Ago” column, the local paper republished the marriage license for Kate and Jacob Irick. A purposeful jab or not, in a small town, the tongues certainly started to wag once again. But this time, Kate had a fresh place to start, far away from judging words and side looks on the street.

Kate moved back to Burlingame after Peter’s death in 1940. She and Peter are buried in Burlingame Cemetery, near her parents.

wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.

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