Sunday, August 28, 2016

How Do You Know What to Believe?

The Grandma database said that my great-great-grandmother, Katharina Bergman #7126 (1834-1916) died in Jansen, Nebraska.  She was a member of the Kleine Gemeinde church, which had lived there until 1908, when they moved to Meade, Kansas.  Since the church moved en masse, I doubted that she would have stayed behind, especially since she was an elderly lady of 74 when they moved.  So I was skeptical of her death location in Grandma.  On the other hand, she could have been on a trip back to Jansen to visit relatives when she died, so you never know.

Katharina Bergman, Genealogical Registry and Database of Mennonite Ancestry, CD-ROM, version 6 (Fresno:  California Mennonite Historical Society, 2013), individual #7126.
My grandmother also kept a family register in which she recorded the death of Katharina Bergman, who was her grandmother.  The entry (original below) says, “1916 25 Nov ist Groszmutter gestorben bei Jak. Reimers Meade Kan (25 Nov 1916 Grandmother died at Jacob Reimers, Meade, Kansas).”   

Margaretha H. Reimer, Freundschaft Register Buch [Relatives Register Book], (Fowler, Kansas: unpublished, begun in 1923) 6.  Original held by Anna (Siemens) Fast, Hillsboro, Kansas.
Since my grandmother was 21 years old at the time and since her grandmother died at Jacob Reimers, her uncle’s house, she surely knew where it had happened.  But I wanted some more proof.  So I ordered her death certificate from the State of Kansas.

And here is the death certificate from Logan Township, Meade County, Kansas:
Katherina Barkmann death certificate, died 25 November 1916, dated 27 November 1916, no. 60219, Office of Vital Statistics, Topeka, Kansas.
It’s pretty hard to dispute the location of death on a contemporary death certificate.  So my grandmother’s family register was right – Katharina Bergman did die near Meade, Kansas, and NOT near Jansen, Nebraska.  I have no idea how the wrong death place got into Grandma.

Some lessons to draw from this - 
1) It is critical to check the original source.  
2) We need to evaluate the likely accuracy of sources.  A secondary database such as Grandma is only as accurate as the unknown person who supplied the information.   My grandmother's family register - since she was likely a witness of the event - is a good source.  But a contemporary death certificate signed by a doctor and an informant is a very strong source.  
3) It pays to think about whether a piece of information is reasonable or not - in this case it was unlikely that an elderly widow would have stayed behind when the whole church moved.


  1. I view GRANDMA, trees, and other tertiary sources as a starting point. The can be very good, one really needs to check the original sources. Especially when it comes to genealogy of folks with very common names. I've even seen the words "Prussia" and "Russia" on GRANDMA interchanged.

    1. While you definitely should check data from GRANDMA before you believe it, it is definitely higher quality than Jay Hubert at Grandma makes a real effort to enter accurate information, although he certainly can't check everything against original sources. In contrast, at Ancestry, anyone can put up a tree that says anything.

  2. With regard to recording of the place of death: this is really a problem, because the term "place of death" is ambiguous, and interpreted by different scribes in genealogical context differently.

    If a person is domiciled in town "A", goes to visit her daughter in town "B" for a month, and then dies in a hospital in town "C", where did she die? Yes, the death certificate may state that she died in C, but from genealogical point of view that is worthless. She simply spent the last day of her life in a hospital in a town that she never visited, and had no connection to. It makes much more sense to record that at the time of death her domicile was in town "A". She lived from her birth/marriage/retirement/etc. in town A until she died.

    And of course, now as many people are winterbirds, town "B" may be more relevant.

    The same thing is for places of birth: people generally talk about there hometown being the place where they grew up, and not the address of the hospital where their mother delivered them.