Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Surprise on a Death Certificate

In a previous post, I described how I had gotten my great-great-grandmother’s [Katharina Bergman #7126 (1834-1916)], death certificate to prove her death location.  But there was a surprise on the death certificate – her father was Jacob Barkman!  This was completely unexpected because all the evidence I had said that her father was Peter Peter Bergman #12946 (b. 1810).

(Bear in mind that the surnames Barkman and Bergman are different spellings of the same name; and until about a century ago, the same individual would use both spellings interchangeably throughout his life.)
Katherina Barkmann death certificate, died 25 November 1916, dated 27 November 1916, no. 60219, Office of Vital Statistics, Topeka, Kansas.

At first I dismissed this new information.  After all, a death certificate is not an original source with regard to a person’s parentage.  The informant was Katharina’s son-in-law, Johann F. Bartel #63498 (1864-1937), who was born 30 years after her and in a different village.  It is likely that he never met her parents because they stayed behind in Russia when Katharina immigrated to the US with her husband and children in 1878, and he certainly wasn’t present at her birth.  And they were probably members of different churches in Russia (Ohrloff congregation for Katharina Bergman and Kleine Gemeinde for Johann Bartel), so their paths may not even have crossed in Russia.  Perhaps Johann Bartel was just wrong about her father.

Yet it is worth investigating – I would certainly like to know since I would be chasing the wrong ancestral line if he is right.  Where to start?

Let’s look at the 1835 census of Molotschna colony in Russia.  I have strong evidence that she was born on 16/28 December 1834, so she should be in the 1835 census.  In fact, we find her living with her parents Peter Peter Bergman and Aganetha Penner at Schönsee farm #3.  This census is my only evidence that her father was Peter Peter Bergman, but it’s fairly strong. 
Father Peter Bergman and daughter Katharina are boxed in red.  Source:  Petr" Iuliusov" Bergman" household, 11 February 1835, 8th Revision of Census of Russian Empire, Schoensee village, Molochanskii Mennonistskii Okrug, Melitopol'skii Uezd, Tavricheskaia Guberniia, household #3.  Found in Odessa Region State Archives, Odessa, Ukraine, Peter J. Braun Collection, Fond 89, Inventory 1, File 357, p. 167R-169.  Accessed on microfilm from California Mennonite Historical Society, Fresno, California.
Next let’s look at the Jacob Bergmans/Barkmans in the census to see if any of them have a daughter Katharina.  There is a very helpful index to the census produced by the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society available online.  I find two Jacob Barkman’s in the 1835 census who are heads of households – one who lived at Tiege village, farm #20 and another at Rückenau #11.  (The one in Lichtfelde #23 is the same one as the one in Rückenau - he moved there in 1821 according to the census.)  The Jacob Barkman in Tiege has no daughter Katharina, but the Jacob Barkman in Rückenau does have a 3-year-old daughter Katharina.  Could this be my Katharina?  When I look for her in Grandma, I see that she is #6629, born in 1832, died in 1923, and married to Johann Koop.  So she is a completely different person.  So neither of the Jacob Bergmans in the 1835 census had a child Katharina that could be my great-great-grandmother.
Richard D. Thiessen, "Index to the 1835 Molotschna Census," Russian Mennonite Genealogical Resources web site, corrected version of 28 March 2010.  Accessed online at http://mennonitegenealogy.com/russia/1835cein.htm on 6 Sept 2016.
However, let’s go back to the census image above.  Note that Katharina Bergman had an uncle living in the same house, Jacob Bergman #102754 (b. ABT 1818).  According to the census, he is not married and has no children, which is not surprising since he is only 17 years old.  Nothing more is known about him in Grandma.  Could he have had a child out of wedlock, and it was covered up by calling my Katharina the daughter of his older brother Peter?  And then Johann Bartel revealed the family secret eight decades later to the Meade County coroner?  I think that is unlikely because if she were the illegitimate daughter, she would have been with the mother and not with the father’s family.

In this case all we can do is weigh two pieces of evidence regarding her parentage against each other – the census recorded three months after her birth versus the testimony of a son-in-law on her death certificate 81 years later.  With nothing better to go on, I have to choose the census that shows her father was Peter Peter Bergman because it is a contemporary source recorded by an enumerator from the village who should have known, but I will keep in mind that the death certificate shows Jacob Barkman as her father in case I find some new evidence later on.


  1. Steve, I love reading your blog! Great work!
    I thought you might want to check the date on your caption on the 1st image on this page. You have 2016 in your caption, but I think the correct date is 1916, if I understand it correctly. (An easy mistake to make.)

    1. Melisssa, good catch - you certainly read attentively! Thanks for letting me know.