Working on My Last-Name Problem: When Genealogy Records Disagree

By Diane Haddad


I was doing a casual online search in the Northern Kentucky Newspaper Index when the name “Kolbeck, Theresa Seeger” jumped out and smacked me in the face. It was among a list of deaths announced in the Feb. 23, 1937, Kentucky Post.

The Theory
Recently, I learned that a Teresa was the sister of my immigrant great-great-grandfather Heinrich Arnold Seeger (spelled Seger in Germany). Kolbeck is the maiden name of Heinrich’s and Teresa’s mother, and it’s the surname of seemingly every other person in their birthplace of Steinfeld, Germany (at least according to the church records I viewed at the Family History Library in February).

Could Theresa Seeger Kolbeck be Heinrich Arnold’s sister, who married a possible cousin and settled in the United States near her brother? Here’s what I’ve discovered so far in researching this question:


1. Mary Theresa (Seeger) Kolbeck 2. Maria Teresia Seger
Feb. 18, 1849, Germany Feb. 15, 1849, Steinfeld, Germany
Herman Henry Kolbeck (probably before date of immigration) unknown
1873 (probably May 16) unknown
Feb. 22, 1937 unknown


The death certificate for Theresa No. 1, which asks for parents’ names, should’ve helped clear it up. But the informant, Mrs. Ben Schlarman (Theresa’s daughter Mary, born about 1884), didn’t know their names:

The Last-Name Problem
But then something made me question whether Seeger is even Theresa’s correct maiden name:

This passage is from a profile of George Heuer, husband of Theresa’s daughter Elizabeth, in the biographical section of History of Kentucky, vol. 3 (available on Google Books). It says that Theresa’s maiden and married names were both Kolbeck. The writer takes care to point out that Elizabeth’s parents weren’t related before marriage.

But Mrs. Virginia Eilers, the Heuers’ daughter born in 1908 (and not mentioned in the above bio), believed that Seeger was the right maiden name. That’s the name she supplied on the 1946 death certificate of her mother and the 1947 death certificate of her aunt, the aforementioned Mrs. Ben Schlarman:


What to Believe?
So which should I believe? The death certificates of Theresa’s daughters, for whom the informant was a granddaughter (who also might’ve provided the information for the death announcement indexed in the database where I first found Theresa No. 1)?

A death record is a primary source—created at the time of the event by a person who witnessed it—but it’s usually a secondary source for the deceased’s parents’ names. The informant wouldn’t have firsthand knowledge of those names (unless a parent was the informant, such as on a child’s death certificate).

Or should I go with the biography in History of Kentucky, by William Elsey Connelley and E. M. Coulter, Ph.D., edited by Judge Charles Kerr, published in 1922 by the American Historical Society? This is a secondary source, compiled well after the reported events by those without firsthand knowledge.

Biographical collections are known for their potential for inaccuracy: Families might exaggerate their relatives’ accomplishments or provide mistaken information, which could become further distorted in editing.  (Maybe Theresa read the published bio and said, “No, no, no! I said my mother’s last name was the same as my husband’s.”)

My Answer
I won’t believe any of these records for now, and I’ll keep looking for the parents of Theresa No. 1 and the spouse and later life events of Teresa No. 2.

I should get the full death announcement from the Kentucky Post, and rent the microfilm of Steinfeld’s church records to look for a marriage for Teresa No. 2. The Northern Kentucky Genealogy Index lists the baptisms of several children of Theresa and Herman Kolbeck, so I can go to the library to view the church records on microfilm.

If you’re trying to solve a genealogy question like this one, we’ll help you create a step-by-step research plan with our Road Map to Your Roots guide.

The Family Tree Problem Solver: Tried and True Tactics for Tracing Elusive Ancestors is another great source of strategies and examples for answering tough genealogy questions.