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It wasn’t in Eureka

John Berens’ obituary couldn’t be clearer.

Included in a set of obituaries collected by the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, it’s almost undoubtedly from the Mobridge (South Dakota) Tribune and published shortly after his death in Mobridge in March 1990.

“Johnny was born in Selby on April 12, 1906, to John and Mary (Georgen) Berens,” it begins. “He attended school in Selby.”

And then comes the paragraph The Legal Genealogist focused on:

“Just before he took over management of the Berens Hotel in Mobridge, he and Mattie Cottrell were married in Eureka.”1

That’s confirmed by the copy published in the Aberdeen (S.D.) Daily News on Monday, 26 March 1990: “John W. Berens was born at Selby on April 12, 1906, to John and Mary (Georgen) Berens. He attended school there. He married Mattie Cottrel at Eureka.”2

And, of course, Mattie Cottrell is my research target: my mother’s first cousin, daughter of my grandfather’s brother John W. Cottrell.3

We can peg the date to a really narrow range. Mattie was recorded as Mattie Cottrell on the 1930 census as a 19-year-old cashier at a restaurant in Mobridge.4 And she was recorded as Mattie Berens, age 18, on the school census for the year beginning 1 May 1930.5

So the marriage would have been sometime between the enumeration date of the census on 1 April and the enumeration of the school census for Walworth County as of 1 May, right?

And it took place in Eureka, McPherson County, South Dakota.

Except for one minor little detail.

Neither the records kept in McPherson County nor those kept in the South Dakota capital city of Pierre reflect a 1930 marriage of John Berens and Mattie Cottrell. In fact, South Dakota records don’t reflect any marriage of John Berens and Mattie Cottrell anywhere in the state at any time.6

There is a record of John’s first marriage, to Anna Jacobson, in 1925 in Mobridge.7 And of Anna’s death in January 1930.8

But nothing — nada — nichts — as to this second marriage.

Until of course the eureka! moment arrived.

The marriage, of course, wasn’t in Eureka.

It wasn’t even in South Dakota.

It was in North Dakota, and no, not in Eureka, ND, a township in Ward County with a total population of about 350.9

It took place in Linton, county seat of Emmons County, all recorded nicely and neatly in a document promptly delivered by email this week by the State Historical Society of North Dakota, the state archives there.10

Berens-Cottrell marriage

Now… why did they run off to North Dakota to get married? And why did Mattie claim to be a resident of Hague, Emmons County?

Nope, it wasn’t a shotgun marriage. No Berens child was born before 1933.11

It wasn’t because of her age. The age to marry without parental consent was 18 in both North and South Dakota,12 and Mattie was nearly 20 years old.

It wasn’t because of prior marital status. Mattie had never been married; John was a widower.

It wasn’t because of any relationship issue: neither of them was related to the other.

My theory is that maybe Mattie’s daddy didn’t approve of the marriage — after all, John Berens’ first wife had only been dead a few months — and sent her off to North Dakota to try to break up the relationship…

Pending further evidence of some sort, the why question has to be put aside.

But the where question?


It wasn’t in Eureka.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “That eureka moment,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 30 Apr 2022).


  1. “Berens, John W. ‘Johnny’,” clipping dated 28 March 1990; digital images, “United States, obituaries, American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 1899-2012,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 30 Apr 2022).
  2. “John W. Berens-Mobridge,” Obituaries, Aberdeen (S.D.) Daily News, 26 Mar 1990, p. 5, col. 5-6; digital image, ( : accessed 30 Apr 2022).
  3. South Dakota Department of History, Bureau of Census and Vital Statistics, Record of Birth, Mattie Cottrell, 24 May 1910, Mobridge, Walworth County, South Dakota, reg. no. 595; state registration 56369, South Dakota Department of Health, Division of Public Health Statistics, Pierre.
  4. 1930 U.S. census, Walworth County, South Dakota, Mobridge, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 65-6, sheet 9(B), dwelling 188, family 203, Mattie Cottrell in William Claymore household; digital image, ( : accessed 14 Dec 2018); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 2232.
  5. School Census, Mobridge Independent School District No. 13, Walworth County, South Dakota, 29 May 1928, entries for Mattie Berens, sheet 2, line 1; digital images, “South Dakota, School Records, 1879-1970,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 30 Apr 2022).
  6. South Dakota Department of Health, Notification of Record Search, 6 July 2021, for marriage of John Berens and Mattie Cottrell, 1930, all of South Dakota (“no record of this vital event has been filed”).
  7. South Dakota State Board of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, Record of Marriage, John Berens Jr. and Anna Jacobson, 30 May 1925, Onida, Sully County, South Dakota, reg. no. 21; state registration 105799, South Dakota Department of Health, Division of Public Health Statistics, Pierre.
  8. Death certificate 126842, Anna S. Berens, 20 Jan 1930, Walworth County, South Dakota; South Dakota Department of Health, Division of Public Health Statistics, Pierre.
  9. See “Township Of Eureka Data & Demographics (As of July 1, 2021),” Hometown Locator: North Dakota Gazetteer ( : accessed 30 Apr 2022).
  10. Emmons County, North Dakota, Marriage Book 6: 289, Marriage license and return, John W. Berens and Mattie Lee Cottrell, 8 Apr 1930; digital image, State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck.
  11. That child died as an infant. South Dakota Department of Health, Death Certificate No. 153004, Catherine Berens, 21 November 1933 (recording age at death as three days); Office of Vital Records, Pierre.
  12. See “Marriage and Divorce Laws,” in Leslie’s Year Book and Encyclopedia (New York: Leslie-Judge Co., 1916), 147; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 30 Apr 2022).
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