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Has it Happened to you? Genealogical Serendipity


Many years ago I was at a meeting for a lineage society I belonged to and one of my friends was telling the story of a research experience she had recently had.  She found herself  researching at a Family History Center about 7 hours from her home. The particular center had a large microfilm collection and my friend decided to take advantage of it since she was traveling through that city. At the center, she had been scrolling through microfilmed records all afternoon and  in a fit of frustration (these were the days of microfilm, afterall) she made a disgruntled sound. The researcher sitting next to her struck up a conversation and as they talked she asked my friend what surname she was researching.  My friend replied with  the name of the ancestor she was trying to find and that random stranger, in a city that she just happened to be traveling through, said to her.

“I’m related to that ancestor too.”

Now this wasn’t a famous ancestor or one with a multitude of descendants. It was just your normal, everyday, ancestor that was about three generations removed from my friend. This total random, happy finding has a name. Serendipity.

A definition of serendipity is “the fact of finding interesting or valuable things by chance.”[1] It's no surprise that genealogists have some interesting tales of serendipity. In fact they have so many that at least three books detail these stories. Psychic Roots: Serendipity and Intuition in Genealogy (Genealogical Publishing, 2002) and More Psychic Roots: Further Adventures in Serendipity and Intuition in Genealogy (Genealogical Publishing, 1997) by Henry Z Jones, Jr explores stories from genealogists worldwide who have had experiences that have helped them in their search for their ancestors.  Megan Smolenyak has also written about serendipity in family history research in her book titled, In Search of Our Ancestors: 101 Inspiring Stories of Serendipity and Connection. Her books is described as “over 100 true stories of the amazing luck, unexpected kindness, and unusual serendipity encountered by researchers as they explore their roots, In Search of Our Ancestors offers an inspirational look at the rewards of family history.”[2] And let's not forget Kindred Voices: Listening for our Ancestors by Geoff Rasmussen.

Genealogists tell of times where they have spun the microfilm handle to have the microfilm stop at the exact page where their ancestor is listed. Or the book with the needed information falls from the library bookshelf right as they walk by. Researchers might tell you that they believe their ancestors want to be found and that they help to make sure that happens. You can read other researchers stories by perusing the books mentioned above and the Serendipity links on Cyndi’s List.

Have you had such an experience? I will admit I’ve only been lucky enough to experience these random research miracles a few times or so but I have been fortunate enough to  help others have a serendipitous moment in presentations such as the time  I provided an example using  a cigar factory in Evanston, Illinois and the women who worked there and found out that an audience member, who admitted my presentation wasn't her first choice,  had just helped a woman trace an ancestor who worked at that same cigar factory.

Serendipity and genealogy is out there. Whether you call it divine guidance, intuition, or just plan luck, that assistance can be  most welcome when researching difficult ancestors. August 18th is National Serendipity Day and  a good time to think about our research finds that were “happy accidents” and carve out some time to research in search of a few more lucky finds.

For some feel good viewing watch Genealogy Serendipity - Listening for Our Ancestors by Geoff Rasmussen.


[1] “Serendipity,” Cambridge Dictionary (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/serendipity: accessed 30 July 2019).

[2] “In Search of Our Ancestors: 101 Inspiring Stories of Serendipity and connection in Rediscovering our Family History,” Megan Smolenyak2 (https://www.megansmolenyak.com/in-search-of-our-ancestors/ accessed 30 July 2019).


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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My serendipity experience. While at a funeral home visitation I was introduced to a lady whose last name was "Gwen". Knowing there were several variations of the spelling of that name, I asked her how she spelled her name. She replied "B-u-r-r-o-w". I stood there speechless for a minute, then asked, "Was that your maiden name" and she replied "Yes". I told her that was my grandmother's maiden name. Later, she sent me a long list of my Burrow ancestors, back to the names of those who came over on a ship from England.

A visit to the archives in Richmond, VA occurred when they had an exhibit of early religious petitions on display. I wasn't aware of the exhibit when I planned the trip, but one petition caught my interest due to its potential impact on later national foundation documents. After researching the 10,000 Name Petition once I returned home, I was surprised to learn that two direct line and at least three collateral line ancestors signed this document concerning religious freedom in VA. In all my years of researching this branch, I have never seen any reference to the petition or their connection to it.

The biggest one I had was in the late 70s or early 80s when I was working in the microfilm room of our state historical society. I was checking a lady in and she asked if I could help her. She showed me the family she was looking for. I looked at her and asked if she could wait a half an hour until my lunch. I took her back 4 generations and she added on to the descendants in one of my grandfather's aunts lines and a few others. I had had difficulty finding them and she had them. I lost contact with her over the years and just last night discovered she had died in 2012.

My moment was in 2010 when I visited the UK. Whilst driving around, slightly lost, I noticed a library as I drove post. Something made me stop and turn around. Going inside, and speaking to the Librarian, I was able to find a book on the history of the parish as well as my 2x great uncle who had been the parish priest there. Not only that, but the Librarian told me how to get to the church from there, going down a lane way and over the wooden bridge, tracing the steps of my ancestor. On reaching the church, I found the local Vicar who had just finished a memorial service. Normally the church would have been closed. She went inside and came out with a photo of my 2 x great uncle and his wife.

My serendipitous moment came one day after I crossed my dining room and stopped in front of two photographs of my paternal grandmother. One photo was of my grandmother in her very early 20s and the second was a blow up of her passport picture when she was in her early 50s. She died just before I turned 6. I spoke to her pictures, telling her that I wished I had known her better and known more about her father’s family.

The very next day I was able to get online on a website that had been down for almost 2 years and found information on her father’s ancestry that had been unknown to me. I regretfully remembered being bratty to her but she was always sweet to me. And so, thanks to her sweetness again, I believe she came through.

One summer years ago I dragged my husband and teenage daughters on a road trip from Virginia to Nova Scotia were my maternal grandmother and her family had lived for generations. I hoped to learn more about the family on a visit to a library in Halifax. Several hours in the library proved fruitless for me except for some interesting history about the first settlers there. While waiting for my family to pick me up I browsed through the literature on the counter near the librarian's desk and picked up a small booklet filled with advertisements from people looking for ancestors or descendants of a particular person or family. There, I found the name and address of a distant cousin looking for information about my great grandparents! I called the cousin and talked to him but was unable to visit in person since we were due to take a ferry back to Maine the following day. But he mailed me the history he had written and I sent him what information I had from my great grandparents Family Bible. I've been able to verify most of what he included in the book. So exciting so see the hand of our ancestors who want to be remembered!

Similar to Ruthdes: On a research trip in Quebec, I wanted to see the building that had once been the church where my 3rd g-grandparents were married. It has since become the local historical society. I knew it wasn't open at the time, but I was just hoping to see the outside of it. At first, I couldn't find it (this was before GPS) and nearly gave up. When I found it, I got out of the car and was looking at it when a woman walked up from across the street. She was part of the historical society staff and said she was just on her way home, but when I explained who I was related to, she took the time to open the building so I could see the inside. I will never forget that kindness. If she hadn't appeared right when she did, I'd never have gotten that chance.

And a cemetery story: Walked around a cemetery trying to find an ancestor's headstone. I knew it might not even exist. Couldn't find it, and again, almost gave up. Then, as I was about to turn away, I looked up and there it was just a few feet in front of me.

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