Cousins Over the Breakfast Table and Other Serendipitous Moments

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Sometimes we genealogists take ourselves just a bit too seriously. Don’t misunderstand me – I am a firm believer in best practices, solid methodology, conclusive analysis, and quality writing. At the same time, I also am a believer in those inexplicable moments when genealogical connections are made, or illusive information is found, seemingly without any reason. I used to be more skeptical about these moments. After reading Hank Jones’ Pyschic Roots: Serendipity and Intuition in Genealogy when it was first published (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1993, reprinted 2008), and then its sequel, More Psychic Roots: Serendipity and Intuition in Genealogy (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997, reprinted 2007), however, I now try to keep my mind open to possibilities that may occur outside of the rigors of the normal research process. Sometimes moments are merely interesting, with connections that can be discerned easily; others seem to come “out of the blue” (a little like those ancestors of ours who seem to arrive in a location with no prior existence, as if in an alien landing).

New York State seems to be serendipity central for me this year.

Last week I drove from Virginia to Massachusetts. In mid-afternoon, I was driving along a section of I-84 between Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Newburgh, New York. I have driven this road many times, but this time one of the exit signs caught my attention, where previously I would not have given it much notice. The sign said that the exit led to Blooming Grove (Orange County). It was one of those great “aha” moments. I am currently editing and designing a book for a client, and the members of one of the major family lines in that book all lived in Blooming Grove and I had been typing that name hundreds of times over the previous week. I resisted the urge to take the exit to see Blooming Grove for myself – maybe another time.

Within a day or two of that experience, I received an email from a woman looking for Barclay/Barkley information. She had found my email address in an old listing and took a chance that it would still be a valid one. We shared several emails back and forth as we refined her specific interest. In one of these messages, she noted a relationship to the Barkley and Moffat families who arrived on the George and Ann in 1729 and who then settled in Blagg’s Cove, Orange County, New York. I was startled! Another client, whose book I am also working on, has Moffats from Blagg’s Cove in her ancestral line. Yet another client connection – and another Orange County, New York connection too! What, I wondered, were the odds?!

These two recent experiences reminded me of a far more exciting New York-related discovery that occurred while I was in Salt Lake City at the end of this past January. I was spending the week prior to RootsTech researching in the Family History Library. My daughter-in-law, a recent convert to the joys of genealogy, had been researching her birth mother’s family. I emailed her one evening to see if there were individuals in her ancestral lines about whom I could do some research while I was in Salt Lake. She had replied with information, and as I sat over breakfast with my roommate, Karen, I shared with her a very general description of Kim’s reply. I had only read the email quickly prior to leaving the room, so my memory of the specifics, without my notes to remind me, was a bit lacking. I did know, however, that Kim’s request involved a Revolutionary War soldier who had served from New Jersey, and who had moved to New York with his family after the war. More recent generations of the family have lived in Minnesota. In reply, Karen said that she too was descended from a Revolutionary War soldier who had served from New Jersey and moved to New York. She then referred to him by name – Noah French – and suddenly my memory clicked in and a serendipity moment was staring me in the face. The person from my daughter-in-law’s email was also named Noah French! Karen said that I should start by looking at Noah’s pension record on Fold3 and I rushed off to the library to do just that. By the end of the day, I had documented the French family through several generations from New Jersey to Minnesota. Even more exciting was that fact that Karen descends from the oldest child of the first marriage and my daughter-in-law descends from the youngest! I had found a link between two people who I had absolutely no reason to believe would be related!

One last, non-New York, example comes (with permission) from the April 29th posting “We Paid in Blood,” written by Judy G. Russell, JD, CG, for her regular The Legal Genealogist blog. In her article, Judy discusses her experiences while watching the recent Who Do You Think You Are episode in which Rob Lowe yearns for a Revolutionary War ancestor and finds one – just not a Patriot, but the Hessian soldier, Johann Christoph Oeste, instead. While listening to the discussion of the Battle of Trenton in which Oeste was involved, Judy realized that Rob Lowe’s ancestor was in that battle against her own ancestors, David and Richard Baker, members of the 3rd Virginia Regiment of Foot. Judy states, “And that’s what gave me my shock of the evening: an absolute gut-level visceral reaction I never would have expected. Logic went out the window, and pure emotion took over.”1 Her statement captures of the essence of a truly serendipitous moment, when two seemingly unconnected items come together to form a piece of a genealogical or historical story.

We’ve all experienced similar situations – the book discovered out of place on the shelf that includes a piece of long-sought-after information; the chance stop in a cemetery and the discovery of a stone with information that resolves confusing information; a chance conversation that provides details that prove significant when applied to a research problem. Perhaps it’s just luck; perhaps it’s our ancestors helping us with our research. Whatever the reason, such serendipitous moments are not to be taken lightly.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “We Paid in Blood,” The Legal Genealogist, 29 April 2012 ( : accessed 29 April 2012).



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