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Serendipity… thank heavens

The Ancestry Insider reported on a reader’s serendipity story yesterday, and it made me think of all the serendipitous moments my family has had in our search for our own family roots. And since I’ve been focusing on my Gentry ancestors lately (anybody else out there a descendant of Nicholas the Immigrant?), it really made me stop and think about some Wilson cousins I never met, and my serendipity moment with them.

Serendipitous notes

Now understand, I’ve only had a very few serendipitous moments in my research, so I really treasure every one. And I try, very hard, not to be jealous of those who seem to have them all the time.

(Don’t even get me started about my cousin Paula, who does things like start chatting with a guy at the copy machine at the Parker County, Texas, Courthouse… and the guy just happens to be holding, in his hands, the original survey records for our great great grandfather’s 160-acre 1863 land grant. Or who chases a jackrabbit through a Frederick, Oklahoma, cemetery to take a picture… and ends up standing in front of the one tombstone we couldn’t find before. Or…)

Ahem… Back to the Wilsons…

My great grandfather Jasper Carlton Robertson died in Tillman County, Oklahoma, in 1912. His death certificate identifies his mother as Isabella Gentry.1 Other family records say her maiden name was Rankin,2 and the International Genealogical Index used to say her name was Pugh.3 Since Isabella and her husband, Gustavus Robertson, were married before the 1850 census,4 we’ve had a fun chase trying to trace Isabella’s family back in time through burned courthouses and non-existent records.

At one point, some 11 or 12 years ago, I discovered that a Maxine Smith and Clarence Wilson had written a piece on the man I thought might be Isabella’s father for the bulletin of the Rankin County, Mississippi, Historical Society. I couldn’t get the original bulletin but was able to put my hands on a copy.5 It listed the children, and even said one Gentry daughter married a Robertson, but it had the daughter’s first name beginning with a G and the son-in-law’s first name beginning with an I. If true, this couldn’t be my Isabella’s family. But I couldn’t find out where they’d gotten the information identifying the children.

I tracked down every piece of information I could find linking the Wilsons to the Gentry family and found that Jacob Elijah Gentry, grandson of my candidate father, had a daughter Willow Isabelle Gentry6 who married a James Otho Wilson, and they were the parents of Clarence and Maxine.7 The only clue I had to their whereabouts around 2001 or 2002 was that the Wilson family was involved in some way with a radio station in Oregon.

I emailed the radio station, explained who I was and who I was looking for, and as the days stretched into weeks without a reply, I pretty much forgot about it.

And then late one day in early November, 2002, came an email from Jim Wilson. Clarence, he said, was his oldest brother, Maxine his older sister. He knew about Clarence’s and Maxine’s family history research.

It turns out that Maxine had been diagnosed with cancer and wanted to make one more trip to the old family stomping grounds. She and Clarence had rented a camper and taken off through Texas, Oklahoma, and back ultimately into Mississippi. They had done the family research on the trip; Jim thought it kept Maxine alive to work on the article about the family history.

By 2002, Maxine had long since passed on, and Jim didn’t think Clarence could help much — he was nearing 90 years old by then — but he gave me the address of Clarence’s daughter where Clarence was then living. I wrote her a letter and asked if she thought perhaps Clarence and I could talk.

The phone rang one day not long after, and it was Clarence’s daughter. No, she said, he just wasn’t up to a conversation. But just that morning, just before my letter arrived, she had put all of the research notes from his and Maxine’s family history trip into the trash. She didn’t think the trash had been collected yet. Did I want them?

Serendipity. Hidden away in one battered old blue notebook, a single hint to a record it would have taken me years to have found otherwise. Oh yeah. Serendipity. Like any family with family historians shaking the family tree to see who (or what) falls out of the branches, we’ve had our share.

Thank heavens.


  1. Oklahoma State Board of Health, death certificate 3065 (1912), Jasper C. Robertson; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Oklahoma City.
  2. Texas State Board of Health, death certificate 1583 (1952), Mrs. Mattie Crenshaw; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  3. It no longer says that, thankfully. But it did. See Karen Brode, “IGI Index,” Rootsweb CLANBOYD-L Archives, discussion list, 7 Sep 2002 ( : accessed 9 Mar 2012).
  4. 1850 U.S. census, Winston County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 373 (stamped), dwelling 809, family 816, Isabella “Robinson”; digital image, ( : accessed 9 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 382.
  5. In 2011, I was able to get a photocopy of the original manuscript contributed by Maxine Smith to the Rankin County Historical Society, now in the vertical files of the Rankin County Library, Brandon Genealogy Room.
  6. 1910 U.S. census, Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, Castle, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 137, p. 135-B (stamped), sheet 1-B, dwelling/family 9, Willow Gentry in Jacob Gentry household; digital image, ( : accessed 9 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T624, roll 1265; imaged from FHL microlfim 1,375,278.
  7. See 1930 U.S. census, Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, Castle, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 4, page 33-A (stamped), sheet 3-A, dwelling/family 53, Clarence E. and H. Maxine Wilson in J. Otho Wilson household; digital image, ( : accessed 9 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 1917; imaged from FHL microfilm 2,341,651.
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