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Serendipity strikes twice

It’s always so nice… so very nice… when the genetic evidence lines up with the documentary evidence. Taking the two together, combining the paper trail and the clues hidden in our own genetic code, can provide a confidence level for answers to questions that we simply couldn’t have reached in any other way.

And sometimes… sometimes… serendipity plays a role.

Genetic QuestionsA case in point from The Legal Genealogist‘s own family comes from the effort to identify a second great grandmother where the evidence of her parentage was utterly inconsistent.

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.

Serendipity came into play in this research at one point, some 11 or 12 years ago, when 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 Isabel 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?

Hidden away in one battered old blue notebook, a single hint to a record it would have taken me years to have found otherwise. The documentary evidence now pointed to Elijah Gentry as Isabella’s father.

Now fast forward to 2015, and serendipity strikes again — this time in the DNA evidence. In my match list at AncestryDNA, up popped a DNA cousin named Brad. Not someone I asked to test, but someone who decided to test on his own.

Whose mother was Maxine Wilson.

And whose maternal grandmother was Willow Isabel (Gentry) Wilson.

Brad graciously consented to let me transfer his raw data to Family Tree DNA where we can actually see how his DNA compares to my closer relations:8


The matches here in this first graphic are between Brad and one of my uncles, two aunts and a cousin in that Gentry line.


And the matches here in this second graphic are between Brad and two other key Gentry cousins.

The DNA backs up the paper trail.

At a confidence level that neither, alone, could have achieved.


  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.
  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.
  8. The lack of analytical tools at AncestryDNA continues to be a source of frustration… See generally Judy G. Russell, “The raw story at AncestryDNA,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 24 Mar 2013 ( : accessed 2 Aug 2015). … But I digress.
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