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The coincidences of life on the road

So The Legal Genealogist is in Seattle for the 36th annual conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies and, last night, was privileged to provide one of the conference’s keynote addresses.

The talk, focusing on the women of our families, the challenges we face in tracing them, and the challenges they faced in their lives because of the law, was a lot of fun to put together, especially since it taught me a great deal about a figure in the women’s movement that I hadn’t known much about before. (More about her in the future…)

But it was also a lot of fun because it produced one of those moments that seem to happen so very often in genealogy.

One of those moments of serendipity.

Serendipity, the dictionary tells us, is “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also : an instance of this.”1

Me, I much prefer the way that Ancestry Insider uses the term:

It is as though our ancestors want to be found. Uncanny coincidence. Olympian luck. Phenomenal fate. Tremendous intuition. Remarkable miracle. We call It, “Serendipity in Genealogy.”2

Either way, it was in full swing last night.

SMorrisOne of the examples that I used in the talk was a 1956 death certificate from the Bronx, New York. It was that of a woman who had been born in Russia, was still a citizen of Russia at the time of her death, but had lived in New York for the previous 46 years. The point I was making was that one single document gave us clues to three different women: the deceased; her mother, whose first name had appeared on the certificate; and her daughter, whose married name appeared as the informant for the certificate.

I had no sooner finished speaking than one of my genealogical colleagues came up to me. Emily Garber and I are both genealogical bloggers (her blog is (going) The Extra Yad and I strongly recommend it, especially if you have Jewish ancestry!) and we’ve been friends for some time. We had breakfast yesterday. We share a commitment to standards and to genealogical excellence.

And guess whose great grandmother was that Russian woman reflected in that death certificate?


It was Emily’s great grandmother’s death certificate I had happened to choose out of all the examples I might have had available to make that point.

And I’ve had that happen so many times before.

Once when I went to Dallas to speak, for a lecture on private laws, I chose an act that provided a pension to a Union man who’d been killed in Texas. It turned out that he was an ancestor of the Dallas Genealogical Society member who picked me up at the airport and shepherded me throughout that trip.3

And when I went to Colorado, a member of the Colorado Genealogical Society asked me to look at a Maryland document that involved his 10th great grandfather selling the right to have some land surveyed in the 17th century. And the land was being sold to … my 9th great grandfather.4

And when I was talking about a critical DNA test for my Baker family in a keynote at RootsTech… and the one person who made that testing possible for my family turned out to be in the audience.5


It’s those coincidences of life on the road that make this so much fun.


  1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 12 Aug 2016), “serendipity.”
  2. See, e.g., Ancestry Insider, “Serendipity in Embroidery,” posted 22 Jun 2012, Ancestry Insider ( : accessed 12 Aug 2016).
  3. See “An Act granting a Pension to Mary Ann Montgomery,” 17 Stat. 677 (1872).
  4. See Judy G. Russell, “More Serendipity,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 9 Aug 2014 ( : accessed 12 Aug 2016).
  5. See ibid., “The cousin who isn’t,” posted 8 Feb 2014.
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