Do you feel lucky?

There was a movie back in the early 1970s titled Dirty Harry, where Clint Eastwood allegedly says 'Do you feel lucky?' when he makes his final approach to an injured criminal. Well, actually the line is ‘You've got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya?’

Which might be a good question to ask yourself the next time you are in contact with other researchers.

We all like to read about success stories, and sharing them (or even failures!) is part of why we read various magazines and blogs. I have some software on the computer that harvests news articles from some of the main areas of my interest, and often give me ideas for new articles, or even for new research avenues.

But what I am referring to here is chance encounters that can lead to breakthroughs. It does not seem that earth shattering all these years later, but in the late 1970s I was casually talking with a woman who came into the library and I mentioned that I was seeking where my particular German family had come from, and I was stymied. No one alive even then could remember the town of origin, and I was flummoxed. She mentioned that many of the early Germans in our area had attended Zion or Concordia Lutheran churches (we knew that they has always been Lutheran), and that I should look there. Well, I did, and in a couple of minutes found the people for whom I was looking and the miss-spelled town of origin (yes, even the Germans could not spell the town name correctly).

Marriage record from Lutheran Church showing date of marriage ages of the couple and the actual towns and places of origin of the couple. This appeared nowhere else that could be found.
Credit: Screenshot by author, Original item belongs to Zion Lutheran Church, Rochester NY (now Incarnate Word Lutheran Church).

Another branch of that same family had people who had visited their cousins overseas within the past ten years, and I was off to the races on that family as well. When one of these very elderly people died in the mid 1990’s I was given the family Bible that had 7 generations of ancestors in it. At least that info corresponded exactly with what I had been able to find in films before then.

But to talk more about serendipity, one of my families from Buffalo was a real problem to locate. They came quite early in the city’s history, in the early 1830s, and so civil records of any kind are few and far between for that time period in that area. After going through the Protestant records for many churches on Buffalo, I could get no clue as to where they were from except France or Germany – which gave me a partial clue that they may have been Alsatian (they were). However – bearing in mind the now well known FAN (Friend, Associates, and Neighbors) cluster searching - I decided to look at my “aunts and uncles” from that family instead of just concentrating on the direct ancestors. Sure enough – an “aunt’” whose death entry was the only one in English in over 75 years of German deaths and marriages in that churches gave the exact town. What made it better as that my direct great grandmother’s town was misspelled and when I went to Germany and France to visit the town before this discovery I found only Catholic churches. Sure enough, the pastor in Buffalo had misspelled the town in that entry as well. When I got the correct town, by extending the search, I was able to push back further.

Or take this case. I told a work friend that I would look for some gravestones in his family’s town of origin. As I was walking through that cemetery, I saw a woman there who came over and asked if she could help. It turned out that she was a family member of the friend’s family who had stayed there in Baden. So I got her contact information and gave my friend’s to her, and they did make contact.

Back before the days of easy emailing when those stumble upon parts of research were far more useful and satisfying, it was not that easy to have it happen. And sometimes unusual things come to light.

An Ahnenpass (proof of Aryan descent) from the Nazi era in Germany. These are rarely shown to outsiders, but many have been kept by families. Photo credit. Scan by author from his personal collection

Yet again, I met a young man whose grandmother had immigrated to the US from what is now Serbia after WW II. When I went to Germany to visit a third party I mentioned her name (which was the same as the man whom I was visiting). He said sure, I am aware of her. She did an ahnentafel (pedigree chart) and descendants list of their family back in 1935 before she left. It turns out that she had gotten access to the records for the town of origin in Germany, though she was in Serbia, and I was given a handwritten copy of the charts that she had made. I put that all into a program and printed it out nicely but also made copies of the notes that she had written noted she had made in 1935 when she was 15 years old. When I met her in person in 1998, she was 78 – and I was able to give her back the notes that she had done as a young woman and which she thought had been lost in the war. Her family knew nothing about this. And overnight, they did. Additionally, at a reunion in Germany, I met the lady who had cared for that original woman’s first child who had been born in a POW camp. The younger woman knew nothing about that – her mother had never told her.

Hand drawn chart made by a 15 year old girl and lost for 60 years. The info has been extracted into a computerized database. Photo credit. Scan by author from his personal collection

And lastly, do ask people questions, as you never know what might help someone somewhere. Last winter I was in California on vacation visiting relatives, and went to a local Family History Center just to see what they had there. Lo and behold, a woman from Texas married to a man from my hometown was there. I was able to tell her about the mandated New York State historians, show her some free online city directories, a newspaper index, a couple of online searchable newspapers, and before she left that day, she had a lot more information on her father in law, his parents, his grandparents, and where they came from in the old country. And this all happened because a conversation was overheard. Certainly do not chatter just to fill up silence but if you have something to contribute do feel free to mention it to other researchers.

Serendipity in genealogy can help us to find more research sources, think about things in a different way, and evaluate facts and other items ore critically. Sharing helps develop lucky" finds – I certainly have found that to be true.

Lucky or what? Nope, just taking advantage of sharing information!

Larry Naukam

About Larry Naukam

Larry Naukam holds degrees in Geography, Library Science, and Divinity. He has written for genealogical publications for 30 years. He is very interested in the intersection of computers and genealogy research

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