Genealogical Luck? Or Not?

As I meet new genealogy friends, one word seems to come up over and over again in our conversations. That word is LUCK. You’ve been so LUCKY to find so much information. What LUCK to discover that line! And so on.

I don’t believe that finding genealogical information is due to luck at all.

First, let’s define luck: success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.

This, according to the Google dictionary, pretty well sums it up. It would be luck if someone knew the names of the parents of John Jones, placed the names under one of three shells and told me to pick one. If I chose the correct one, I would have their names and that would be luck.

Off the top of my head, I can think of only a couple of situations in which I would say information came by luck. Let’s say I was at the Family History Library in the book stacks, looking for a book and I happened to talk to another person standing near me. As we conversed, I discovered that he/she was researching the same family line as I was so we were cousins. That would be luck, as we had had no previous contact with each other and no plans to go looking for a new cousin in that library. That would be an event happening by chance, resulting in a lucky meeting.

You might have figured out by now that I am not much of a believer in genealogical luck. Instead, I believe that this so called “luck” is a combination of two items – a street map and persistence.

Okay, so how do the street map and persistence work for genealogy? Since my childhood home in Passaic is a neighborhood which I know well, that is the street map I will use.

As we set out on our genealogy journey, we may have specific, deliberate goals or it may be a “What can I find today?” kind of day. Even “What can I find today?” is a type of goal, as we would likely have some families in mind. It is just a more nebulous goal than “What happened to great aunt Mary Tucker? Who did she marry and when did she die?”

Here is the analogy to the street map. Let’s say I am actually looking for the marriage record of great aunt Mary Tucker, I know her age, about when she married and the town in which she lived. I can check the marriage records for the appropriate time period and voila! There she is. It’s a straight shot with immediate success, just as it was when I wanted to play with friends across the street:

Straight Across the Street to Play with Friends

Now, imagine for a moment (and I know this never happens to any of us) that the marriage record wasn’t found on the first try in the town where great aunt Mary was living. However, by the next census, our family had moved one county over. Next door to our family was a young couple with several young children and the wife’s name was Mary. She was the same age as our Mary and the surname Thompson was a familiar name in the family.

We decide to check marriage records in the counties surrounding the original county we searched. We didn’t find a marriage record in County A or County B, but there it was in County C. Success!

Passaic Walk to School

Just as I had to make a couple of turns in my daily walk to #10 school so we had to widen our search to find an elusive marriage record.

Sometimes, travel is more complicated, just as research can be. Next scenario – the marriage records of County C all burned in a time period after the era in which great aunt Mary likely married. (That never happens, either, does it??) No marriage record has been found so we need to look in other places for information about great aunt Mary. I mentioned that the Thompson surname was a familiar name to the family, but we don’t know how the Thompsons fit in with the Tuckers. That leads us to check a variety of resources – older relatives, census records, land deeds, etc. trying to figure out if the Thompsons were related in some way or if they were just family friends.

Sometimes getting from Point A to Point B isn’t difficult, but it requires adjusting our travel path along the way. That is much the way it was for Nana to get from our house to St. Michael’s Cathedral downtown.

Travel From Summer St. to St. Michael’s

In the most frustrating circumstances, there are roadblocks along the way, causing huge delays in reaching our destination.

City Street Work with Roadblocks

The search for great aunt Mary was annoyingly tedious, but we finally found her. After finding no clues from relatives, census and deed records or city directories, we received an old box of papers belonging to a deceased relative from a distant cousin. In the box was a letter signed “Love, Aunt Mary” and the return address on the envelope included the name “Thompson.”

Was it luck that allowed us to reach St. Michael’s Church with all the street work going on? Was it luck that we were able to find great aunt Mary? No – both events happened because we had a specific map to follow; when the map route proved to be impassable, we altered our course to a path that led to accomplishing our goal. Persistence in finding an alternate route brought success.

Are there dead ends? Of course, but a dead end isn’t a dead end until all possible ways around it have been attempted.

The next time someone comments about how lucky I was to have found what I did, I am going to get out my map and point them in the right direction.


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