Serendipity in genealogy

H U Memoirs croppedThere is much serendipity in genealogy: more than once I have pulled a book off the shelf in the library at NEHGS, intrigued by the title or perhaps the binding, only to find within its covers the answer to a vexing research question or a story that sheds light on a forgotten family member. One such volume is H.U. Memoirs, published in Boston in 1886, the earliest Harvard class book – not including the Sibley’s Harvard Graduates volumes – on the Society’s open shelves. In it I found a charming short biography of my great-great-great-great-uncle George James Foster (1810–1876), written by his niece Caroline Healey Dall.

A member of the Harvard Class of 1830 – which included Foster’s close friend Charles Sumner – George “stood alone among his father’s children. He was a Bradstreet, with the unflinching honesty and stern, half-cynical sense of justice of the old governor; he inherited [Simon Bradstreet’s] features, temperament, and manner, his jovial humor, and a certain refined epicureanism, which made him value his own ease and the tranquil pleasures of a bachelor life.” One of Caroline’s earliest memories is of George’s “Commencement dinner, not yet superseded by the meaningless Class-Day collation,” in 1830. “The table, glowing with silver and crystal, spread with dainties concocted from the old Bradstreet recipes by loving hands; the glad games of ball and marbles which he and his classmates were not too proud to start for his baby nieces, now [in 1886] seem nearer than many things which happened yesterday.” (pp. 86, 87)

But Nemesis stalked George’s father, who had survived the Newburyport Fire of 1811 (“and the horrors of the three days’ starvation which followed”) only for his business – relocated to Boston – to fail. George’s parents moved to New York to start anew, and George withdrew from Harvard Law School, shipping out as a super-cargo to China on a ship belonging to his brother-in-law, Mark Healey. He moved on to Rio de Janeiro, Lima, and then Valparaiso, where he became a partner in the mercantile firm of Alsop & Company in 1860.

Further reminiscences of George Foster may be found in his peripatetic English friend Henry Swinglehurst’s book, Silver Mines and Incidents of Travel: Letters and Notes on Sea and Land (1893). He was delighted to encounter Foster in Panama City in August 1860: “In old chat and jokes, and talk about personal hopes and trials, Foster and I spent some joyous hours in two days up to the time for the departure for Peru – days passing as happily as I could desire. Foster is a well read man, a great talker, full of humour, and in appearance like [the actor William Charles] Macready, he is a charming talker at his own table, and says he never forgets what he reads; he is a Bostonian.” (p. 220)

Three years later, Uncle George was still in Chile while Swinglehurst was in New York, staying in “a fine elegant house belonging to my friend Foster of Valparaiso and now occupied by his brother on his account … Mr. Charles Foster is surrounded with a circle of wealthy and educated men, who are attached to him and his brother with singular ties of affection – these include merchants, judges, lawyers, doctors, and men of fortune not in business – and they receive me with family generosity as a friend of their friend of Valparaiso. In conversation and discussion we have allowed no topic of politics or social life to be too sacred, and I have talked with them on all points of difference between England and the United States about their [Civil War].” (p. 305)

George James Foster croppedCousin Caroline Dall describes how, after his South American adventures, Uncle George retired to his house on West Sixteenth Street, his health “impaired by severe attacks of fever, contracted in crossing the Andes, before roads or railways existed to make the passage easy. He made small mention of his own sufferings, content to bear them patiently, and forget them, as far as possible, in the travels and biographies with which he beguiled his leisure…

“Mr. Foster was the last survivor of his father’s family [when he died in 1876]. His body was laid in the Second Street Marble Cemetery, of the city of New York, by the side of those who had gone before.” (H.U. Memoirs, p. 88)

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

11 thoughts on “Serendipity in genealogy

  1. Not a believer in the supernatural, but sometimes those finds are just too spooky for rational explanation.
    Good thread for discussion in NEHGS weekly e-zine survey

  2. Reading your post, the name Caroline Healy Dall caught my eye. I have her edited journals (Daughter of Boston) and several Fosters are mentioned in there, though not George.

    1. Luanne, Caroline Foster Healey was the daughter of Samuel H. Foster and Elizabeth Symonds; her half-siblings (children of Mercy/Marcia Porter) included Samuel Henry Foster — my great-great-great-grandfather — Charles William Foster, and George James Foster. The Samuel H. Fosters (but not, I think, the Dalls) moved to New York around 1830. Caroline Healey Dall was the daughter of Mark Healey and Caroline Foster.

  3. I often hear wonderful tales of serendipitous finds, but it has never happened to me. Come on ancestors, help me out here!

  4. I am a strong believer in “other forces” at work in our world! Serendipity, help from the ancestors, pure luck and/or hard work paying off, is it amazing when this kind of thing happens! Thanks for pointing it out!

  5. I love this topic. My mother and I have definitely felt guided by the ancestors, and have done the same thing where we’re drawn to a book or article online or even a town, realizing later how crucial that hint would be in our research. We have had countless such experiences. I mean once my mom ordered a 900 page book and when she picked it up, she immediately turned to the very page- and the only page- which mentioned our ancestor and gave us incredible insight into his life. It happens over & over, and it’s pretty wonderful.

    And Jenny, it’s amazing how helpful ancestors can be when you ask them for help. Just ask them to show you where to go to find the answers. I’m a Find-a-Grave volunteer photographer too, and it’s helpful with that too.

    1. Oh, the research INTENT is there from the first. Scott already knew about the Harvard connections and finally got around to looking at that volume. BUT, that GF’s niece wrote the memoriam, rather than an out-of-touch classmate or the volume’s editor, likely the case for a number of the pieces, gives it the personal slant that all of us hope for, well, that close to true serendipity.

      Certainly, I was going to check all of my second wife’s ancestral surnames on the 6th floor, and I did. But the authoress of The Badgleys didn’t have to extend her research to Badgley’s marrying out, but she did, and and my wife’s father, a Clark, didn’t have to respond when contacted in the early 1950s, but he did. So as I told her, you’ve been sitting on the NEHGS’s shelves since 1955. Then there was a friend who didn’t know about his mother’s first marriage at 16 in West Virginia, but that book had been on the society’s shelves since at least 1944.

      True serendipity would be to wander into Goodspeed’s, look at a shelf on genealogy, say to your self now that’s a nice binding, idly take the book down, and flip the pages leisurely until you hit the Aha! moment.

      1. Robert, your last paragraph captures my experience: I certainly wasn’t looking for Uncle George, or thinking (if I even knew) that he had gone to Harvard. I simply admired the binding, plucked it off the shelf, and started reading. Cousin Caroline’s memoir made it even more valuable to me.

        Another, even more serendipitous experience: I pulled Charles P. Keith’s Provincial Councillors off the shelf and flipped through the index. I remember thinking “I wonder if I might find my Ilsleys and Fowlers here” — they were on my mind at the time. Now, I had no reason to think that I would — I had no reason to think that they had any connection to Pennsylvania or to Provincial Councillors. But there they were: the line came down to the marriage of my great-great-grandparents, although the author didn’t know the groom’s name. It filled in many holes in my information on the Finlay, Fowler, Lawrence, Lawrance, Francis, and Turbutt families, and opened my eyes to their vast cousinage in the Mid-Atlantic states. And all because the Ilsleys were on my mind when I opened a book I chose at random from the shelf.

  6. I have had so many serendipity experiences: I had written a letter to a little town in Kansas and the postmaster could have just returned my letter to the library that had been shut down. She could have just trashed or “nixeyed” it but she opened it and she was the owner of the house that my 3rd great grandfather Simon Carpenter lived in. She had restored it an had found all the newspapers he had kept up in the attic.

    My sister in law had been kidnapped and taken out of state by her father and her mother never knew what happened to her. I found out that her mother had belonged to a church so I contacted the church. The secretary gave me the info she had on file which wasnt much. We went thru the file page by page she said it was all she had. When she reached up to put it away all these little slips of paper fell out at her feet. They were addresses of the 2nd husband of my sister in laws mom’s. She never saw them as we went page by page. She called me back to tell me the address of the 2nd husband but the mother of my sister in law had previously died. We found a step sister had been born to the couple mentioned and the step father was still living and in a nursing home.


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