Serendipity in Family Research

At times, it seems that certain ancestors hide from you. They are the ones that the census enumerator  always misses or they suddenly appear in a county where no one of that same surname lives and there are no records that anyone with that surname ever existed. You wonder if they were aliens dropped off by some interplanetary traveler or, as Emily Croom once accused her ancestor, “They set fire to the courthouse on their way out of the county every time they moved.”1

But there are other times, when you swear the ancestor is leaving you clues. You can almost hear them whispering in your ear, “Look in this book,” or “try searching the adjacent county’s records.” They want you to find them! These are those moments of serendipity; you kind of stumble upon a remarkable discovery without even trying. You may attempt to bluster to your friends that this discovery was the result of your acute genealogical sagacity, but you know it isn’t true.

What I Thought I Knew About My Family Tree

I recently had one of those moments of serendipity. I attended a workshop at a Fairmont Cemetery, an old, but well maintained, cemetery at the edge of Denver. Many prominent people from Denver in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are buried there. I wasn’t trying to find any dead relatives, but as someone interested not only in genealogy, but general history as well, I thought I might learn about some of Denver’s historical figures. I was convinced I didn’t have any relatives from Colorado.

I knew the family history of John Livermore. He had left his wife and children in England in 1634 and traveled with his brother-in-law to America. After serving his indentured servitude to pay for his passage, he established a farm in Watertown, MA, near Boston. He then brought his family to New England and became prosperous and added more children to his brood.

One of his descendants, Moses Livermore, rose to prominence during the Revolutionary War. After the opening of the Erie Canal, Moses moved his family to western New York state. A couple of generations later, some of the children moved on to Ohio where my father was born and raised. The rest of the children stayed in New York, I believed.

A Genealogical Christmas in July Carol?

There aren’t many Livermores in America and most are descended from John who came from England in 1634. As we were touring the cemetery, I noticed a large plot marker that said “Livermore.” I asked our guide if he knew anything about them, since he seemed to know something about everyone there. I explained that Livermore was my surname and I was curious about who they were. He didn’t know them, but he encouraged me to go over and have a closer look.

Let me express the shock I experienced next by paraphrasing a passage from Dicken’s A Christmas Carol:

“The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to one. Scrooge advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape . . .

Scrooge crept towards it; and following the finger, read upon the stones of the neglected grave his own name, CHARLES LIVERMORE and that of his wife, REBECCA LIVERMORE.”2

Puzzle Pieces of Genealogy

It was a little disconcerting seeing my and my wife’s name on a couple of grave markers. However, the middle initials were different and there was a third grave there for Ester A. Gaymon. I fortunately (serendipitously?) had a pen and paper with me and copied the information from the headstones. The name Charles T. Livermore seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t firmly place it. After the workshop, I returned home and pulled up my family tree on my computer. Within seconds, I knew who this was. I told my wife, “This is my great grandfather’s brother.”

My wife questioned it. “How can you be sure so quickly?” she asked. “There must be numerous Charles Livermores out there.”

I responded there were, but not ones with the same birthdate and married to a Rebecca. I looked up his name in a published genealogy from the turn of the twentieth century and it confirmed that this was my great, great uncle. The genealogy said that Charles Theodore Livermore moved to Colorado in 1879 with his wife and daughter, Ester Annie Livermore.3

The daughter was the third tombstone in the plot. Searching online, I found Ester A.’s marriage to Rolla H. Gaymon and also their two sons, Charles and Harold. Tragically, Ester died at age 36 of peritonitis, an inflammation in the abdomen caused by an injury or a ruptured appendix. She died many years before her parents. Harold, her youngest son, attended Colorado State University, married and moved to Florida. Her eldest son, Charles, was in a city directory for Denver in 1917 at age 24. I haven’t found any records for Charles Gaymon after 1917, which leads me to speculate that he may have been killed in World War I, perhaps.

Charles T. Livermore started a successful lumber business in Denver after arriving here. When the lumber business dried up during the economic downturn in the 1890’s, he started a fuel and feed store. His son-in-law worked for him as a clerk for a period according to the 1900 Census. Charles’ wife, Rebecca, died in 1917 and he followed her in death in 1919. Their earthly remains were laid in Fairmont Cemetery next to their daughter where they waited nearly a century for me to discover them.

Look for Serendipity in Your Own Family Tree

Unless I can turn up children of Charles Gaymon, Ester’s son, I probably don’t have any living relatives in Colorado, but I know that I have pioneers from the early days of Colorado statehood in my tree. What relatives are dropping breadcrumbs for you to follow? Our class was split into two different tour groups on that Sunday in Fairmont Cemetery. The other group explored a completely different part of the cemetery. What if I hadn’t noticed the plot marker 20 yards away from the path we walked? What if I had thought it was some other line of Livermores and hadn’t bothered to investigate further? I found a close relative because of a set of random coincidences. Lucky breaks. Serendipity. Or was there someone who is not seen or heard with our physical eyes and ears prompting me and guiding my steps? Did Uncle Charles (or someone else) want me to find him? I wonder.

Use the comments below to tell us about instances of serendipity you have experienced with your family research. Or just tell what you think of this post.

1 Emily Anne Croom, The Sleuth Book for Genealogists, (Cincinnati, OH, Betterway Books, 2000) p. 1

2 Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, (London, Chapman and Hall, 1843) p. 89

3 Walter Eliot Thwing, The Livermore Family of America, (Boston, W. B. Clarke Company, 1902) p. 290

9 Responses to Serendipity in Family Research

  1. Debi Austen August 8, 2012 at #

    Youre right, they do leave clues for us – we just have to see them. Thanks for the comment on my blog, Chuck!
    Debi Austen recently posted..May DayMy Profile

  2. Debi Austen August 7, 2012 at #

    I recently had my own sort of serendipity. In late March I was in my home town/state and decided to go to the cemetery to visit my dad. While there, I went to another section of the cemetery to visit our former Rabbi. And that was it.

    A few weeks after I returned I corresponded with a woman I’ve been working with who is researching the Jewish community in the area my ancestors came from. My 3rd great grandfather has been a bit of a brick wall for me but I had been able to determine that he died somewhere before 1870.

    So her partner was out photographing graves in a cemetery and she asked him to look out for any Steens, my 3rd great grandfather’s surname. He found a few, photographed them, and gave them to her.

    Imagine my surprise when she forwarded a photo of my Joseph Steen, date of death 1866. And guess where he was? In the same cemetery I had just visited! This is a HUGE cemetery and he was in the section where I had just been to visit the Rabbi. So a few weeks ago I was back in town and went to the cemetery to see for myself. Not only was he in the same section, I had walked right by his stone during my March visit and didn’t even see him. Of course, I wasn’t really looking but he was right there! I guess I’ve learned my lesson and will always be on the lookout for my people.

    Thanks for a great blog post!
    Debi Austen recently posted..May DayMy Profile

    • Chuck Livermore August 7, 2012 at #

      What a great story, Debi! Thanks for passing it on to us. I really think sometimes our ancestors are leaving clues for us. They will keep prompting us when we ignore their hints the first time.

      By the way, I checked out your blog and it looks great. I’m looking forward to reading more.

  3. Lisa July 14, 2012 at #

    How fun and interesting! It is amazing what you may discover about yourself and your history.
    Lisa recently posted..Printable worksheets for your kids made easyMy Profile

    • Chuck Livermore July 15, 2012 at #

      It IS amazing! To think of all the pieces that had to come together for me to make this discovery is mind-boggling.
      Chuck Livermore recently posted..No Posts Were Found!My Profile

  4. Theresa Leschmann July 14, 2012 at #

    What a phenomenal story! I have visited many an old cemetery,not to do a genealogical study but because I am weird and think they are interesting places. I never would have imagined that you could stumble upon an ancestor like that. And you make their story a fascinating read. Thanks for sharing.
    Theresa Leschmann recently posted..Friday the 13th Free eBooksMy Profile

    • Chuck Livermore July 14, 2012 at #

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Theresa. This post was a little lengthy, but I am glad you found it interesting enough to get all the way through. If a fascination with cemeteries makes you weird, you have a lot of weird company. The monuments, the architecture of the mausoleums, the symbolism on the grave markers, etc. really make them interesting places. In fact, in the 19th century, they were popular spots for picnics. In modern times, the horror movie industry has made them creepy.

  5. Lisa Stover July 13, 2012 at #

    I haven’t experienced anything like this but it sounds interesting. I think I’ll have to check out some of my family history now that you got me intrigued.

    • Chuck Livermore July 14, 2012 at #

      Be careful, Lisa. You may just want to take a quick look to see what you can find and before you know it, it’s 3AM and you are hooked for life. : ) Genealogy can be more addicting than crack.

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