Serendipity

The author with the late Mary O’Mahony, Dreenauliff, Sneem, Kerry, Ireland, in August 2001.

Inspired by the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, Horace Walpole gave us the word serendipity. The following three tales shine among my past treasures as extraordinary encounters that would have been lost to history had I not been in the right place at the right time.

In the fall of 1983, I drove to West Wareham, Massachusetts on a mission to find my great-grandfather’s grave. As I searched in vain for the stone, an elderly man who lived across the road from the cemetery spied my Vermont license plate and asked for whom I was searching. “Millard Morse, father of Emory,” I said. He retorted, “Who ARE you?” Revealing my identity as Emory Morse’s grandson brought a hearty handshake from Ernest Howes, who disclosed that he and my grandfather grew up together but had lost touch. He said, “Turn around.” There next to his own home was the house where my grandfather was born in 1907. Ernest also supplied the answer to a long-standing question of what happened to the family of Millard’s sister, Edith, who left for California in the 1930s. Ernest’s wife just happened to have the address of Edith’s granddaughter, as they were third cousins. That memorable visit connected me to a lost branch of my family with whom I remain in touch.

My circuitous quest for the parentage of Rev. Silas Hall, who served ever-so-briefly as Block Island’s Baptist minister, generated dozens of typed letters and stamped return envelopes. A handwritten response from the Block Island Historical Society’s secretary, Luella Ball, had disappointing contents, but on the outside of the envelope she wrote, “Silas was from Maine. My friend is related.”

Those sepia images unlocked dozens of other identities…

Many letters, several phone calls, and an eventual ferry crossing brought me to the island home of Luella’s friend, Esther Littlefield. Then in her eighties, Esther had researched the erstwhile preacher most of her adult life. Through Esther, Silas Hall’s wife and children became real to me because Esther shared a marvelous heirloom: a carte de visite photo album with every photograph identified, a feat accomplished seventy years before at the insistence of her grandfather, who was married to Silas’s daughter. Those sepia images unlocked dozens of other identities, such as these daguerreotypes of my great-great-great-grandparents Reuben Welch and Lovicy (Hall) Paine:

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By 1997, the internet accelerated genealogical communication. That summer, an email query from a Rhode Island woman asked if I were the person researching Dwyer families of Newport. Her father, Frank Dwyer – born in County Kerry, Ireland; now of Warwick, Rhode Island – wanted to meet me. We turned out to be distant cousins.

Our summer cookout conversation revealed a singular backstory with a remarkable twist: the truth behind the World War II incident when my grandfather, a commander in the Merchant Marine, had a ten-day layover in England. He hired a plane to fly him to Ireland to see where his father, Patrick Dwyer, was born in 1862. The locals took him to a ruined cottage, all that remained of the family “estate.” Frank Dwyer met my grandfather on that day and participated in the ruse to throw off a “nosey Yank,” perceived as a threat who might press an inheritance claim on the cousin currently living in the family homestead.

Frank suggested I might want to meet that cousin – still alive and well. A few years later on a trip to Ireland, the experience of having tea (and later, more potent beverages) with cousin Mary O’Mahony in the Dwyer family homestead ranks among my most emotional genealogical experiences.

As researchers, we always anticipate making exciting discoveries within records, but the art of genealogy intertwines our lives with others, past and present, in serendipitous ways.

Michael Dwyer

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he edits Vermont Genealogy. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, The American Genealogist, The Maine Genealogist, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. He heads the English Department of Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon, Vermont. The Vermont Department of Education named him 2004’s Vermont Teacher of the Year.

21 thoughts on “Serendipity

  1. I love hearing of such wonderfully “mysterious moments” when the stars align- or our ancestors give us a nudge …and sure enough zap a connection is made. Thank you for this uplifting reminder.

  2. Love it! I truly think that my genealogical research has had moments that were “serendipitous.” Sometimes a person has just come into the picture at just the right moment to provide information, insights that may have otherwise gone unnoticed, or an answer to a question. I sometimes wonder if the spirits of our ancestors are helping us from beyond …..

  3. Michael, I am Paul Morris Hilton of Harvey Station, New Brunswick, Canada. Mu Mom was Hila Morris Hilton of Wallace, Nova Scotia. I do have some links to the Morse Family. The Hilton Family I am connected to is originally linked to Hylton Castle of Co. Durham, England. I also have links to the Mayflower passengers and crew too. It is indeed a small world. There are 45 spellings of the Morris Surname known and another 25 or more of Hilton. It is a small world and seemingly getting smaller day to day. All the best friends with your great research. Sincerely Yours, Paul Morris Hilton.

  4. I was on the internet a few years ago and saw a post from a historical society from a town near where my grandfather was born (River John, Nova Scotia). I sent them an e-mail and asked if they had anything on my family. They recommended that I contact the historical society in River John (I didn’t know that one existed) and mentioned a name of the person that I should contact. I e-mailed them and mentioned his name (I thought that we was a volunteer). They responded that they would print out my e-mail and give it to him the next time that they saw him.
    I had given up hearing anything from him when he e-mailed me about a month later. He asked if I was the daughter of Russell or Walter. It turned out that his grandmother had been a friend of my grandmother (she had been born in Newfoundland but accompanied my grandfather when he visited Nova Scotia). I had two pictures of her included one with her grandchildren. He said that he was distantly related to me on my great grandmother’s side and he was friends with several of my second cousins that I had met when I visited Nova Scotia with my grandfather when I was 8. He sent me data about our mutual ancestors and some data about my grandfather’s siblings’ descendants. You can find data in the strangest places.

  5. The photo of you and Mary O’Mahony. nee O’Neil, reminded me of the serendipitous connection which led me to find that her aunt, my grandmother Ellen “Nellie” O’Neil, came to New York in 1897 on the same ship with her neighbor and your cousin Michael Dwyer.

  6. A couple of years ago I posted a picture on a Facebook page devoted to Nantucket genealogy. Someone commented that it was her great-grandfather. I suggested that it was actually her great-great-great grandfather, for whom her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were named, which she realized was the case. I explained that her ggg-grandfather, Henry Coffin, was married to the sister of my ggg-grandmother, Lydia (Starbuck) Athearn. Just at that time, she and her cousin were scanning some old letters they’d found stored in the family barn on Nantucket (perfect preservation environment, I know!) and had come across the name of a Susan Athearn…who completely unknown to them. Susan Athearn was Lydia’s daughter, and hence a first cousin to their gg-grandfather, Levi Starbuck Coffin. Such serendipity that I, the gg-granddaughter of Susan Athearn’s brother would be in contact that very week!

    1. As always you take something than can be dry -geneaolgy and weave it into a personal and very interesting human story. These stories are what are so very important in our lives. The connections we make to people who become part of our journey.

  7. A wonderful connection to so many people, past & present, as well as a travelogue of your personal experiences from RI & MA to Ireland.

  8. That photograph of Lovicy grabbed me. She doesn’t just look solemn, she looks miserable, and it appears that she doesn’t have much of a waist. My guess is that she was pregnant and morning sick.

  9. How fun to see your smiling face upon opening my NEHGS newsletter this morning, Michael! I fondly remember working with you on an OVUHS American Studies class while I was student teaching with Mrs. Brosnan many years ago. Greetings to you!

  10. Michael, Are you related to Esther Littlefield? Have you her ancestry line? I have Littlefield’s in my mother’s line with my 7th great grandparents Edmund Littlefield 1692-1717; and wife, Bethia Waldo 1688-1745. Any contact I might connect with on the Litlefield’s? Thanks

    Terry Moore

    1. Terry,
      Esther (Thomas) Littlefield was the daughter of Justin and Emma (Coleman) Thomas. She married into the Littlefield family of Block Island. My relationship to Esther comes through the Thomas family. If you would like more on her Littlefield family, please let me know.

  11. Your stories were most enjoyable and inspiring. I too have benefited greatly from serendipity, and it all makes me wonder what connections I just missed by a hair and will never know about!

  12. Michael, this is another delightful genealogical piece. Your writing is so personal, warm, and cohesive. It’s a pleasure to read. Thanks for sharing this with me.
    Jane Sarno

  13. My serendipitous find was when I first started tracing my family tree and wrote my aunt asking what she could tell me about my father’s ancestry. She replied that she couldn’t, but she had some old pictures I could have for the postage. The pictures were amazing, but even more so were the old letters, including some from the Civil War. But the true treasure was a piece of old butcher paper wadded into one of the envelopes. On it was written, “Grandfather Lee’s name was Nehemiah. He moved at the time of the Revolutionary War from Manchester, Massachusetts, to Moultonborough, New Hampshire….”

  14. I’m not searching for genealogy at the moment but because I think you’re my friend from Fall River, MA. Maybe that means I am searching the genealogy of old friends! I am moving to northern VT soon and hoped I could say hi and how are you. Anne Pettine Goodreau

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