Serendipity ~ a fortunate discovery made by accident and sagacity while searching for something else. Originally coined by Horace Walpole in 1754.
In the late 1970s, during one of my trips back to Iowa, my mother and I decided to drive to East Elkport, the birthplace of her father and to learn more about his German emigrant family. In over sixty years, she had never visited her father's birthplace even though he was born a mere 50 miles north of our hometown. But in those intervening years, she developed a love of history and now had a bad case of family history fever. We were both excited to take this journey together.
We climbed the small hill to the cemetery above the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Elkport, a nearby town. We had no map or guide so we carefully searched the rows of moss-covered monuments until at last we came upon the gravestone of my mother's grandparents and their young daughter, Sophia Dora (or Baby Dora) whom we had not known about. The monument showed she died in 1871 at age two, along with entries for 1887 and 1892 for Dora's parents. We carefully copied the fading inscriptions and took several photos.
A view of Elkport with Immanuel Lutheran Church in the middle.
Above on the hill and to the right of the steeple is the cemetery. Date unknown.
At the bottom of the hill, we stopped by the Lutheran pastor's home to ask if any church records existed. He graciously let us search the fragile pages until we found entries for the family, including the baptism in 1876 of William Peter Andresen, my grandfather.
William Peter Andresen with his mother, Margaretha Dorothea Thomsen Andresen. Since she is wearing widow’s black, it appears she is in mourning for her husband, Karl Heinrich Andresen (known in East Elkport as C.H. Andresen), who died at age 52 in 1887. She died in 1892 at age 57. Based on these dates, this photo was probably taken about 1888-1889, when William would have been about twelve or thirteen. This is the only known photo of Margaretha Andresen.
Original was owned by William’s oldest daughter, Margaret who, no doubt, was named after her grandmother. Now in possession of her sons.
Although the sun was setting, we headed for the library to see if there were any town or county histories. We quickly found The History of Clayton County, Iowa (1882) on the shelf but the index listed a C. H. Anderson, not the correct spelling. As I pointed this error out to my mother, a woman searching at the sole microfilm reader looked up and asked which name we were looking for. When we said, "Andresen", we were rewarded with a big smile. "I'm related to you!" She explained that our ancestors followed her ancestors from Schleswig-Holstein and that several descendants remained in the county. We never dreamt that we would discover a distant cousin that day, specifically a distant cousin who was descended from the older sister of my mother's grandmother and who could fill in many of the empty branches on our family tree.
What's more, since she was a school teacher, she was only able to research her family during summer vacations. What if we had arrived during the school year?
My grandfather was orphaned at age 15 in 1892 and soon after, moved to Dubuque, Iowa, to learn the barber's trade from his older brother-in-law. Since he was the youngest of a family of six children, three born in Schleswig-Holstein and three born in Iowa, I imagine he did not carry early stories with him of his family or ancestors. But an older aunt and her children might.
This seredipitous discovery of a distant cousin and the information we both shared, eventually took us back to original documents from the 1600s in Germany and to the uncovering of many stories since about my grandfather's origins.
That day, when we returned home, my mother and I, usually very serious-minded, definitely did The Genealogists' Happy Dance.