Research Miracles

Week 11: #52 Ancestors – Luck

By Eilene Lyon

Given that next week’s theme is “Misfortune,” I take “Luck” to mean Good luck, not Bad luck. I can find innumerable bad luck or misfortune stories in my family history. Finding good luck stories is a real challenge. My ancestors had seriously hard lives.

On the other hand, I’ve certainly had some incredibly lucky breaks in my genealogy research over the years. Many were due to persistent digging, and some from making connections with distant relatives. Finding those needles-in-haystacks can really feel like winning the lottery!

Because my biggest genealogy-related project is my gold rush book, those discoveries are foremost in my mind. I’ve mentioned my lucky finds in a probate record, and stumbling upon the mining company’s Articles of Agreement in a county courthouse.

Here are a few other amazing finds in researching this story (by no means all of them):

  1. When I mentioned to a distant cousin that I had the family collection of gold rush letters, she told me she’d heard of them in a book she’d read. When I checked the reference in the book, I discovered that the authors had accessed a different collection of transcriptions than mine. By checking with the library, I found an additional eight family letters I’d never seen before!
  2. Sharing the story and research with another distant cousin, who is particularly adept at online searching, brought an amazing trove of lawsuits related to my subjects. They included the principal case, compiled in 155 pages of court transcript. I was speechless – I hadn’t even known to look in that particular county for such a thing. Within the testimony, I made some major discoveries.
  3. As I pieced together the journey my great-great-grandfather, Robert Ransom, and his brother made in going to California, I came to realize that they’d boarded an ill-fated sailing ship, the Emily, in Panama, instead of a reliable steamship. There were many deaths on board and the ship was stranded in the Pacific for months, short on provisions. It finally put in to port in Mexico, where the men were marooned for nearly two more months before being rescued by another sailing vessel.

In a California archive, I found a daily diary written by David T. Gillis, of Ohio. As I read through it, I discovered that he’d been in Panama about the same time as the Ransom brothers. Then, when he wrote, “purchased our tickets on the Emily,” you could have knocked me over with a feather! He was in steerage with my relatives!! How lucky can a researcher get? (see photos above) Now I know what happened on that particular voyage 166 years ago.

Researching history and genealogy is hard work, certainly. But sometimes, it seems, we do just get lucky.


British barque Arno by Flemish painter Petrus Weyts. This is similar to the Emily.

If you are ever doing any archive research in California, you should visit the Online Archive of California site (this is where I found the diary and many other valuable manuscript sources).

If the Gillis diary interests you, my transcription, along with photos of the diary pages, has been put online by the University of the Pacific, Holt-Atherton Special Collections library.

3 thoughts on “Research Miracles

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  1. I too have been blessed with some luck in this process. The biggest and most surprising luck might be the scrapbook of photos belonging to my greatgreat grandfather’s sister’s family. I thought I had lost their trail, and a stranger read my blog and it clicked and she mailed me the scrapbook!

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