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By Daniel Hubbard | September 9, 2012

Coincidence n 1 : … 2 : the occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection.

One of the hardest things for the human mind to grasp is that coincidences happen. We are very, very good at seeing patterns. We are very good at seeing connections. We have a tendency to put meaning where it doesn’t belong. We even have words like coincidence to describe the experience. It is one of the most sprung traps in genealogy.

Meet Sophie

Sophie is a woman that I have been researching. Family lore says that she nationalized about 1940. From records I’ve found I can say that she was Russian and Jewish. She was born in 1876 and lived in Detroit. She didn’t enter the United States directly but briefly lived in Canada and arrived in the U.S. by train. Her last name was unusual. How many of those details need to match before it is clearly the same person?

Meet Sophie

She naturalized in Detroit (check) in 1936 (check). She was Jewish and came from Russia (check, check). She was born in January of 1876 (check). She had the correct, unusual surname (check). She arrived in the U.S. by train (check) from Canada (check) after briefly being a Canadian resident (check). Looks like of found her!


The amazing thing, the point of this post, is that one and only one naturalization in the Detroit records looked promising and it matches on detail after detail after detail. The chances that there were two such women is so close to zero that the case would appear to be not just closed but forcefully slammed shut. Yet, there were two. The Sophie I am seeking lived in Montreal. The Sophie who naturalized resided in Edmonton. The other family members listed in Sophie’s naturalization bear no resemblance to the family members that I have for my Sophie. Other records make it clear that they were two distinct people. Given the size of Detroit, these two data doppelgangers probably never even met.

In this fairly recent case there were sufficient records to prove a coincidence that would seem to be impossible. I often wonder how many such coincidences have been left for us to trip over but without the data necessary to prove that the clearly impossible, in fact, occurred. It is a sobering thought. It seems to me that there is no “just plain progress” in genealogy, only careful progress.

People like Sophie and Sophie are one reason that no stone should be left unturned. Those unturned stones are where the proof of coincidence might be hiding.



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