Sunday, January 9, 2011


© Kathy Duncan, 2011

SERENDIPITY. Serendipity is based solely on amazing coincidence. It is the book that falls from the library shelf face down and lands on the page that contains the information one has sought for years. Serendipity is not to be confused with intuition or gut instinct. Those are grounded in conclusions drawn from research and insight. While intuition arrives in a eureka moment that seems magical, it is not serendipity. Recently, I saw a book online about paranormal genealogy research, and serenity moments were included as if the ancestors stood at our elbows, knocking books off of shelves for us. Perhaps. Who am I to argue? I just know that some of my best “discoveries” have come through serendipity instead of methodical searching.

Take Duncan Hyder Selph and his wife Lavinia Burton, my husband Peter’s great-grandparents. Back in the pre-internet, pre-census indexes after 1860, days, this couple was beyond elusive. I could not successfully link them to their parents or locate a marriage record for them. I had no idea where in Tennessee to look for either one of them. I had met my future father-in-law, Hardy J. Selph, exactly once. He regaled me with a story of being descended from a Revolutionary War officer who was supposedly buried near Nashville. Somehow I confused the officer with the photograph of Duncan H. and Lavinia Selph that he was showing me. I knew the picture was from the Civil War era and that the man in it could not possibly be a Revolutionary War officer. I knew nothing about the Selph family, so I was not able to keep up with what I was being told. Since Peter and I were only dating at the time, it did not occur to me to do anything more than listen politely.

Years later I was in the Dallas Public Library, working on something that I have long since forgotten when I knocked a book off of the shelf. It was time for me to pack up and head home any way because the library was closing, but I turned the book over and looked at the page on which it landed. My eye caught on a couple of names: Hardy Someone Or Other and Mrs. Selph. I glanced at the book title - something to do with Williamson County, Tennessee - returned it to the shelf and headed home. When I told Peter about it, he could not believe that I had not photocopied those pages before I left. He pointed out the some one named “Hardy” mentioned on the same pages as someone named “Mrs. Selph” was bound to be his relative. He had a valid point. Methodical, backward moving research had not gotten me any where. I might as well look in a book that fell off the shelf.

I wrote down everything I remembered about the book and within the week I was back at the library to photograph those pages. Mrs. Selph turned out to be Lavinia (Burton) Selph, wife of Duncan H. Selph, and Hardy Someone Or Other turned out to be her grandfather Hardy Murfree, the Revolutionary War officer buried in Tennessee. Things started falling into place quickly after that. Lavinia (Burton) Selph, who was nicknamed “Lilly,” was the daughter of Francis Nash Williams Burton and Lavinia Bembury Murfree, a prominent, early family of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Lavinia (Murfree) Burton was also nicknamed Lilly. Her legacy continued among innumerable little Lavinias, Lillys, Lillians, and Lilly Anns in the family.

LEAVE NO STONE UNTURNED. Or as I think of it, look under every rock. Based on my successes with serendipity, I nose around in everything that presents itself now. My favorite place to look for odd information is in books about antiques, old houses, quilts, and samplers. I finally hit pay dirt in The Quilts of Tennessee: Images of Domestic Life Prior to 1930 by Bets Ramsey and Merikay Waldvogel.

Featured in this book is the Soule College Quilt, a crazy quilt made by classmates at Soule College in Murfreesboro, Tennessee c. 1891, as a gift to J.H. Holt, an itinerant Cumberland Presbyterian preacher in Rutherford County. F.N.W. Burton was one of the original 1825 trustees of Soule College. Smack in the center of the quilt is a block with three large white, embroidered lilies, and what is even more unusual, the block is signed by “Lizzie Burton.” I feel sure that the block was meant as a tribute to Lavinia “Lilly“ (Murfree) Burton who died in Kentucky in 1881, but who was returned to Murfreesboro to be interred next to her husband F. N. W. Burton in the Old City Cemetery. Lizzie Burton was most likely Lavinia (Burton) Selph’s daughter Betty Vick Selph who had married Erwin Burton by 1886 in Murfreesboro.

BE GUIDED BY YOUR GUT. When I have a strong, overwhelming feeling about something, I try to follow it. It does not really matter if it is serendipity or intuition; if the feeling is strong enough, I go with it. No questions asked. Several years ago I was driving through Eastland, Texas on my way to New Mexico when I felt an overwhelming to stop, stretch my legs, and get a cup of coffee. I recalled that there was an antique mall on the square, and noted that it should just about be opening time. I figured I was making good enough time to stop for a bit. A little reward for getting up early and getting on the road. Plus, I remembered seeing a guest book for an old dam that I had seen the year before. Apparently, in the early days of automobile travel, dams were a tourist destination and people signed a guest ledger, recording their visit. If the ledger was still there, I intended to buy it. Unfortunately, it was gone, but in another booth was an old store ledger that someone had turned into a scrapbook, gluing all manner of things on top of the old store entries. I remember thinking what a shame. I still do. One of the pages had a picture of a large while lily glued on it. And a poem about a lily. I thought of the Lillys in Peter’s family and started turning the pages more slowly and looking more carefully at them. Just a hodge-podge of whatever had interested its creator covered page after page. Then I came to a page where the name Lilly was written over and over. Obviously, the little girl who did this was named Lilly, and she had practiced writing her name. Then at the very back were some old store entries that were never glued over. One of them….the one that made my heart almost stop…was a record of bricks bought and delivered for Mr. Murfree’s chimney. SOLD! I’ve yet to figure out exactly who this little Lilly was or which Mr. Murfree built a new chimney, but I will eventually figure it out.

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