Family Stories - Are they Luck, Hard work or fate

Depending on the researcher, writers portray family stories as tales of luck or fate, or of hard work, or even divine intervention.

It’s not a new theme. Since its inception, scholars, educators, and high school students have contemplated whether Romeo and Juliet were literally “star-crossed,” born under bad stars and fated to die young. So, it’s natural to wonder the same about our own family stories.

We look back at lives and wonder if our family members were affected by luck or fate.  If they were products of their pioneer spirit? Did they have some sort of destiny? Or was it just hard work?

Those thoughts can impact the way we tell family stories.  In addition, they can also help us weave individual family stories together.

Ellen Hedgecock:  All of the above

Eliza Ellen Hedgecock was my husband’s great grand aunt.

A cool thing about researching your husband’s family, is you get to know family members that they might not have ever met. For me, getting to know Ellen’s grandson, John Netherly, was a big bonus of doing family history research.

According to John, Ellen believed her own and her family’s lives were saved by divine intervention. Ellen and her husband Jay were serving as Seventh Day Adventist missionaries in England. When it was time to return to the USA, the family bought tickets to travel back home on the Titanic.

However, Ellen had a strong premonition that prompted the family to change their passage to the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic.[1]   Though they arrived safely in the U.S.A, most of their household belongings sank with the Titanic.

Passenger list with a travel poster

In a 2008 email, John wrote:

Here is a picture of Ellen Hedgecock Nethery and her family. My dad is the boy on the left. This was taken just months before they sailed in 1912. She believed to her dying day that God saved her and family from the Titanic.

Eliza Ellen Hedgecock and Jay Netherly

Ellen and Jay shortly before leaving England. Photo courtesy of John Netherly.

Alas, Ellen still died relatively young.   According to The Central Union Outlook, “Sister Nethery had been cleaning some clothes in gasoline in the basement of her home… When she turned on the electric switch on her washer, …a spark ignited the gas in the basement and immediately enveloped Sister Nethery in flame.”

She died later that day. [2]

Family Traits and Stories: Luck or Fate or Something Else

I admired John Netherly in so many ways.  One of them was the way he told his grandmother’s story, allowing her to have a voice in it.  He didn’t dwell on the obvious juxtaposition of the fate she avoided—possible drowning in freezing water—and the gruesome accident that caused her death.  He wrote,

“[Eliza Ellen Netherly Hedgecock] had six grandchildren. The baby she is holding graduated number 1 in his class at medical school and became a member f the Royal Academy of Physicians and Surgeons and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (He was a member of the board that certifies other doctors). My dad, the older boy was a Professor of Dental Surgery at the University of Iowa. My Uncle became an Episcopalian and my Dad a Presbyterian, which I’m sure would have disappointed her.”

As a fellow Presbyterian, John’s final comment made me laugh. Though faith remains a strong thread in the lives of Ellen’s father’s, Albert Gallatin Hedgecock Sr, descendants, they run the gamut of Protestantism. Part of me thinks he’d be proud.  Part of me thinks he’d shake his head that they left the 7th Day Adventist Church.

I often wonder if there is some sort of genealogy of faith and what role that has played in the family’s migrations. But likewise, I wonder about other qualities, such as hard work (homesteaders definitely weren’t lazy), a sense of adventure, and perseverance.  Regardless, these themes tie the individual Hedgecock and related family stories together.

Your Turn

Family stories Luck or Fate What themes have you found in your family stories? Adventure? Resilience? Luck or fate?  The work of a higher power?  I love to read your thoughts in the comments.

[1] New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Accessed via, Provo, UT, USA: Year: 1912; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 1839; Line: 6; Page Number: 62.

[2] “Sister Nethery Fatally Burned,” Central Union Outlook, College Park, Nebraska, Vol. XVII, No. 28, July 17, 1928, p. 1,

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