This article originally appeared in:
Writers in the Storm on July 17, 2017
Who are my long-lost relatives? And what role did they play in determining who I am today? Where does their identity place me in the patchwork of humanity? These are some of the questions people hope to answer when conducting ancestral research, a trend that is growing worldwide. But genealogy has long been big business for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or the Mormons).
Initially, genealogy was conducted in order to aid in a religious ritual called Baptism for the Dead, meaning Mormons endeavor to baptize all who have passed, so they will have a fair shake in heaven. For more info on this practice, click here. But in the age of the internet the church is a pioneer in genealogical digging, for all purposes. And it’s available for Mormons and non-Mormons alike.
I made good use of this valuable research in my upcoming novel Where the Sweet Bird Sings.
In the story my main character, Emma Hazelton, is cleaning out her beloved grandpa’s attic after his death when she happens upon a black-and-white wedding photograph of her great-grandparents…but something doesn’t jive. According to his obituary, Grandpa Joe was born three years before his parent’s wedding. After pondering that inconsistency, combined with a few other mysterious discoveries, Emma decides to untwist the roots of her family tree.
Although Emma isn’t a Mormon she visits the Family History Library funded by the LDS Church to start her quest. The Family History Library is the largest library of its kind in the world, and there she has unfettered access to millions of books and rolls of microfilm, helping her (and the reader) to peek into the leafy branches. But what’s incredible is that many documents are digitized and available to you using the computer sitting on your desk. Here’s how you can get started:
The online search site organized by the LDS Church is familysearch.org. This site is free and uses census reports, military records, marriage records, death reports, ship manifests, you name it. It’s super user friendly. You start with the name of the deceased ancestor you’re searching for, and go from there. Of course, eventually there will be a dead end (no pun intended) and that’s when you consult other sources.
Another free source is findagrave.com where you can view photos of over 160 million grave markers from all across the world. It is user-driven (and a little clunky) but amazing things are available on this site. However, I prefer billiongraves.com for usability. It isn’t as highly rated but it hasn’t failed me yet.
The most comprehensive site is ancestry.com. This is a paid site but if you run out of luck with the free engines, it might pay to search here. You can take it for a two week test run for free.
If you’re looking for specific lineages or angles there are specialty sites aplenty. You can Google to see if there are any specific to your search but here are a few, just to illustrate the variety: afrigeneas.com for African Ancestored Genealogy, jewishgen.org is an affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, libertyellisfoundation.org gives you access to over fifty million passenger records and amazingly helps decipher common translations of ethnic names to the Americanized version.
The title Where the Sweet Bird Sings is in reference to a family tree (you’d be surprised how many people don’t get the connection). Sometimes the things found in the roots and branches are unexpected, but they’re still part of who we are. Emma’s search is fictionalized and her desire to delve into the past is fueled by uncovered lies. Not all searches are fraught, but when it’s your family and your family ties, each new discovery is thrilling. Emma likens the search to a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece that clicks into place is satisfying, further refining the hidden picture.