Last month was RootsTech, the annual genealogy conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, and I was fortunate enough to attend! I did just have a baby last November, so I brought her along, and while it was a bit cumbersome at times, I am glad for the experience. I was one of the few people in attendance with a baby, and most people were so helpful and kind!
I flew in on Wednesday from Philadelphia with a short layover in Denver, and after landing and getting my rental car, I hopped on the freeway to meet up with a distant cousin, Jone. It was our first time meeting in person, but we have been in contact for a few years. She is both a genetic and a genealogical cousin- double second cousin twice removed, as a matter of fact! We met at Cafe Rio for lunch and she told me all that she knew about our ancestors. It was great. I really enjoyed it!
While in Utah, I stayed with family. I love saying that! Yes, I have family in Utah. A few years ago, mine and my mom’s DNA matched us to Jeff and his wife, Kristi. Jeff is my second cousin once removed. I absolutely love their family and I feel so blessed to know them! Kristi and I had a wonderful time at the convention with her family, and I even found out through the interactive FamilySearch display (powered through Relativefinder) that we are 8th cousins once removed. So, I guess I am related to both of them. 🙂
I really enjoyed talks given by Diahan Southard and Kitty Cooper on DNA and genealogy. It is amazing to me how genetic genealogy continues to change how we piece together our family histories. It has inspired me to read The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine Bettinger, which I am told is an essential guide to genetic genealogy. So far it is very in-depth and scientific, and I am really having to hearken back to my college biology days.
There were too many noteworthy exhibitors to count, but one that I really liked was Pioneer Maps. I was in awe of this beautiful Mormon Trail map that was printed from an 1899 original and I am in the process of ordering one for my home. I also got to stop by the Extreme Genes booth, my favorite podcast, to meet Fisher, David Allen Lambert of NEGHS, and Tom Perry. It was so cool to meet them, especially since they kept me company on the road last Summer!
l was in a one second clip of a promo video for RootsTech, making a goofy face, so that’s pretty cool. 😆
Keynote speakers The Property Brothers Drew and Jonathan Scott were incredibly entertaining, and I regretfully did not make it to hear Levar Burton‘s speech because my baby girl was fussy and jet lagged, which is frustrating because it is not available on the website and no one can give me a straight answer why! I was told that Thom Reed of The Freedmens Bureau Project came on stage to present Burton with his genealogy back to 1815, and it was a very touching moment. Reed visited Philadelphia about a year ago and I attended his fireside at the LDS Stake Center. What an inspired project! There is lots more happening here in Philadelphia with African American family history, which I will be talking more about in the near future.
There have been some changes in LDS family history callings, which I think was a much-needed clarification for our role. We are now called a Temple and Family History Consultants. I am grateful for the opportunity to assist youth and adults in my local community in finding their ancestors, and having spiritual experiences that will strengthen their testimonies of Jesus Christ.
I will definitely be attending again next year and the world of family history is so incredibly exciting that it feels like drinking from a fire hose sometimes. It’s overwhelming. I hope you will take some time and watch some of the conference sessions if you have the time. If there is anything I can do to get you more excited about finding your ancestors, please let me know!
Family trees are messy. That is a fact.
Isabelle “Belle” Regan Owens
In 1890, my great great grandmother, Susann Thomas Owens, suddenly passed away of complications of pneumonia at only 29 years old, leaving behind her husband and three living children. She had lost her 6-year-old daughter, Mary Pearl, just a few months prior.
My great great grandfather, R.T. Owens, now a widower, must have been devastated. Although he was known for being a kind and loving father, he couldn’t raise his children alone. By October, he had married Isabelle Regan, a Presbyterian schoolteacher from Hamilton, Ohio. Belle was a lovely woman. She demonstrated the qualities needed to bring up good children, and she was supportive of R.T. in every way. She came into the family, leaving her mark for generations. It was through her encouragement that R.T. eventually became involved in business, civics and politics. Her namesake carried on through the generations, and there are many Isabelles in my family tree. It was clear that she was well-loved. She never bore any of her own biological children, and the reason is unknown. However, she was, in all honesty, likely the love of my great great grandfather’s life.
On my mother’s side of the family tree, there are multiple marriages and divorces, along with early deceased spouses and remarriages. I think that sometimes we assume that all of the generations before us had these perfect marriages and nice, neat nuclear families, and to get divorced, widowed, or remarried was practically unheard of. Even more seemingly uncommon are children born out of wedlock.
The thing is, those things are just not true.
If you have taken any genealogical DNA test, you will find that things are very, very messy when it comes to linking your tree with trees of your distant cousins. You will also find that it is not uncommon for some people to not match up with their parents or grandparents. The covered up sins of your ancestors are unveiled with DNA testing. Things might not be as you originally thought, giving proof to the fact that we come from a long line of flawed human beings. Who would have thought? 🙂
Families are not perfect. I have heard many people say that they feel that their true “families” are the people they have chosen to surround themselves with in this life. Sometimes, that is true. Those who are family to us might not always be blood relatives.
A few days ago, I got news that the man who was almost my stepfather suddenly passed away of a massive stroke at only 57 years old. I am devastated and heartbroken. He was a big part of my mother’s life. He was very kind to me. His encouragement and inspiration really changed the course of my life. He and my mom split up, and so I hadn’t talked to him in over a year. Yet, his death has caused me as much grief as the loss of a close relative.
As a family historian, it is easy to get stuck in the mindset of seeing things in terms of family trees, with nice, neat generations and descendants. What those trees are hiding in the shadows of the branches are other parts of the tree; the people on the fringes who might not be main parts, but who are nevertheless connected. It is important to remember those people, too, and not overlook their connection to our loves ones. They are part of our family history, too.
Really, as cliché as it sounds, we are all one big family. In my LDS Ward, we have a group on Relativefinder that shows our relationship to one another. Most of us with family trees are related somehow, even it is 14 generations back. That is because most everyone comes from common ancestors. We truly are all family. I guarantee that if you picked a random person walking down the street, chances are, you share a common ancestor. Think about that! When you see strangers in terms of potential distant cousins, you start to want to treat others with more kindness and respect.
“Family” means so much more than just the people who share your exact genes. The human family extends beyond what we can comprehend. Perhaps we should all start thinking of one another as family instead of looking for reasons to oppose one another. We all have relatives we don’t agree with, or whose personalities don’t quite mesh with ours. We still love them, though. I think that is a good approach to take with our greater human family, too.
It’s a common tale: you were always told you had a Cherokee ancestor. You can’t quite figure out exactly who it is, but you think it is your third great-grandparents. After all, you tan really easily. And your grandma had high cheekbones and dark hair, she totally looked Native American!
But hold on, there. I am about to blow to lid off your illusion about your supposed Cherokee blood. Try not to be too disappointed.
You are probably not Cherokee. It’s hard to imagine that a false story could be passed down so many generations, but unfortunately, it’s all too common.
Let me tell you my story.
I am embarrassed to admit it, but for the first 30 years of my life, I was convinced that I was part-Cherokee. Totally, completely convinced. I knew that a lot of people claimed to be Native and actually weren’t… but that wasn’t me! My mom told me she sat on her grandfather’s lap as a child and stroked his leathery cheeks, and he spoke Indian to her. My grandmother worked in the cotton fields of Texas from a young age, and had to carry her baby brother on her back. She had kinky black hair, and tiny brown eyes. She had a hard life. Her ancestors came over on the Trail of Tears, and she felt so connected to her Native American blood that she moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains in her retirement, where they were originally from, and when she was on her death bed, she listens to tribal drum beats. When she passed away, she had her ashes scattered with the wind on top of a mountainside.
Then last year, I had my mom take the Ancestry DNA test. The results were surprising:
According to a sample of my maternal mitochondrial DNA, my ancestors are from the above regions, and not one of them is in North America. Here is a more thorough breakdown of the estimate:
Ok, so the majority of her DNA is Scandinavian. That was a HUGE surprise. We thought maybe German and French, and that’s all we knew. We were right about that part, but there were so many more surprises:
For example, the fact that my mom has Caucasus, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African DNA! Um, what?! How? When? Where?
It is funny to see how family members react to and attempt to justify, explain, or discredit the DNA results. I heard, “Oh, well if you go far back enough, everyone has ancestors from Africa and the Middle East.”
Yeah, that’s true. Except that I have seen lots of other test results, including my dad’s, and his was 100% European. The only explanation for those trace regions is that I have actual ancestors in my family tree from those places.
In all likelihood, my grandmother’s tan complexion, kinky black hair, and small brown eyes didn’t come from a Cherokee ancestor at all. It probably came from an ancestor from the Iberian Peninsula region, or maybe even India, or Africa! Isn’t that fascinating?
I asked my mother if she was disappointed. She said not at all. I think we were both puzzled and mesmerized. So where the heck did that Cherokee rumor get started?
My guess is somewhere in the 19th century. It was a common story for those who lived in the South at that time. Many Cherokee lived among both whites and blacks in the Carolinas. Many people were struggling to assert their rights. Although the Native tribes were oppressed by the federal government, there was a romanticism with Native American culture that was evident well into the 20th century. Have you ever heard of Iron Eyes Cody, also known as “The Crying Indian”? Yep, not Indian. Sad to say, but everything we thought we knew about Indians- the headdresses, the “Squanto speak”, the dreamcatchers and turquoise jewelry, the cheesy pictures of wolves howling at the moon- a lot of that stuff is just romanticized, white man versions of Native culture. Like our alleged Cherokee blood, it is not what we thought at all. It is a myth.
I don’t know about you, but I have taken this opportunity to educate myself more about Native Americans, their history and their culture. Instead of appropriating it as my own, I have a new respect for Native American culture and a renewed sense of curiosity about my own ancestry, which is intriguing enough to keep me busy for quite a while.
And sure, some of you out there really are Cherokee. That is awesome, and you should celebrate your heritage. You come from a long line of courageous men and women who have no doubt passed on their strength to you.
Taking the DNA test will definitely give you some clarity, though. Just be prepared to potentially tick off your relatives.
I don’t know about you though, but I am interested in the truth, no matter how romantic a lie might sound. And I don’t blame my grandmother at all. She probably didn’t know the truth, either. Her Cherokee heritage might have been a myth, but her love and dedication to her ancestors was most certainly real.
As Sisters in Zion, we’ll all work together,
the blessings of God on our labors we’ll seek.
We’ll build up His kingdom with earnest endeavor,
we’ll comfort the weary and strengthen the weak.
Every few weeks, when I have some (rare) down time, I will get going on a family history kick. When I start digging, with a little patience, I can dig up a wellspring of marvelous experiences.
Just this week, I have had a few. I have been contacted by two distant cousins whom I have never met. We have exchanged some photos and documents that have breathed new life into my relationships with my ancestors… and it seems this experience has been mutual for them. To say that it has been a spiritually-uplifting experience would be an understatement.
A few days ago, I was cleaning the spare bedroom and a picture of my great great great grandmother fell out of a box. On the back, it was labeled, in my Granny’s handwriting, “Great Grandmother Thomas”. I knew instantly that this was Ruth Morgan Thomas, who came over from Wales in 1853. I had seen an older photo of her, but this was a younger one. It was an exciting discovery.
Uploading it to FamilySearch is what led to contact from another one of her descendants, who was able to solve a mystery, and in turn, sent me some photos I had never before seen of some of my ancestors.
Having been thinking about Ruth Thomas, I began to search the Internet for more clues of her life in Malad, Idaho. I came across a photo of Malad’s first Relief Society, which happened to have each individual member labeled, and which happen to have my great great great grandmother in the front row:
Coincidentally, all of this happened the day after International Women’s Day , and I feel so proud to have such stalwart and righteous women in my lineage.
A while ago, I requested a copy of Ruth Morgan Thomas’ patriarchal blessing. There is a line in it that says that her descendants will be “converted with prudence”.
I feel honored to be a living manifestation of this blessing.
I feel a duty to live up to my heritage.
I hope that I can be the kind of woman that serves the Lord and creates a warm and inviting home for my children and many generations to come, just like the women who came before me.
I come from good women. I am so lucky.
Photo Source: Hine, L. W., photographer. (1909) Immigrant children, Washington School.Location: Boston, Massachusetts. October. [Image] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ncl2004000676/PP.
I have been out of the loop for a few days here. I had to take a few days to collect my thoughts and feelings. You know those kind of movies where you are following this character and then at the very end, the plot twist is that the person was delusional and all the things that happened in the movie were in their head? Well that is kind of how I feel about genealogy. It suddenly dawned on me that I was beginning to cross into the category of senility, like an elderly person who won’t stop going on about the olden days. The sad part is that I am only 32. So, you know. I had to accept that reality and then become comfortable with it before I approached it again. I must say, I have gotten a lot done, and I may quit Facebook altogether. It is a huge time waster, have you noticed? 🙂
I thought maybe it would be a good idea to create a mini how-to guide for people who have zero experience with genealogy or who think that there is nothing to learn. I promise you, there are things to learn! I have had so many people approach me and say that they haven’t been able to find anything past their grandparents, especially those with non-European ancestry. Hang in there. Genealogy isn’t just for white people (although you wouldn’t know it, I know). Don’t let a brick wall discourage you. Doing family history is a lifelong project and takes a ton of patience. You might wake up one day and suddenly discover that a record you needed is now indexed and you suddenly know the name of an ancestor who was a mystery. I cannot tell you how many times this has happened to me! Us indexers are hustling as fast as we can to get records like The Freedmen’s Bureau available to search, and I have recently seen some batches of records from Mexico available as well. I am passionate about ALL family history, not just my own, and I want you to find your ancestors, too. Give it time. There is new stuff everyday.
Here is a little beginner’s guide for how to get started on finding your ancestors. (Keep in mind, while I am LDS and we are encouraged to find our ancestors for spiritual reasons, I have found that perhaps another approach is just to look for ancestors for the pure sake of getting to know them. If you gain something spiritual, that is great, but even a non-religious person can have almost a spiritual experience learning about their ancestors because their is so much to gain from just learning about them, who they were, and what their life was like. It adds meaning to your life!)
- Get a genealogy account through Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, or something similar. Or, get all of them! You can usually get limited free access to them, or if you want to get really serious, I am telling you, just sign up for a paid membership. It will change your life and it is worth every penny! If you are a member of the LDS church, you automatically have free unlimited access to all of them as long as you have your record number. To set those up, go here.
- Build your family tree using all the info you have: Names, dates, places lived, etc. Put in what you know, even if you don’t have all the information.
- Look for “hints” (on Ancestry, it will appear as a little leaf in the corner). These are records that match your relative. If it is mostly the same, then attach it! I am quite liberal when it comes to adding records, at least at first. You can always go in and clean things up later, but when you are first trying to build up a family tree, it is really helpful to just get stuff on it. You won’t “ruin” anyone else’s tree by doing this. Everyone manages their own tree and this is purely for your own reference, so don’t be afraid to add records. Pro Tip: Stick to direct ancestors at first, otherwise you will be overwhelmed with information. Once you get sucked down a rabbit hole, its hard to get back. (You will find that humans and rabbits are similar in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to breeding. 😉 )
I hope this is helpful, and if I can help you in any way, I will do my best. Good luck on your new obsession! Because it will become obsessive. Trust me.
The year was 1935. Susan, a petite brunette with a tiny waist and Hollywood good looks, went dancing at San Francisco’s Majestic Ball Room. After all, that was what young people did back then. She had a penchant for dancing after all, having grown up in the Welsh Mormon enclave of Malad, Idaho. The Welsh were fantastic singers and dancers, she always said.
A handsome stranger approached her. “Would you like to dance?” He asked. Susan didn’t need to be asked twice. He went by the name Jim, and she thought he was as handsome and charming as Cary Grant. He was a few years older, and he worked as a journalist and printer making $30 a week… far more than her brothers and father, as it was the height of the Depression. It wasn’t long after that he was picking her up for dates in his Ford with a rumble seat. Of course, her parents insisted that her brother Pat go along as a chaperone.
Susan went away for the Summer to visit her Grandpa and Grandma Owens. She heard that Jim had taken out her friend Norma on a date, and she was heartbroken. When she was in Malad, she got reacquainted with her old high school boyfriend, Sherman Richardson, and they had made plans to get married. However, when she got back to California, Jim showed up to take her to a show. On the way home, he looked over at her and knew he couldn’t let her get away.
“Let’s get married,” he said.
Susan’s heart stopped. She had been in love with him for so long! She said yes. Not long after that, they were married in the San Francisco Courthouse, on April 25, 1936. It was the best day that ever happened in her entire life.
I remember playing at Granny’s house, as she often let me stay over, and she was really my favorite friend to have sleepovers with. I always felt so well loved and cared for. One evening, she sat at her kitchen table, and I noticed she was crying.
“Granny, what’s wrong?” I asked. She grabbed me and hugged me, crying into my shoulder.
“I’m just so sad. I miss Papa. I miss my family and my sister. All of my family is dead, and I don’t have anyone. I wish I would just hurry up and go so I could be with them.” She sobbed.
My little eight-year-old heart broke for her. “Granny, don’t say that! You have us. We love you,” I said, and hugged her back.
She was always so loving, but there was a streak of sadness in her. When all else failed, I knew I could just do Ren and Stimpy’s “Happy Happy Joy Joy” dance, and she would be crying tears of laughter instead of sorrow.
Every night, she kissed a framed photo of Papa and said goodnight, and set it back on top of the gold urn that sat on her dresser. It was a large box with two compartments: one with prayer hands that held his ashes, and the other one with a rose for hers, when her time came. All of the women in her family have roses on their epitaphs. It is Welsh and English tradition.
Granny told me she woke up one morning around the time Papa died, and her mother was standing in her room. “What are you doing here?” She asked. Her mother’s apparition vanished. She didn’t seem the least bit frightened at this admission.
In the Summer of 1998, Granny was dying. I thought perhaps she got lonely lying in our spare bedroom, as she could barely open her eyes or talk. I went in to lie next to her and keep her company for a while.
“Granny, I am going to miss you when you go, but I know that you are going to Heaven. When you get there, I know that Papa will be waiting for you. Maybe he will ask you to dance. And I know your family will be there- your parents, your sister, your brothers. They will be so happy to see you.” I said, as I held her hand. Her nurse exclaimed, telling me to look at her face.
Tears were streaming out of her eyes. Granny gently put her hand on my face. “Pretty,” she faintly said.
Not long after that, she left us on a beautiful and bright July afternoon. It felt peaceful. There is something beautifully serene about the mood surrounding birth and death. Anytime someone is coming or going, the Heavens are open for a brief moment in time.
I imagine that Papa was waiting for her, flowers in hand, ready for a dance. Even when he was bedridden with Alzheimers and could barely remember his own name, he had an urgency to take Susan out on a date. It was all he could talk about.
This is love to me.
I watched the Manhattan skyline slowly appear in view from my train window last Saturday morning, after an hour of staring out the window at houses and neighborhoods. I pretended that I was a lady traveler from a bygone area, when the locomotive and railroad were America’s crowning achievements of infrastructure. Oh, I wish I could have been alive in the early 20th century! As I sat alone in the quiet car, I couldn’t believe that just 24 hours prior, I was in the midst of a mommy nightmare, home alone with two small children and every kind of bodily fluid and mess to clean up before my dear friend Shawna would be arriving for a visit. Now, here I was, traveling by train to New York City in a shady hat and big sunglasses. You’d never know I was actually a mom of two from the suburbs of Philadelphia.
Her cab dropped her off on the corner of 8th Avenue and 36th Street, not far from Penn Station. She had some flight issues and ended up getting rerouted. She ended up flying into La Guardia and meeting up with me.
We were on a time crunch. We suddenly became like real New Yorkers that moment. We ordered and ate a $20 burger on the go (the best I have ever had in my life) and basically ran to the Imperial Theatre on Broadway in order to make it to the 2:00 show for Les Miserables.
New York is fast-paced, and people are kind of pushy and impatient, but I’ll tell you: New York City is nothing if not efficient. If you see a line out the door, just get in queue and wait a bit. You’ll be at the front before you know it. Pay attention, though. Otherwise you will get yelled at.
And let me tell you, Les Miserables was lovely. I can’t remember the last time I cried so much. How actors can sing a certain note or hit a decibel level that forces tears out of your eyes, I’ll never understand it. The level of talent is unbelievable. Of course, Shawna, who studied French Lit, pointed out that there were some differences in the musical that were not in the book. As a former high school slacker, I failed to read it. The themes were conveyed to me, though. Jean Valjean and Javert. Mercy and Justice. It was really, really wonderful. I can’t say that enough.
We ended the day by walking around Central Park and Midtown, seeing all the sites, and having real heart-to-heart conversations that only confirmed that Shawna is a true bosom friend; a kindred spirit. The Diana to my Anne. Or, the Anne to my Diana, if you go off of hair color. Although, I am definitely the crazy one, and might possibly smash a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head, given the chance.
It is just funny how life turns out. A few years ago, I lived in Utah, and we were pretty poor. I used to dream of what it would be like to just go and visit New York City. I wondered if it would ever be possible.
“Someday, we will go,” my friend Shawna would tell me. On New Year’s Eve that year, she and her husband and daughter came over for a cheese plate and fake champagne. We watched the ball drop at Times Square on a live video and ended the night at midnight Eastern time, which, for us, was 10 o’clock Mountain time. We knew our toddlers wouldn’t make it to midnight. Besides, New York City was where we really wanted to be.
It is funny how life works out. It really makes me believe that there is a God, and that his timing is perfect. He can even answer prayers for you and give you something far better than you ever could have imagined. The only catch is that you will have to accept that there will be ups and downs. You can’t always be up. And you won’t always be down, either.
By sheer happenstance, we moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia. Now, I go to Philadelphia and New York City on a semi-regular basis. These fancy East Coast places, once myths, are now within reach. I don’t even need to live in the actual city. I am fine with being a tourist. Living where I live allows me to have my cake and eat it, too.
I came here with ambivalence, knowing full well my desire for adventure and my tendency to become homesick. Yet, I have never been homesick once since I have lived here.
I think that means I’m home.
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30)