RootsTech 2017: Genetic Genealogy, African American Ancestors, and Changes in LDS Consultant Callings

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!

Hidden Parts of the Family Tree

Family trees are messy. That is a fact.

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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.


I Went On an Epic Month-Long Family History Vacation. Here’s What I Did.

It was a typical humid Pennsylvania Summer mid-morning, and I had dragged my pregnant, exhausted body from my bed to the living room couch to feed my kids breakfast and turn on cartoons. As I sipped my caffeinated Crystal Light and scrolled aimlessly though Instagram, I showed my daughter a picture of one of her friends doing something cool that she had mentioned wanting to do. Right as I turned the image toward her, I realized the cruelty in what I was doing, but it was too late. She studied the photo, then looked at me, sadly. “I wish I could go on vacation,” she said. “I miss California.”

Suddenly, it hit me. What was I doing, sitting around here?? Sure, my husband can’t really take vacations during the busy Summer season, and I am pregnant, and taking a vacation without him would be a lot of work. But, what about my girls? My older one would be starting Kindergarten in the Fall, and this Summer is the last one of pure freedom before years of abiding by school calendars. This was my last Summer of true freedom. I needed to do something about it.

I informed my husband of my plans, and he was highly skeptical. He is a planner, and I, in case you haven’t noticed, am rather spontaneous. I began packing immediately, and despite a few last minute setbacks, we hit the road.

Our first stop was Columbus, Ohio. We used to live there a few years back, so it was great to stop and visit an old friend and see familiar places. There was a little problem: our air conditioning in the car had decided to go out, and the entire country was in the middle of an unbearable heat wave. Of all times it stopped working… really? We had to stop and get it looked at. The repair shop said it was the compressor. I was a little ambivalent about getting it fixed right then and there and decided to wait it out until I could get to a place where we could stay with family in case the repair took longer than expected. We then headed to Chicago to stay with one of my sister-in-laws, and we endured a very sweaty and miserable day of driving, ending with an apocalyptic thunder-and-lightning rainstorm that made driving very scary!

That morning, after much tossing and turning, I decided to just fork out the money to get the air fixed and then continue our journey as planned. I was able to get the car in first thing in the morning, and we were on the road by noon. Our next stop was Nauvoo, Illinois. We stopped and joined a tour, and got to see some of the awesome things there, including the sun stone from the original Temple. I wanted to cross the Mississippi River and drive through Keokuk, Iowa where my Welsh ancestors first arrived on a steamboat from a ship that had landed in New Orleans, departing from Liverpool, England in 1853, taking them as Welsh Mormon Converts to America.


Brigham Young home


Lucy Mack Smith home. My ancestor, William Howell Thomas, a Welsh convert from Wales, stopped here along his journey where Lucy Smith encouraged him to go West with the Saints.


Restored Nauvoo Temple

I wanted to make a stop at Mt. Pisgah, one of the encampments of the early Saints during the trek West along the Mormon Trail. I had been there once before by accident when my husband and I were first married, and it was an amazing experience. It was a bit hard to get to, and we made it just in time for the sun to go down. When I got out of the car, a red pickup drove up and a man in overalls and a cowboy hat got out of the car. At first, I was a little nervous. “Howdy,” he said. “Are you here to see Mt. Pisgah?” He asked. I said I was. He asked if I would like to know about it. I said sure. He told me a brief bit about the years it was in use, and about Brigham Young and the Saints who stopped there. He said he lived on the property just up the street. As the mosquitos started to get to us, he said he would let us get back to our trip and he went on his way.

The next stop was Council Bluffs, Iowa, where we stayed in the hotel and visited the Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters. I have always wanted to stop here because I have an ancestor, Henry Taylor McGee, who was listed among those who were early converts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and who stayed here.

A sister missionary gave us a tour of the museum and showed us tons of awesome artifacts, including the actual stuffed (dead) oxen who appeared in the film 17 Miracles. I really enjoyed walking through the Winter Quarters pioneer cemetery, where many early Saints were buried after much hardship.

There was a Family History Center there, and one of the researchers found some great information on the Saints from Mississippi, which included Henry Taylor McGee. We were both practically in tears as she read an excerpt of the history to me. She gave me a hug, and I thanked her. Oh, those warm fuzzies from Family History! That’s why we do this. 🙂

After that, I drove to the exact block where he would have stayed, near the Missouri River. He was in the Seventh Ward, and his Bishop was James Flake, a well-known Mississippi Saint, owner of a slave named Green Flake whom he helped escape the South, and likely someone known well to him, as the Winter Quarters Wards were much smaller than the ones we have now.

We headed out and drove through Nebraska, and I would liked to have stopped along the Mormon Trail sites, but none of them were along the main route. Perhaps another vacation, when I had my husband with me and wasn’t pregnant. But we did make an unplanned stop at this funky-looking arch building that hung over the highway, and it turned out to be an unbelievably cool interactive pioneer museum. My girls loved it! It was called The Great Platte River Archway in Kearney, Nebraska. Very cool road trip stop. I highly recommend stopping here if you pass through!


That night, we had planned on staying in Cheyenne, Wyoming, but me and my spontaneity had failed to really look into anything beforehand, and so I didn’t realize that the Rodeo Days were going on and every hotel in Cheyenne and Laramie were totally booked. We had no choice but to keep forging ahead to Rawlins, Wyoming, where we stayed the night. The next day was a pretty short driving day, and we arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24… Pioneer Day, and exactly 169 years to the day that Brigham Young had stopped in the Valley and said, “This is the place”. We even drove up Emigration Canyon and drove back down to This Is the Place Heritage Park, just for the authenticity of the experience. My heart was full, and I was exhausted. Probably similar to how they felt!


This Is The Place Heritage Park, Salt Lake City, Utah


Unmarked graves of my ancestors, Henry Taylor McGee and Mary Ann Tame. Salt Lake City, Utah.
Z.C.M.I., Salt Lake City, now vs. 1900, around the time Henry McGee Jr., my great grandfather, worked here.

I visited with family and friends in Utah the next day, which added to the wonderfulness of the trip. I got to enjoy food that I haven’t had since moving away from the West. I also took a drive up to Malad, Idaho, which is my ancestral town where all of my Welsh ancestors settled upon arrival to America. I was able to tour the little museum they had that was filled with lots of awesome old things from Malad. On the way out, my daughter grabbed a free little publication about the recent Malad Valley Welsh Festival, which is their annual ode to their Welsh heritage along the lines of an eistenfodd, and it had all kinds of little articles and blurbs about some of the early settlers, most of which are in my family tree.

R.T. Owens Building, Malad, Idaho. Then and Now.

Around the corner was the old R.T. Owens building, home to Thomas Electric. R.T. Owens was my great great grandfather, a prominent son of a Welsh pioneer and well-known businessman, teacher, and Idaho State Senator. I went in, and sitting at the front desk was a distant cousin of mine! Within minutes, we both had our Familysearch phone apps out and were comparing family trees, he also being descended from both Owens and Thomases. It was really great to connect, and I have a ton of family history stuff to send him once I get it all uploaded and organized.

Later that day, on the way home, I stopped for dinner with a 2nd Cousin once removed from my mother’s side, whom I was matched to through Ancestry DNA. He was adopted into a LDS family, and coincidentally, we had gotten into contact and become friends over the past year! It was great to finally meet them in person, and there was such a warm familiarity there that I knew we were family. I am so glad to be reunited with family I never knew I had!

Our final arrival in California to stay at my dad’s house was, of course, wonderful and filled with fun memories. My husband surprised us at the last minute and booked a flight out to join us on vacation for the weekend, and we had so much fun visiting with family. My girls got to visit with their cousins, jump on the trampoline, play with dolls, have a living room dance party, and inherit a giant bag of clothes passed down from girl cousins just in time for back to school. (That will cut down on back to school shopping for sure!)They all surprised me with a birthday cake, since my birthday was in just a few days, and they sang to me before I blew out candles. Although, I am pretty sure all of my wishes have already come true! They also pulled out a giant box of their old family photos for me to take and organize. Jackpot!


We hiked the Mormon Rocks Trail at the Cajon Pass, not far from the town where I grew up. It was named after Amasa Mason Lyman and Charles C. Rich, who passed through from Salt Lake City to the Los Angeles Basin. Interestingly, when I was in community college I had a history professor named Dr. Lyman, who was descended from Amasa Lyman and who had taught us about the history of the area. That was before I was a member of the Church, and well before I discovered my own pioneer heritage. It was such a beautiful desert hike and the views were breathtaking! It was even fairly easy for a pregnant lady and two little kids to do (with the help of a husband, of course).

Before I headed back, my dad pulled out some old boxes. Oh, he has been holding out! He basically had the Holy of Holies of our family history sitting around in old drawers at his house, and hasn’t had the time to go through everything. So, naturally, I did! I literally spend days scanning, uploading, reading and looking at old photos and letters that tell the extensive histories of my family members and ancestors. These are details that I have been pining for as long as I can remember. I can even say how emotional it was for me to learn all the things I learned. It was incredible. I have years’ worth of material to go through, organize, and make into a beautiful, very full family history. It made me love my family so much! I have never been so grateful to the wonderful men and women who brought me into existence. I can’t wait to meet them all someday. We have a lot to talk about.

The icing on the cake of the trip was driving back and spending my birthday in Salt Lake City with dear friends who spoiled me and even helped watch my girls for a little while so I could go do some research at the Family History Library. Since I brought my Temple recommend, I was able to access the Special Collections, which is kind of like the secret vault for members of the Church to look at because it has Church ordinance information that is only accessible if you have a recommend. It had a microfilm with a record of my ancestor Henry Taylor McGee’s birthplace and parents’ names, which had not been documented and which I have been searching for since forever. I immediately indexed the location and will add it to my family tree as soon as possible. Now I know where to look for his parents! Since he himself was the person who recorded his birthplace and parents’ names, I know it is accurate.

A long few more days on the road finally brought us home to Pennsylvania, and my head is still spinning over the fact that not two weeks ago, my car was at California beaches and mountains, and now it is here, back on the East Coast. I can’t believe I did this, by myself, with little kids, pregnant! Right now, I feel like I can do anything. Do you know how many times I had to buckle and unbuckle whiny kids in car seats, and hold little hands in gas station parking lots? Or how many soggy snacks I have vacuumed out of my SUV? Or how many times I have almost swerved off the road while trying to quell tantrums? Or how many heavy bags I have had to lug in and out of the car while carrying sleeping children in and out of hotels in the middle of nowhere? Let me tell you, this trip was not for the faint of heart. I might not have done it in a covered wagon, but I think I have at least gotten a glimpse of the endurance that my ancestors had. And I think at least a little bit of it has been passed down to me.






The Indian Myth: Why You Probably Don’t Have Cherokee Blood (Even Though You Think You Do)


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.