It starts with a name, those Ancestry.com commercials promise. That, and a paid subscription to the site. Not to mention the patience to sit hunched at a screen, following cybertrail after cybertrail ever deeper into a rabbit hole of genealogy information that’s difficult to know for sure is truly your own.
Here’s how I got around those obstacles and found out more in two hours about my great grandmothers than I had in my whole life.
GetOut Video: Exploring Mesa's FamilySearch Library
3:00 Thursday afternoon
I arrive at the Mesa FamilySearch Library, a brick building squeezed between the Dairy Queen and the Mormon Temple downtown, armed with my Great Grandma Ida’s name.
I’m seated at a computer in the library, ready to roll. A nice man in the lobby checked me in, and a pleasant woman at the reception desk ushered me to a computer and called over someone to help me, since I’m a genealogy novice.
A volunteer, Marsha Ortiz, pulls up a chair and shows me the ropes, introducing me to top genealogy research sites like FamilySearch.org and giving me an overview of how they work.
Ortiz, whose badge refers to her as “Sister Ortiz,” is a Mormon missionary. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints runs the library. But I only know this because I’ve asked; no one has tried to evangelize me or get me to sign up for anything.
Ortiz and I make our way onto Ancestry.com, which is free for anyone to use at the library. For the first time, I’m able to get beyond Ancestry’s “Register to see more” pop-up.
I type in Great Grandma Ida’s name and anything else I know about her: where she died, the names of her spouse and children, an estimated birth year of 1885.
Boom: results. And a photo of Ida circa the early 1900s. She looks about 20, and she’s wearing an elegant wide-brimmed hat and crisp high-necked blouse. I’ve never seen a photo of her so young. Some distant relative has apparently been doing research already and posted this image for Ida’s kin to find.
There are enough links concerning Ida that I tell Ortiz I’m good; I think I’ve got the hang of it.
Before she goes, I have to ask: “Why do you guys do this? I mean, why does the LDS Church provide all of this free of charge? To anyone?”
She explains that Mormons have a solemn and important ordinance of “sealing” themselves to their family members for eternity, so the church has a huge interest in genealogy — and has made a giant investment of time, money and effort in it; the church’s genealogy “vault” in Salt Lake City numbers 35 billion records, according to Deseret News, and they’re all being painstakingly digitized.
Ortiz tells me she’s happy to help non-Mormons search for their ancestors, too. Every name, date, fact and story uncovered can help someone else pick up a trail that’s gone cold.
Another volunteer, Darlene Nielson, comes over to see if I need help, and I do. When I open some links, I’m not sure what I’m looking at. They seem like dead ends.
“That’s a directory, like a telephone book,” she tells me, stopping me from closing a window that looks useless to my untrained eyes.
In moments, Nielson zeroes in on Ida’s name, and we make multiple discoveries: She’s living in a building that doubles as a dry goods store. She’s a cashier. And now we have her address.
By this time, I’ve entered the address of the dry goods store into Google and seen a street view of it today. Nielson and I squint our eyes at 100-year-old cursive scrawled on original documents like draft registration cards and Census records. We’re trying to find out who Ida’s parents were, but records that seem at first to match up fail to list Ida, who should have been born by then.
“It must not be her family,” I say, but Nielson informs me of something: “The 1890 census burned. Almost all of it, burned up. That’s one reason she may seem to disappear.”
I feel like those celebrities on the TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?” — with my own genealogy helper.
We’ve discovered Ida’s father, Charles, was born in 1832 in Paris, and I’m staring at a full-color image of his weathered headstone in a cemetery in Missouri. Kind of weird, that some stranger has taken a photo of it and posted it online, but I’m grateful.
Nielson is perched on the edge of her seat, leaning forward like I am.
“It’s addictive,” she says. “I had a woman come in who said she had been sent to research her family history, and she wasn’t too pleased with it. But she started looking, and she couldn’t stop. She said, ‘I’m a detective. It’s just like being a detective.’ And it is.”
We find a lead on Ida’s mother, my second great grandmother. Turns out her name was Margaret, and her parents emigrated from France to Sainte Marie, Ill. I Google it. It was a village established by Catholics fleeing the religious turmoil brought on by the French Revolution. Not only is Ste. Marie still there, but there are books on it, and Margaret’s father and uncles are mentioned in at least one of them.
Someone has attached a PDF file to Margaret’s name at Ancestry.com. We open it, and suddenly I have something personal from my great, great grandmother’s life: her 1941 funeral program and guest book, with handwritten details, family signatures, an obit clipped from the local newspaper, and two photos of her. Until now, I’d never seen her. I hadn’t even known her name.
Satisfied with my unexpected haul, I pack up. I haven’t even ventured into the shelves of books and documents the library has on hand — maybe next time. I take a schedule of upcoming classes, where genealogy experts give even more training and information for free, and stop at the counter to pay for my print-outs.
For a whopping 60 cents, I now have faces, names, addresses, occupations — and something tangible, the funeral program, from the day Ida’s mother died. I think I’ll stick it in the mail and surprise my mom.
If you go
What: Mesa FamilySearch Library
When: Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: 41 S. Hobson
Cost: Free, but it costs 10 cents per page to print or make copies
Information: (480) 964-1200 or MesaFSL.org
Free genealogy expo
What: The “Genealogy Changes CHARTS, Family History Changes HEARTS” Family History Conference features 45 classes scheduled in five class periods with a midday lunch break.
When: Doors open 7:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 26; the conference begins at 8:15 a.m.
Where: Tempe Institute Building, 1000 S. McAllister Ave.
Cost: Free, but you must register online your classes of choice and, if desired, purchase a boxed lunch. Parking is free.
Information: (480) 964-1200 or MesaFSL.org Search of a lifetime
Contact writer: (480) 898-6818 or firstname.lastname@example.org