What I Learned at the Family Tree Center

This past weekend my husband and I went to Utah where there are bunch of Mormons. Those guys are super into genealogy because a lot of people died — like, the majority of people made on Earth so far — before Mormonism happened, so they go back and retroactively save their kin who missed out on the good word. But, of course, they must know who those people were in order to ask for their salvation, so they do genealogy. (Click that link up above for a better explanation.) I’m not quite sure why they want to help everyone else trace their family histories for free at these little touristy-looking places called Family Tree Centers, but it seems to have something to do with mission work and saving even more souls. And it was kind of the most fun I’ve had in a long time?

When you first walk in, there’s this family tree — no, the first first thing you notice when you enter the one in Park City, which is the only one I’ve been to so it’s possible this is in all of them, is a giant fake tree “growing” up through the floor in the middle of the room. After that you notice a huge family tree chart hanging on the wall of the lobby which shows how Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, FDR, The Bushes, Gerald Ford, and… wait for it… Joseph Smith and his wife, Emma Hale, all had a common ancestor in Henry Howland. The lone male who was working there, an older gentleman, came up to me while I was looking at it and said, “Henry had nine children. Isn’t it amazing that all of these great people descended from one man?” I thought about it and pointed out that it wasn’t that surprising — nine kids really ups your chances! Plus, some of them were among the first white people to come over here. “See,” I said, “one of his kids was even on the Mayflower,” to which he nodded, turned, and walked away. Then I felt like a jerk. But it was interesting to look at because people in that family tree had some fun first names, like Zoeth and Jabez.

Then we met this pretty Australian Mormon lady, Sister Haisila. My husband asked if that was her first name because it was cool it and it turns out she was adopted by her Tongan stepfather, and when you’re a Mormon missionary you go by “Sister” followed by your dad’s last name. This forthrightness of hers was quite appealing. Then she asked if we’d like to discover some of our ancestors. When they do your family tree here, they use old-looking, buggy PCs (but I’m a Mac, so they all look old and buggy to me! *zing*) to search a million census records, death indexes, ship manifests, and even elementary school yearbooks — which creeped me out — on sites like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, plus a bunch of other ones. I didn’t think to ask which of those sites the Mormons owned, but I did ask, “So, the gist is that you’ll help us search using your subscriptions to these sites for free?” and she said “Yep!” Meaning you could get this same info at home, but in my case, it turns out I’d have had a pretty hard time figuring out which search terms are helpful and which of the million results to click on and threads to follow. Also, it’d cost kind of a lot of money. (It might be worth it, though, because then you could save high resolution images of the ship manifests and have them printed and framed. They are very cool-looking, torn edges and all. She gave us printouts, but they are almost unreadable.)

So, when Sister Haisila asked if we were interested in trying it, my husband was like “Sure!” because he’s got some skeletons in the form of anonymous dead people in his family tree closet. I, on the other hand, felt somewhat disinterested because I have a pretty full tree in my head already since no one in my family has ever stopped talking about each other since the beginning of time. Also, I personally knew my great-great Grandma Nellie who lived to be 102 and died when I was 11. Seriously, you guys, I’ve had (boring) conversations with a person born in 1887. But I went for it anyway based on what I know about Nellie and here are some new fun facts we found:

— Nellie named her two kids AFTER HER OWN PARENTS, WTF? (Clarence and Agnes.) Who DOES that? I’ll tell you who…

— Everyone, back in the day. Nellie’s husband, William, was named after his mother, Wilhelmina. (How embarrassing.) Wilhelmina and her husband, August, named William’s brother August. Then they had another kid named Lizzy after who-knows-who, but probably definitely another close relative.

— For a second I thought August had a first wife named Minnie who died, because her name showed up on one search, but then we figured out “Minnie” is a nickname for Wilhelmina.

— The 1910 Census taker in Venice Township, Michigan was illiterate. Not one name in my family, first or last, was spelled correctly that year. This is a bummer because it creates a bunch of new records and makes it really hard to keep tracing your history.

— My family has pretty much DOMINATED a good stretch of this one rural road since the late 1800s. In your faces, other families on that road!

— Details of U.S. Census records are released every 72 years — to protect the dark secrets of the living, I suppose — so last year the 1940 census came out and it didn’t really reveal anything exciting about my family, but I thought that factoid was fun. They should probably change it to every 82 years, though, seeing as how everyone is living longer these days.

— Most passengers arriving in Baltimore from Prussia on the May 1873 voyage of the Gutenberg were named Wilhelm, Wilhelmina, Bertha, August, or Carl.

Luckily, we were the only people in The Family Tree Center that day, so they let us futz around for quite some time. When we were done they asked if we would like to watch an 11-minute video presentation in the basement. We politely declined and they were very relaxed about letting us leave with all of our free printouts in a nice-looking folder.

Photo: That’s William in the suspenders. Nellie is seated to his left holding either Clarence or Agnes.