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View from the family tree

View from the family tree

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One of the most cherished memories of many a child is the experience of climbing a back yard tree and enjoying a view of their world from a higher perch.

While climbing a tree on a hot summer day for most people harkens back to a time long ago, many of those same kids who have grown into adulthood have now begun a whole new adventure — investigating their genealogical "family tree."

Why? As a means of discovering their family history and through the process hopefully develop a better understanding of themselves.

Nobody in the Parkland is more aware of the interest many local residents have in finding out about their past than Kathy Jones, one of the volunteers at the Family History Center, located at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) at 709 S. Henry St.

The Family History Center is a free service open to the public for anyone interested in learning more about their ancestors and building their family tree. Jones is happy to offer assistance to anyone who is conducting a family search.

She explained how her interest in genealogy began.

"I grew up in St. Louis and in 1982, my mother and I were given a Bible that went back to the 1600s," Jones said. "It was from my mom's cousin and we couldn't figure out how it fit in with our family history. So, we started doing a Family Search — family genealogy — and found out it did belong to our family.

"We had an ancestor who had a child out of wedlock. A man married her and left her the Bible in his will in the hopes she would read it. So, it went back to North Carolina — she was from Asheville — and it is now in their university library."

Asked how she ended up living in southeast Missouri, Jones said, "My parents retired in Bonne Terre and I met my husband Don here at church. We married six months after our first date."

Looking around the small room that houses the history center, one's attention is immediately grabbed by the shelves of binders on one wall and five desktop computers on the other.

"This is where we do our research and we help people who come in to do their research," Jones said. "What we do first is give them a 'Where Do I Start?' form. We have them start by identifying themselves and then their mother and dad, grandparents — if you have them. Any names and any dates.

"Then we set them up with a free family search account, which is the church's website. Once you get back to grandparents or possibly great-grandparents, it will hook in anybody who has done any research on those lines. We've had people come in who get so excited. I volunteer over at the Park Hills Library on the first Monday of the month and I set someone up with a free account.

"She was putting in the information about her parents and then she was putting in her grandparents. Then she printed something off and came back, saying, 'Oh, look! There's this person and that person!' She went back seven generations and she was so excited!"

Many may wonder why the mission of the Mormon church appears to be so intertwined with genealogical research.

According to the Mormon Church website, one of their core tenets of faith is that the dead can be baptized into the faith after their passing.

"Baptism of the dead evolved from the beliefs that baptism is necessary for salvation and that the family unit can continue to exist together beyond mortal life if all members are baptized. Mormons trace their family trees to find the names of ancestors who died without learning about the restored Mormon Gospel so that these relatives from past generations can be baptized by proxy in the temple. For Latter-day Saints, genealogy is a way to save more souls and strengthen the eternal family unit.

"Original records — about 2.4 million rolls of microfilm containing two billion names that have been traced — are locked away behind 14-ton doors in the Granite Mountain Records Vault, a climate-controlled repository designed to survive a nuclear impact that is built into the Wasatch mountain range, about 20 miles southeast of Salt Lake City."

The website states that the practice has not been without controversy, however.

"In the mid-1990s, there was a backlash when it was uncovered that the names of about 380,000 Jewish Holocaust victims had been submitted for posthumous baptism by what church historian Marlin Jensen calls 'well-intentioned, sometimes slightly overzealous members.' In 1995, the church agreed to remove the names of all Holocaust victims and survivors from its archives and to stop baptizing Jews unless they were direct ancestors of a Mormon or unless they had the permission of all the person's living relatives. However, Jewish names have periodically been discovered since the 1995 agreement, including that of Holocaust survivor and Jewish human rights activist Simon Wiesenthal, which was found and removed in 2006. Catholics and members of other faiths have also been upset at the practice."

Despite the controversies, the Mormon archives have proven to be a boon to professional and amateur genealogists. Copies of the original microfilms are freely available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, which is the main repository, and they can be ordered at smaller regional Family History Centers, such as the one at the church in Farmington. The records include vital records (birth, death and marriage certificates), wills and probate records, land records, town or county records, church records and more. The church created an index for every person counted in the 1880 U.S. census, the 1881 Canadian census and the 1881 British census. These records are freely available online, and images can be accessed at the Family History Library or a Family History Center.

Other records online through FamilySearch.org include the Social Security Death Index, which has the names of deceased individuals who had a Social Security card and whose death was reported to the Social Security Administration after 1962 (when the database began); and the Vital Records Index, which has birth, death, christening and marriage records for select localities in Mexico and Scandinavia.

In 2001, the LDS Church collaborated with the Ellis Island Foundation to build the American Family Immigration History Center and the Ellis Island Web site, which has the names of 22 million passengers and crew members who arrived in New York through Ellis Island between 1882 and 1924. And in 2002, the LDS Church began an ambitious plan to scan and put online all of the billions of records in the Granite Mountain Vault, with volunteers creating indices to the records. Because of technological advances, a project once estimated to take 120 years may be finished in the next 10 years.

Jones explained that the local center offers access to more than just the Mormon Church sites.

"We have access to Ancestry.com and to Find-A-Grave," she said. "The Fine-A-Grave has the obituaries and we have obituaries in these binders from the Farmington area. They have so much information in them in terms of parents and brothers and sisters. Sometimes, if you can't get it through your 'direct,' you can go through an aunt or uncle and get back further."

And why has there been an increased interest in family research in recent years?

"Just because it's so very interesting," Jones said. "When you look back at your family, it's just really interesting. The one thing about genealogy you have to remember is that you have to accept the bad with the good. I have an ancestor who murdered his wife. He was the last person lynched in St. Francois County — here in Farmington. You just have to accept that. It's just part of family history."

While the center is now on hiatus with the church temporarily closing due to concerns over the coronavirus, once the church reopens, the public is invited and encouraged to make use of the center, no matter their church affiliation. When someone first visits the center, they should bring the names and dates of anyone they can think of in their ancestral line such as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles etc. The computers are available to assist people in accessing records such as the census, birth, marriage and death records, social security death index, grave sites, international records, military records, immigration and emigration records, newspapers and periodicals, directories, court, land wills and financial records, as well as other documents.

Jones is known for adept ability at assisting people with tools such as Family Search and Ancestry, and said she loves offering her skills to anyone interested in learning more about their family background. The use of the Ancestry program is free of charge when used at the Family History Center. For more information, call the church at 756-6521

Kevin R. Jenkins is the managing editor of the Farmington Press and can be reached at 573-756-8927 or kjenkins@farmingtonpressonline.com

"The one thing about genealogy you have to remember is that you have to accept the bad with the good." — Kathy Jones

Kathy Jones on checking into one's family past
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