'Genies' head to Salt Lake City to grow family tree

Mormon Elder Fred Graham explains how LDS members use the Family History Library to research dead relatives and then baptize them at Temple.

At the library in Salt Lake City, Pamela Erickson (left) and Janet Mills discovered that their distant relative was accused of being a witch.

Family tree research used to belong largely to the realm of free, daytime hobbies -- something one of your distant, elder relatives did, like scrapbooking. Now it's become a business.  

Ancestry.com, the web's top genealogical site, has over two million paying subscribers. Offline, the increased research has spurred family roots tourism. Every year, hundreds of thousands of genealogical tourists travel to their ancestral homelands in countries like Ireland, Scotland, Italy, and other places with recent mass emigrations.  

But for those truly serious about family research, nothing beats Utah.  

Tourists come to Salt Lake City to ski, or hike, or maybe listen to the tabernacle choir. Janet Mills came to do research. She's downtown at the Family History Library. It has arguably the largest collection of genealogical records in the world. In those documents, Mills just uncovered something big -- a scandal.  

“One of our direct ancestor's sister-in-law was accused of being a witch of the worst kind,” Mills says. “She had a magic wand and if she waved the wand she could take everybody's geese and make them her own.”  

Mills is one of about 700,000 thousand people who visit the library every year. She came from Boise, Idaho, to do family research with her new-found relative, Pamela Erickson. The pair met on Ancestry.com and plan to spend two weeks at the library. Erickson actually teaches genealogy classes in San Jose, and she brings groups of students here during the year to do research. The discovery Mills just made is the kind of gem genealogists like Erickson dream of finding. When Mills found it on the microfilm-reader in the library’s basement, she came running to find Erickson.  

Mills and Erickson are staying a few blocks away at the Plaza Hotel. About 40 percent of its business comes from family tree researchers, or "genies." Ron Kerry, the guest services director at the hotel, says “genies” is the “special name” for genealogy researchers around here.

“They're the most beautiful, wonderful people,” he says, “a lot of them are elderly. They come back repetitively.”  

Okay, but why Salt Lake City?  

Well, because of the *Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Fred Graham, a Mormon Elder who works at the library, explains the connection of the church to family research.

“One of the tenants of our faith is the importance of the family and the interest in identifying our ancestors -- coming to know them and through religious ordinances being sealed to them," Graham says.

Mormons believe they need to bless their ancestors so that the whole family can be sealed together in heaven. It's kind of like an eternal family reunion. The more relatives you find and bless, the bigger the attendance. The practice is not without controversy -- some Jewish organizations, for instance, criticize the LDS for baptizing Jews and Nazis from the Holocaust.  

The LDS established the library in 1894 and has collected records ever since. On weekends, many LDS members come to the library to do research on their family trees. Shannon Fowler is here with her daughter and her mother. 

“Our ultimate objective,” Fowler says, “is that we do work in the temple for the dead.”  

Fowler is looking for the parents of a distant ancestor.

“We want to get families sealed together forever,” Fowler says. “So in order to seal her to her parents, we have to find her parents.”  

Once Fowler finds them, she and her husband will take the records to the temple, dress up all in white, and get baptized in proxy for the deceased. Men undergo the ceremony for male ancestors and women for females.  

The library is run almost entirely by Mormon volunteers on missions for the church. Fowler's mother, who's nearly eighty, does indexing -- a fancy term for data entry. She transcribes and loads online documents like birth records and death certificates. Other volunteers help patrons search through the records and use the library's family tree software.  

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has nearly seven billion records. The originals are stashed in a vault deep inside a nearby mountain. Volunteers are steadily loading them online at familysearch.org.  

“This collection is accessible to anyone with genealogical interest,” Elder Graham says, “so it benefits not only the members of our faith, but really anyone who does research.”  

The public collection of records is a convenient byproduct for “genies,” and it produces a nice, steady source of tourism for Salt Lake City.


*CORRECTION:  The original version of this online story did not include the full name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The text has been corrected.

About the author

Sam Harnett is a reporter and contributor to Marketplace.

At the library in Salt Lake City, Pamela Erickson (left) and Janet Mills discovered that their distant relative was accused of being a witch.

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