A Brit abroad at US RootsTech
Genealogist Michael Sharpe relates his first experience as a British family history researcher at the US RootsTech in Utah...
In January a company I work with in the United States invited me to attend RootsTech, the annual genealogy jamboree held in Salt Lake City, Utah each February. Would I like to come out to do some coaching on British research they asked? I’d never been to RootsTech and never been to Utah – just you try and stop me!
With over 300 classes and more than 200 exhibitors, US RootsTech is the world’s largest genealogy show. Here are a few of my impressions and experiences from my week in Utah.
Arrive Salt Lake City (SLC) mid-afternoon and make our (yes, my wife had hitched a ride as well) way to our accommodation downtown. The apartment is well appointed and only two blocks from the conference centre; once again, AirBnB has come up trumps (can you still use that word about the US?). We go in search of provisions but a grocery store is surprisingly hard to find. The state liquor stores – the only place to buy wine – are closed, though, this being America, we could have bought a semi-automatic rifle.
Up early, as we’re still on UK time, and set out for our orientation bus tour of the city. Our guide, Paul, is excellent and regales us with interesting statistics about Utah, many of which reflect the state’s Mormon influences. It has the lowest alcohol consumption in the US; the highest marriage rate; youngest average age for marriage (19); and highest birth rate. The tour takes in all the main sites, including the State Capitol (legislature) and the lunchtime concert at the Mormon Tabernacle. We return to Temple Square in the afternoon to explore the Mormon heritage in more detail.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), to give the Mormon Church its proper name, has made a huge contribution to family history. The LDS encourages the study of genealogy as part of its theological beliefs and funds related activities and projects worldwide.
Adjacent to the Church’s religious buildings in the centre of SLC is the Library of the Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU), the world’s largest family history library. Spread across five floors is a mind-boggling collection of books, directories, microfilms, maps and other resources from every part of the world. At ground level (on the middle of the five floors) is an exploration zone full of high tech exhibits.
I connect my iPad-type navigation device to one of the large screens and it tells me there are 79,000 Sharpes in the US and brings up a map showing the density in each state. Also on this floor are banks of computers where people are accessing FamilySearch and other databases.
We head down to Level -1, labelled British Isles, Australia and New Zealand. One of the first things we see is the full series of Ordnance Survey maps arranged in huge folders on a desk. I open one of the folders at random to find that the first map is OS No 139 for the West Midlands, showing our house! I soon come across a full set of Family Tree magazine on the shelves, as well as copies of my own books. Could easily stay here all day.
In the afternoon we take a trip out to the Great Salt Lake. It’s the remains of a huge inland sea and has become extremely salty as minerals washed down from the mountains became concentrated.
First day of RootsTech. At the Opening Ceremony, Steven Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch, speaks about the importance of family. African-Americans face particular problems when tracing their ancestry, owing to the fact that as slaves many of their ancestors were not recorded in US censuses before 1870. FamilySearch and the LDS more generally have been investing heavily in this field. The LDS has supported the setting up of an International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, South Carolina. At RootsTech a further contribution of US$2 million is announced for the setting up of a Center for African-American Family History at IAAM.
There are a huge number of talks to choose from: up to 20 parallel sessions in each of four slots throughout the day, plus separate tutorials (‘Power Hours’) and hands-on workshops (‘Labs’). I download the RootsTech app, a nifty bit of software that acts as your personal guide to the show. Not only does it list the sessions and speakers, it shows the location of the room with live directions on how to get there. There are similar facilities to locate booths within the exhibition hall. With limited time to attend talks, I visit the RootsTech shop and buy all 300+ presentations on memory stick for $15 – a bargain!
I’m working with a company called Trace.com, which is running a series of consultation sessions called Coaches Corner. Trace is a sort of matching service (“managed market”), which puts people looking for help and advice on their family history in touch with professional genealogists with specialist expertise. They manage the research process for the client and make a surcharge on the genealogists’ fees to cover their costs.
At 5pm I attend a ‘meet-and-greet’ with the Trace team. There are about 30 coaches onsite, plus others who will dial in to host remote consultations. Professional genealogists have come from all over the US, as well as Canada, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Poland. I’m the only UK coach onsite, though others will be dialling in from Blighty. They’re a very friendly bunch which bodes well.
I’m in the exhibition hall early for my first consultation at 9am. Renee from Utah is looking for details about her great-great-grandfather who owned several inns and hotels in Cornwall. I explain that licensed victuallers records, where they exist, will be in the Quarter Sessions but a quick check on the Cornwall Record Office website confirms these are not available online. We search for wills and after finding her ancestor’s will from 1897, I show her how to order it from the Probate Search Service. Finally, I explain that the British Newspaper Archive would be a great place to look for the day-to-day activities of publicans. We only have 25 minutes, which flies by, then it’s on to the next consultee. As coaches we’d had chance to study some of the enquiries beforehand and do preparation, if we wished.
Patterns soon start to emerge. Several of the enquiries are from people with Welsh roots, reflecting the challenges of researching in the Principality. Numerous Davies, Williams, Jones, Morgans and Hughes queries come my way and I try to deal with them as best I can. Illegitimacy also gets high billing: it’s either known about or suspected and people are looking for help on how to go further.
Other cases arise from family stories that cannot be substantiated, such as someone being drowned in the Thames (death didn’t appear in the GRO indexes or newspaper reports at the purported time) or stowing away on a ship (obviously not on a passenger list, but not on any census either). Some are beginners needing an introduction to British resources and records, which is easily addressed.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, some Americans have little appreciation of UK geography. Thus, I have to explain that it is highly unlikely that the family living in Lancashire, who in the 1861 Census said they were born in Lancashire or Cheshire, is the same family in Devon ten years later, who all said they were born in Devon, even though most of the names and ages matched. And as for them being in Norfolk, 10 years after that, well…
More often than not, I find myself emphasizing two resources that I also stress when teaching classes at home. Firstly, the ‘new’ (now two years old) GRO indexes are a godsend for the extra information they contain about mother’s maiden name and age at death. Secondly, the Phillimore county maps, available on Ancestry as 'Great Britain Atlas of Parish Registers', are useful in explaining where parishes are in relation to one another, what registers survive, and even where wills can be found.
I tour the exhibition hall between coaching sessions. Many of the stands are familiar: Ancestry, Findmypast. MyHeritage, 23andMe all have a big presence with, not surprisingly, the largest area being taken up by FamilySearch, which is allied to the LDS Church.
Looking at the other stands, the mix is less familiar, however. As an advocate for writing and publishing family histories, I’m pleased to see at least half a dozen companies offering this service. In addition, I count three companies offering to create family history books specifically for children.
Other craft and media-based solutions also have a strong presence. Collectionaire, for example, offers a new way for families to share their digital memories across social media platforms. Generation Story is an app for recording the history of heirlooms and keepsakes. Zoompast is a British company offering very impressive software for browsing and navigating large family trees. Three companies each have their own take on a family history-based game.
Various start-ups aim to help people exploit DNA in their research. TotheletterDNA is an Australian-based business that will try to extract your ancestor’s DNA from old letters (such as stamps and fingerprints) and other artefacts. There is some sophisticated science involved and they’ve yet to reach a 50% success rate. But the fact that they can extract anything at all is a wonder to me.
A final round of consultations. I realise many people are using apps such as Ancestry and FamilySearch to call up online trees on their mobile devices.
Although the talks continue throughout the afternoon, the exhibition closes at 2pm. No sooner has the announcement been made than a familiar sight unfolds: an army of riggers and helping-hands descend to dismantle the carefully prepared exhibition. I say my goodbyes and by the time I leave half an hour later the hall is unrecognisable.
After packing, we watch the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on TV, singing the beautiful songs we’d heard them rehearse a few days before, and then set off for the airport in the snow. As they say in Utah, it had been an 'awesome' week!
• Find FamilySearch exhibiting at Family Tree Live, which is taking place on 26 and 27 April 2019 at historic Alexandra Palace, London, where you will also be able to chat to Michael Sharpe on his stand, Writing the Past. Tickets cost just £12 in advance (under-16s go free) and include lectures, workshops, one-to-one family history advice, living history activities, photo-dating, FamilyTreeDNA Hub and much more! Full details here.
Images all © Michael Sharpe.