As I and my friend and fellow family history missionary Angie Hutchinson headed in to the Salt Palace for yet another day of events at the RootsTech technology and family history conference last week, I stopped at the top of the entry ramp and looked at the people. They were streaming down West Temple, up West Temple and pouring out of 100 South, 200 South and 300 South and points above and below. There were thousands of people.
I had one of those epiphanies that now and again hit you upside the head and yell, "This is what it's all about!" Here they were, all these people agog and eager to spend another long day absorbing an amazing range of talks, displays, conversations and updates to stoke their fires for family research. Every one of them different, unique, recognizable as their own person. Every one of those people bent on finding people who were just as different, just as unique, just as recognizable. But dead.
I talked to dozens. Here are a few.
• Joni Lyman was not far from home. Her ancestors were part of the group that settled in Utah's warm south, including the town of Blanding. She admitted to being a family history beginner, but burning with enthusiasm for adding her contribution to the family work already being done. She said her Blanding ancestor was Walter C. Lyman, one of those who helped bring water from the Blue Mountains to the thirsty San Juan towns. She admitted at this point that "it's all over my head, but I want to add to it. I want to know how to gather, organize and digitize."
• Jason Pugh, who began in a little town in England near Sheffield ("a town with a castle"), now lives in Fremont, California. He works for Ancestry, a company devoted to family research, but has a drive to apply the science to his own family, including his great-grandfather's brother, who died in World War I.
• Tierra Kellow of Aberdeen, Maryland, and Danielle Pritchett of Danville, Virginia, met at a genealogy conference in Richmond, Virginia, in October and came to RootsTech together to add to the skills that they need in their family history-related jobs. Tierra said she produces a web series and blogs at pressingmyway.wordpress.com. Her interest in family history is embedded particularly in her own family story, which includes a great-great-grandfather who died at age 103. Their past stretched into the days when freed slaves entered into "binding contracts," which were a bare step above bondage.
Danielle deals every day with genealogical matters as a specialist in the Danville Public Library.
"I teach classes every day to people coming into the library, especially young people," she said.
The two picked a good year to come to RootsTech, where the 2017 program focused a lot of attention on black family history.
• Lidija Sambunjak crossed a continent and an ocean to be at RootsTech. Her home is in Croatia. Her odyssey into family history began when missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knocked on her door in Croatia. As the acquaintance grew, they learned that one of the missionaries, a young man from California, had a great-grandfather who had lived in the same Catholic parish as Lidija's great-grandmother. The young missionary (who subsequently baptized her) was her cousin.
As she delved into the fascinating world of genealogy, Lidija became a professional in the field. She serves a growing clientele in a country where genealogy has become a growing mania, especially as Catholic Church records become more available. Before returning to Croatia, she said, one of her goals was to stock up on root beer. While most of her compatriots in Croatia "think it tastes like painkillers," she has developed a liking for it.
At RootsTech, she was renewing acquaintances with Tom and Larae Allen, a couple from Murray who unexpectedly found themselves on a mission to Slovenia and Croatia, parts of the world they hardly knew existed.
• Peter and Pauleen Cass of Cotton Tree, Australia (that's a little town near Brisbane), were making their second trip to RootsTech. They were told of the genealogy extravaganza in Salt Lake City by friends who "encouraged and inispired us to come." Peter was sporting the ribbon that identified him as "Australian Royalty," signifying that he is descended from an ancestor who was sent to Australia under duress as a felon. The penal colonies that helped people Australia with convicts from England, Scotland and Ireland created a unique history for their descendants, Pauleen said. She blogs at cassmob.wordpress.com and has been immersed in family history for 30 years.
"It's big in Australia because it's an immigrant country," she said. That creates a bond with the United States, which also thrived on immigration. The Casses were particularly keen on the DNA-related RootsTech sessions, of which there were many.
• Carol Van de Wetering came from Santa Rosa, California, to RootsTech to glean new materials to enhance her calling as a family history specialist in her ward. Her husband, Jan, claimed, tongue in cheek, that he was there "because she made me." Even though Jan, in the same bantering tone, proclaimed to be "an old boy sticking to the old methods," he expressed admiration for the advances being made in the field. Carol said that though the center in Santa Rosa is not used to the extent it could be, the program is expanding. A family history fair there drew more than 300 people and new relationships are being forged with the Sonoma County genealogical society.
"It's important to be connected to the local genealogists," she said.
Several of the sessions are available online at rootstech.org.
Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who serves as a family history missionary.