FamilySearch.org
William Gimbert Saunders, Twila Van Leer's great-great-grandfather on her father's mother's line.

My brother, Don Peck, and I had a great idea. As our contribution this year to family history, we would write a compact biography of William Gimbert Saunders, our great-great-grandfather on our father's mother's line.

So I packed my bags and headed to his home in Denver to get on with it. We should have looked first. What we found right at the outset was that there already were several biographies of the type we envisioned and that there were several dozen items on his personal profile page at FamilySearch.org that pretty thoroughly chronicled his life. We'd have wasted a lot of time replicating what others in our family already had done.

Don and I were aware that a book, "Windows to the Past," had been written by a kinswoman, Lou Jean S. Wiggins, and published in 1978. But Lou Jean had somewhat novelized the story, including reconstructing conversations and thoughts of the biography's participants. And there isn't anything wrong with that. Deciding how to put together a biography is the prerogative of the author. But Don and I felt a factual, more straightforward presentation of the facts would be practical.

A lot of other people obviously thought the same thing. When we opened up Grandpa Saunders' FamilySearch.org page, there were several brief, more concise biographies. Other fascinating items related to his history included photographs, his christening date, the record of his baptism into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the ship's manifest that listed his family as passengers, census notations, a diary of his brief mission in his home country, records held by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, a death certificate, mention in a missionary database and other items.

The magic word here, of course, is digitization. I, a professed techno-idiot, reluctantly admit that modern technology, in this instance, is serving a wonderful purpose in collecting and storing family history. All of the items included in our great-great-grandfather's personal page online had been digitized and put into his file by others so that I, as a technology-impaired descendant, could learn in a glance about a fascinating ancestor about whom I had known next to nothing. I'm just catching up with the possibilities, but many others already are on board. Digitizing documents and attaching them to an ancestor's personal profile on FamilySearch.org is one of the best ways to preserve them.

So, since Don and I have discovered this wonderful reality, let me share with you what we learned about William Gimbert Saunders. He was born Jan. 10, 1819, in Soham, Cambridge, England, first son of Charles and Mary Leavitt Saunders. As a young man, he was apprenticed to his father for six years to learn wheelwright skills. In 1852, he heard and heeded LDS missionaries and was baptized in March of that year.

On April 8, 1854, he and his family boarded the Marshfield from the Liverpool docks, with Capt. Torrey at the helm, and headed for the United States. They arrived in New Orleans on May 29, 1854, and in two days were aboard a steamship, the James Robb, en route to St. Louis, arriving on June 16.

Grandpa left his family in Crescent, Iowa, while he traveled to the Great Salt Lake Valley to prepare a home for them. He returned for them in about two years, and the family, supported by Perpetual Emigration Fund monies, traveled with the Charles McCarty/William Appleby handcart company to Utah. They arrived in the city on Aug. 9, 1858. They lived for a time in the Cottonwood area before moving north of Ogden. He was called during the April 6, 1878, general conference to serve a mission in England, but he soon became ill and returned after only four months. He completed a second mission in Wisconsin. In all, he traversed the country six times.

He espoused the doctrine of plural marriage and in time had three wives. In 1885, he was arrested. He spent six months in the territorial prison and was out only a short time before being charged again. He died June 9, 1888, eight days after his final child, Willard, was born. His wives remained close friends and cooperated in rearing their families.

Digitization, I love you.

Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who has recently been called to serve as a family history missionary.