Can you trace your ancestry back to the Mayflower? Well, few of us can.
But just because your relatives came to the United States via cargo ships, slave ships, on foot, by airplane, or across the Bering Land Bridge between Siberia and Alaska, you still can find out a substantial amount of information about them, thanks to the Family History Center in Lecanto.
Run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 3474 W. Southern St., the center can connect you with more than 1 billion potential relatives via its free genealogical website: familysearch.org, according to Thomas Moore, the center’s director.
The center recently has expanded its hours and is free and open to the public. The hours are: Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 352-746-5943.
Moore, as well as trainer Jim Speidel, and Jerry Campbell, the immediate past bishop of the Lecanto congregation — or ward — are eager for the public to explore the many ways the church’s website and other genealogical tools can help track down forebears.
Speidel spent several years training with the church’s genealogical specialists in Salt Lake City. He stays in Beverly Hills while he helps out at the Lecanto center and also lives in Georgia.
Registering to use familysearch.org is easy and free, and you can use the tool from your home computer or phone. However, a trip to the center is advisable to get a better idea of the many ways to use the website and other church resources.
Mary Ann Machonkin, president of the Citrus County Genealogical Society and a staff member at the Family History Center, says the center offers the public free access, on the center’s computers, to not only familysearch.org, but to such other genealogical sites as: ancestry.com, findmypast.com (helpful for finding relatives from the British Isles), and americanancestors.org (good for finding relatives from New England). Moreover, the center can put you in touch with census records; military records; church records, including early Catholic Church records; and other documents, she says.
Visitors to the center can get help from center staff or just use the computers without assistance. There is no pressure to become involved in the church, Machonkin says. In fact, she is not a church member, she says.
A mission for families
Why, then, is the church so keen on getting the public to use the center’s resources?
“If you have something good, don’t you want to share it with others?” Speidel asks.
He explains that in Salt Lake City, genealogists who charge $40-$50 an hour use the church’s free computers and other resources and “We’ll just help them” because the genealogists might find information the church doesn’t have.
The church wants to collect as much genealogical information as possible because “We believe families are forever,” Speidel says.
Bishop Campbell explains that in his church, there is a series of practices by which living church members can “seal” their deceased relatives to themselves. These are ancestors who may have been unknown to the family until discovered through a tool like familysearch.org and/or who may not have been church members. The sealing ceremony, including other actions leading up to it, provides those ancestors an opportunity to become part of the family of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as Campbell explains.
Genealogical research thus is important to church members because it is a way to bring one’s ancestors to Christ, according to Campbell. As a result of the church’s dedication to genealogy, familysearch.org is “the world’s largest shared family tree,” as the website states.
The site has three main areas, including tools to help you build your family tree. There also are resources, such as census, military, library, and Freedmen’s Bureau records, among many others; and finally, there is educational information and activities.
Among the teaching tools is such information as an explanation of “What’s a second cousin twice removed?” In the activities section, under “All About Me,” you can do such things as check out information about your name and birth year.
This writer, when test-driving familysearch.org, found that in the United States, 25,927 people share the name “Margo”; 223,455 people share my middle name, “Kay”; and 2,322,669 people share the name “Wilson.”
I discovered relatives on both my mother’s and father’s side going back seven generations whom I never had heard of. On my paternal grandmother’s side, nine generations of relatives were listed. Previously, when I had tried to write down my ancestors’ names, I had been unable, especially on my father’s side, to dig further into my past than my great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers. The familysearch.org website is addicting.
The website allows people to enter information about their families, as well as to upload photos and audio. Thus, it provides a way to permanently store family photos and oral histories.
As Speidel explains, familysearch.org is hosted in both Utah and Virginia, so the database is backed up in case one computer system crashes, which, he maintains, is highly unlikely. The church owns a mountain in Utah of solid granite where church records are kept.
If family members or others add information that another family member disputes, there is an arbitration process, Speidel says.
All in the family
Although you can research your own ancestors, you can’t look up family tree information about your neighbor, boss, friend, or enemy — unless the person is a deceased family member. Speidel says he trusts the site’s security and privacy safeguards.
The church has researchers all over the world contributing to familysearch.org. The church also contracts with various public and private entities to gain access to vital records around the globe. For example, Speidel says he knows of a man affiliated with familysearch.org in Italy. That man signed a contract for the church to obtain 100 million records.
It’s not unusual for people to find surprises in their family tree. One man he was working with found his natural father by using the database, Speidel says. As Speidel sees it, “Genealogy is contagious. The worse you get it, the more you like it. It’s like continuing education.”
Speidel adds, “Wouldn’t you like, at 3 a.m., to get out of bed in your pajamas and work on this? It’s like playing some of the computer games ... You can’t put it down.”
Speidel points out that everyone on Earth is related. No one living is any more distant to one another than a 52nd cousin, he says.
Thus, because we all are related, “We should be treating each other better,” Bishop Campbell says. “If you’re family, why would you hurt me? You’re my cousin,” he says.
The center’s staff would like all the cousins of the world to start learning about their cousins and sharing that information with their cousins.
“It’s our (the church’s) responsibility to get people to know about us,” Campbell says.