Friday, April 5, 2019

Turning Folklore to Fact

“I often get thrown out of archives and museums at closing time,” I remarked. I was at the local Family History Library with a genealogy client as we watched closing time quickly approach, too quickly.

“Most people say that about bars,” he quipped. 

I burst into laughter. Yes, I thirst for information and art! The places we don't want to leave are indeed telling.

We had come to the local Family History Library (FHL), a small room with computers housed in a Church of Latter-day Saints, a satellite library to the mothership in Utah. I had begun my own genealogy research almost twenty years ago in a similar room at one of the local churches, venturing hesitantly into what felt like a foreign environment. Then it was filled with microfilm readers. That part at least had felt familiar.  I had once distributed microfilm reels in my job at the college library research room. Many years had passed between that early job and that first visit to the FHL and not much had changed.There has, however, been a sea change since I began my genealogy quest twenty years ago, most of it as more records become available on-line.

I recalled an early visit when I curiously studied a microfilm reel of Polish vital records, trying to make sense of the language. It took me yet further back to a childhood memory of studying a book before I could read, the letters just curious marks that I desperately wanted to decipher. I’ve been trying to break codes and solve mysteries ever since.

Soon I had taken the next step of going out to the Utah Family History Library with a group of Jewish genealogists. The library is a large multi-story building across a wide avenue from the Mormon Tabernacle. There I would spend a week happily glued to a microfilm reader from early morning until dusk when they ushered me to the door.  I cranked through the records of the Polish town of my grandfather, no longer intimidated by those foreign records. 

That first visit felt both foreign and familiar.  Looking back, it was when I first re-entered the Jewish community. I had grown up in a Jewish home but done little in that community since. Married to a non-Jewish spouse and without children, I had little to connect me to my Jewish heritage. Family history drew me back in and ironically to the place of my birth, Salt Lake City. My father had been the only non-Mormon professor in his department at the university. My parents spoke fondly of their time there and of the Jewish community. I had no memories of it having left as a toddler. Years later, genealogy took me back to the town of my birth, a Jewish kid born at Holy Cross Hospital in Mormon country. How fitting that I should be exploring my roots where I began. The group of Jewish genealogists felt oddly familiar, like I knew them from somewhere. Many became good friends over time. Less familiar were the people who staffed the library, helpful Mormons who called each other brother and sister. 

Twenty years later the library and its satellites have changed dramatically as they are scanning all those films and moving to digital. No longer do they send microfilm to church libraries across the country. The tradeoff is that many records are indexed by name and the original records are often available on-line at their site The transcription is more complete than what you’ll find on For example, marriage records will often also provide the additional information of parents’ names, a particularly valuable piece of data.

My client’s family folklore was that family had been part of agricultural communities established by Baron de Hirsch. Baron de Hirsch was an important figure in Jewish history. An extremely wealthy man, he established a fund in 1891 to help settle Jewish immigrants in the US and Canada through agricultural colonies and trade schools. We had found a newspaper mention of a family member as an early settler so we were optimistic in our search.

Most people go to and click on the first item in the dropdown, Records. This allows them to search by a family member’s name.  But not all the records are indexed and listed by name so they are only finding a portion of what is available. I wondered if I could access a broader universe by another door. I recalled how I used to access information in those long-ago visits at the Utah library. As it wasn’t then available by an individual’s name, I had searched for the original source by town and then sought an index within the document to lead me to the record.

I went to Search and then to Catalog. There I could search by place. I put in the town and up popped land records. When I pulled it up, an icon came up.

A reel icon means microfilm which is generally not accessible outside of large libraries or the the main one in Utah. If you are lucky, a camera image appears which allows you to search a series of images taken from the film. Sometimes a key shows up over the camera. That means you can only access the record at the FHL. 

The land records were among them and we were there that day in search of those records. An alphabetical index was available. We could barely contain our excitement when those familiar names appeared in the index. We moved to the actual record where we found that they had a wide variety of spellings even within the same record. Vs and Bs and Ws were all interchangeable. We found the first purchases in 1893 by his great-grandfather, just two years after the fund began. The actual record showed the buyer and seller, a description of the land, the purchase price and who was present. 

But there was a surprise. Family folklore was that his great-great grandmother had also come to America and later gone to Israel. She flitted ghost-like through story, but we had found nothing to verify her existence. There her name was listed along with his great-grandfather as the first buyer of property in the family. We know she was there because the record indicates that she was present. And to tie it with a bow, one of the purchases was actually from the Baron de Hirsch fund. 

1 comment:

  1. Susan, this is fascinating! Your work consulting must be very gratifying. And I'm glad to learn about