The Old Letter Got Me Going
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“The Old Letter Got Me Going,” Ensign, Mar. 1990, 58

The Old Letter Got Me Going

A step-by-step approach to finding your ancestors.

Suddenly, I sat up in bed. I was wide awake, but it was the middle of the night. I listened for some sound that might have disturbed me, but I heard nothing. I lay back down and started reminiscing about my husband, who had died several years earlier. I missed him and the happy life we had enjoyed.

Finding sleep impossible, I got up and went into the study, drawn for some reason to the box of souvenirs and mementos of our life together. I thought of having been sealed in the temple for eternity so we could be a family forever with our two sons.

There may have been something about the stillness of the night, but I felt very close to my husband as I thumbed through programs of church and cultural events, souvenirs from our trip to New York, the program of my father’s funeral, and—there was a corner of a letter I hadn’t noticed before!

I pulled it out and started reading. The paper was old and the handwriting difficult to read, but I realized the letter was written by my husband’s grandfather to his parents just after fighting in a Civil War battle! I searched through the box of papers. There were three more of his letters, all written during the Civil War.

This was better than a history lesson. Here was a real person, someone related to me, not just another soldier but a scared eighteen-year-old boy bravely writing to his family about his feelings. I had just been thinking about families being forever, and here was part of my extended family about whom I had known nothing.

As dawn started to lighten the sky, I was still wide awake. I wanted to find out more about my husband’s ancestors—but how? I remembered several weeks before that someone had given a talk in sacrament meeting about family history. I hadn’t paid much attention because my parents had been active in family history and I was one of the many who feel “the work has all been done.” The speaker had said she was a librarian in the stake’s family history center, and she invited everyone to come in and talk with her. All right, I decided now, I will! At least it’s a start.

It was still early in the morning, but I wanted to do something right then. Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that we should gather souvenirs, mementos, old letters, and such things into a box and start with that. Well, I had already done that; I was sitting by the box that had started the whole thing. And so I began to organize the contents of the box—one pile for my mementos, one pile for my husband’s, one pile for my sons’, another for my parents’, and still another for my husband’s parents’. I was beginning to feel organized. Each pile contained documents like birth certificates, patriarchal blessings, snapshots, a copy of my husband’s death certificate. So many memories!

Later that morning, after completing my errands for the day, I went to the family history center in our stake center. I was greeted by warm smiles from the librarians. Scattered throughout the room were books, file cabinets, and machines I later discovered were microfiche and microfilm readers. At almost every machine someone was intently looking at words on a screen. They looked so knowledgeable that I started to back out. Too late. One of the librarians was already greeting me and asking how she could help.

Hesitantly, I told her what I had experienced that morning and how much I wanted to know more about my husband’s ancestors. I explained that he had not been a member of the Church when I married him; I had no genealogical information about his family. I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to find out more.

She smiled, and we sat down as she explained we could start with no information at all and “work backwards.” She said that it is important to start with yourself and write down all the facts you know about yourself and your family—as far back as you can go. Although she must have gone through the explanations a hundred times before, she acted as if my questions were the most important she had ever heard. I was beginning to feel at home.

The librarian gave me a pedigree chart, sometimes known as an ancestor chart, and I wrote my name in space number 1. “This is wonderful,” I thought; the librarian’s warm handshake had greeted me, and now her helping hand was starting me on my ancestral journey.

On various forms I completed information about myself and my husband. I was told to always write the whole name with the first and middle name in small letters and the last name with all capital letters. Making this distinction in letter size prevents confusion.

As for dates, I was told to record them always in order of day, month, year. In other countries, and through most of history, records have been written that way. I was also told that it helps to write out the name of the month (10 December 1880) to keep others from being confused as to whether 10-12-1880 meant October 12 or December 10.

From the information I had found when going through my box of souvenirs, and with the help of the librarian, I was able to fill out quite a few of the blanks on the pedigree chart regarding parents. But what about the children? I wondered.

My helpful librarian then gave me a Family Group Record sheet to complete for each set of parents and their children. At the top of the sheet, there was a place for the names of the parents with spaces below to enter the names of the children. For both parents and children, there was also space for important dates. I was beginning to put families together!

After I had gone about as far as I could with the information I had already found, I wondered what to do next. My new friend solved that problem, too. She introduced me to the way the main family history library in Salt Lake City provides each branch throughout the world with access to the incredible number of records it has available. One of the most valuable resources she showed me was the International Genealogical Index (IGI). Was I excited! In no time, it seemed, the library was ready to close. I didn’t want to leave, but I promised myself that I would return in a week.

During the week, I kept thinking about what I wanted to know and found that it was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. First, you put the things you know in place, and then you look for the other pieces.

At family home evening with my two teenage sons that week, I showed them the names and dates I had entered on the pedigree and family group records. At first, they thought names and dates were boring, but as they realized these represented their family, they started asking questions. They wanted to see pictures. Soon the three of us were sitting on the floor surrounded by pictures and souvenirs. They were intrigued and finally went to bed when I promised that I would go back to the family history center the next day and find out more about “their” ancestors.

Before I went to sleep, I reviewed all I had done and would recommend to others:

—First, look around the house and gather together all the pictures, documents, and mementos you can find.

—Second, write down the names and dates of parents on a pedigree chart.

—Third, record the parents’ information on a family group record and then enter as much information as possible about the children of each family. I learned to make a note of where I got the information. I like to think I will remember, but I know I won’t.

—Fourth, start looking for names, dates, and places on the International Genealogical Index.

—Fifth, ask your friendly librarian whenever you have a question.

When I eagerly returned to the library, I was introduced to the mysteries of microfiche, which currently contains more than 100 million names, all verified. The librarian suggested that it is best to start microfiche research with the names on the IGI. These IGI “fiche” are small cards of film with thousands of names of deceased persons whose temple work has been done.

The librarian helping me was confident and encouraging, but I was still skeptical. I decided to test the IGI by starting with my great-grandfather and the information I already had about him. The librarian showed me how to use the microfiche reader, and in no time I felt like a pro.

I looked for Grandfather’s name in the United States microfiche file, and then in the Massachusetts one. There he was! With his name were his parents’ names, his birthdate and birthplace, his wife’s name and their marriage date, and the dates when temple work had been done for him. Now that I had verified information I had, I wanted to find information I didn’t have.

I could hardly wait to see if my husband’s Civil War ancestor’s temple work had been done. I looked for his name on another fiche, but couldn’t find it. I was disappointed until I realized that this meant I could be responsible for having his temple work done! Now I was more thrilled than ever. I needed to find out more about him. My aim now was to join my husband’s Civil War ancestor to his family.

I finally found his name in a census record. Census records are terrific resources because they have been taken in the U.S. every ten years since 1790. I discovered another wonderful resource in military records. Military papers and records tell about a person’s service record, his parents, and where he was living when he received pension payments.

As I discovered the many other resources available—such as vital, probate, and land records—my mind wandered back to my first ancestor who had set foot in this country. Maybe I could find his name on a passenger list or … I stopped myself. “Start with what you know,” my librarian friend had told me, “and work backwards in time.”

Suddenly I wanted to find out so much about so many people. Through records I never knew existed, a whole new world had opened up for me, and I wanted to do everything at once. I recognized, however, that it is wisest to look for just one ancestor at a time.

Besides using the family history center in our stake center, I decided to write to my husband’s relatives for more information. I knew that his great-aunt, though ninety, was sharp and might remember facts and experiences I could never find any other way.

As I knelt in prayer that night, I knew my husband and his ancestors were grateful for the essential work I had undertaken. I prayed earnestly for guidance in continuing the research I had started. A feeling of intense joy flooded over me, and it occurred to me that the work I had begun was not only meaningful—it was exhilarating!

Photography by Steve Bunderson