Monday, January 18, 2016

A Story in the Branches of Your Tree: 2 Fun Ways to Explore Your Family History

Did you know that family history is really, really fun?

I know, you're saying, "Wait- you are talking about that thing with fan charts and record numbers and death dates, right?"

I know, doesn't exactly sound like a roaring good time, but I promise you- it's really, really fun.

Here are two really fun family history "games" you can play:

1. Log onto FamilySearch or Ancestry and pick a branch of your family tree- trace it back and back and back until you find some ancestors from a place you've never been to before, a place that intrigues you. Next, go on Google Earth and find that place, then, if possible, get down to street view and see what you can see- envision your ancestors walking the streets, or farming the fields, or going to church.

Screenshot from my Google Street View adventure in Switzerland. All of the houses and shops have window boxes with flowers in them. I am in love.

For me, this was the tiny town of Limpach in Bern, Switzerland. I started noticing this place name starting with my great grandparents' marriage there in 1907 and continuing all the way back to a many-greats grandfather who was born there in 1606. After that there is no more record of the family, so it could go back even farther.

I looked on Wikipedia to find out more about Limpach and discovered that it occupies a whopping 1.7 square miles of the planet's surface, and of that, 70% is agricultural, 22% is forested, and 8% is buildings and roads. The current population is 354 people.

As I began learning more about this place, I couldn't help but wonder- what must it have been like to have your family live in such a tiny place for such a long time? Surely the village must have been like a family. 

My great grandmother left there because she found the gospel and she wanted to join the rest of the Saints in Utah. She made it, but she passed away in childbirth at the age of 31, and she and her baby are buried in the Logan City Cemetery. Sadly, her other two daughters were not raised in the Church- but her granddaughter (my mom) found it anyway, and so a portion of her descendants are following her legacy of faith.

2. Okay, if you're ready for some REAL fun, check out This is a site that is powered by FamilySearch and when you use your FamilySearch login it will go through your family tree and find every notable person you are related to in some way- and it will even show you your common ancestors! 

Through this site I discovered I have family ties to all 12 current apostles, Joseph Smith (4th cousin 7 times removed), Emma Smith (8th cousin 4 times removed), Eliza R. Snow (4th cousin 4 times removed), Wilford Woodruff (3rd cousin 7 times removed), Gordon B. Hinckley (7th cousin 3 times removed), and many more notable members of the Church. I also discovered other ties that made me a bit giddy- Ernest Hemingway (9th cousin 2 times removed), Robert Frost (9th cousin 5 times removed), Samuel Clemens (aka, Mark Twain- 8th cousin 5 times removed), and Emily Dickinson (9th cousin 2 times removed), to name a few. I'm also distantly related to several presidents, Lucille Ball (9th cousin 2 times removed), and Elvis Presley (13th cousin 2 times removed). 

It is so. much. FUN! My kids got a huge kick out of it.

Out of curiosity, I decided to see who my closest "famous" relations were, and I found 2 aunts- one a 10th great aunt, Martha Penoyer, and the other an 11th great aunt, Sarah Warren, who had been tried as part of the Salem Witch Trials. I found their stories through FamilySearch and Wikipedia, and I was shocked and appalled to learn of the things they had endured. 

The story of Martha Penoyer (Corey) was a particularly tragic one- she was tried for witchcraft in 1692 at the age of 72 years old. During her trial her husband Giles spoke out in her defense, and they wanted to try him as a witch as well, but he refused, and was put to death by pressing, "a slow, crushing death under a pile of stones." And "when the sheriff asked how he would plead, he only asked for more stones." Three days later his wife was found guilty and hanged.

As I study these branches of my family tree, I can't help but wonder what little bits and pieces of these individuals might have gotten into me. 

Did the conviction that led my great grandmother to leave her ancestral homeland find its way through the bloodline to me? 

Is my Great Aunt Martha's belief in truth, no matter what the cost, somehow manifested in me in diluted form every time I look at look at something I read on the internet with a critical eye? 

What about those amazing writers- could my talent have somehow been passed down through the decades, some tiny little glimmer of a gene that compels me to put thoughts into words? 

And those stalwart leaders of the early Church- has the power of their cumulative faith somehow shaped my own testimony in some intangible way that I will only understand after this life?

One thing I can't help thinking as I wander through the crowded and complex forest that is my family tree: there are so, so many people. So many lives lived and faded and gone. How peculiar it feels to know that I am a part of it, and that I just happen to be the living my life at this time. Of all the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, and brothers- right now it's me. I'm one of them, and it's my turn to be here, my turn to experience all the ups and downs of earth life that they all did and as we all do. I can't help but wonder what they think of it- what they think of me- and what they might expect of me. Each life seems just a blip- a fraction of a century- and that is our magnum opus. What happens before this life and what comes after are but prelude and prologue; my story is now. 

What will my story be?

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