Mar 7, 2011

Serendipitous Find at the Family History Library

I've wanted to make a trip to the Family History Library (FHL) for quite a while. In the course of my research, I've almost exhausted the resources of one county museum. That's partly because they're well organized, and their catalog is searchable online. I made a list of the records I found for a dozen or so relatives at home. When I visited their library, looking them up and making copies took less than one hour. But there's still plenty of work for me in other counties, and lots of obituaries to look up on microfilm at the public library. However, none of the local libraries, or even the Minnesota Genealogical Society (MGS) library or Minnesota History Center, have a fraction of the genealogical resources available at the FHL.

I flew into Salt Lake City the day before RootsTech, on an early morning flight so I could at least check out the FHL before the conference. Weeks prior, I'd talked with a fellow MGS member who was an FHL veteran. He said people lined up outside the building in the early morning so they could get a good spot among the microfilm readers. So I was expecting massive lines at the library, due to the big conference down the street. But it didn't seem very crowded the whole trip. Maybe it's busier in the summer, when more people take vacations. If so, I'm starting a tradition to visit in the winter. Salt Lake City might be cold for some people, but it's usually warmer than Minnesota. Since my hotel, the conference, and the library were within a few blocks from each other, I didn't venture much further beyond. Every night I was there, I ended up closing down the library (9PM normal closing time). They even stayed open late two nights during the conference (11PM and midnight).

About half the branches in my family tree are traced back to the beginning of the 19th century. A few stubborn ones won't give me any good clues to search back farther. One of those was my great-great-great-grandfather, Isaac Parks (or Parkes). From census records, his obituary, and two separate headstones, I already knew he was born 13 or 15 Feb 1820, somewhere in England. In this and a few other lines of my family, much of the preliminary work was already done for me by my grandparents, sometime in the early 1980s. Among their papers, somebody had written that Isaac came from Devonshire, England. For the last few years, I've been trying to make a connection there. Late last year, I found the website of the Devon Family History Society, which turned out to be very useful. They've indexed many of the parish registers in the area, including baptisms from 1813-1839. That time period was perfect–Isaac's record should fall right in the middle. They have a surname search to see how many records exist for each index, which returned nine Parks and one Parkes in the baptism records. You can order a printout directly from the website, for a nominal fee of £0.01/record, with a minimum £3.00 order. A few days later, I received an e-mail with a PDF of my requested records, but I was quickly disappointed. None of the names or birth dates even remotely matched.

So Isaac was one of the people I wanted to research at FHL, just to see if their resources could shed some light on him. When I first visited the FHL, I was warmly greeted, and watched the 10 min introduction video. One of the volunteers asked what I was trying to find, and showed me how to use FamilySearch to find records in the library. When the average thirty-something guy in jeans and a T-shirt walks into the library, I don't suppose they think he knows much, if anything, about genealogy. But I'd already done lots of research at home, and had sort of a plan. I suggested searching for Isaac Parks, since I knew it was basically a dead end. But lo and behold, some matching records came up right away. None of them were for Devon, but one was such a close match I had to look up his exact birthday to make sure. In fact, the record helped make sense of the aforementioned discrepancy: he was born 15 Feb and baptized 13 Mar, but the baptism month isn't written in the individual entry. Besides the dates, the name listed for his mother, Rebella, is the same as the middle name he gave my great-great-grandmother. It's a rather rare name–sometimes written incorrectly as Rebecca or Isabella in records. I was pretty sure I'd finally made the connection to England, but this Isaac was listed in Birmingham, far from Devon. His father's name on the register was also Isaac.

The volunteer also showed me a helpful trick. Using advanced search on the old FamilySearch website, you can search by any combination of a person's name, their mother, father, or other fields. When I got back to the hotel, I was able to reconstruct the entire family by searching for all records with the mother Rebella and father Isaac during that period. I subsequently found records I believe to be the previous generation, although I'm not as confident.

Since these indexes are all on the FamilySearch website, I theoretically could have found the same information at home. But I didn't. I tended to rely on a just few websites that I use all the time. (Since RootsTech, I've been trying to diversify my toolkit, but I haven't even checked out all the links and notes I wrote down at the conference yet.) In addition, after I'd written down the details of his family, it was easy to go down in the basement to the UK section, pull out the microfilm, and scan the actual images of the parish register. There was one final piece of evidence on the image that wasn't indexed. His father's occupation was listed as brickmaker–the same thing Isaac did after he immigrated to America. Now I have no doubt these records pertain to my great-great-great-grandfather. In the space of a few hours, I was able to figure out his parents, siblings, and likely candidates for his grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
Isaac Parkes baptism record

When we'd first found Isaac's baptism record, I felt a bit dumb, since it came up so quickly. I'd used FamilySearch before, but not regularly. (I later learned that particular index was just added the week before, so I didn't feel so bad. It's hard to keep track of all the databases added to the various genealogy websites, and I didn't see the announcement on Dick Eastman's blog until after I visited the FHL.) I also discovered you can search in the same manner on the new FamilySearch, if you click the tab to search Family Trees, instead of the default, Historical Records. The volunteer helping me may not have known this. I imagine she has more experience and she's thus more comfortable with the old website. There's still lots of content on the old FamilySearch website that hasn't been ported over, but I'm sure it all will be eventually.

Besides this find, I also had a long list of film numbers to scan the actual images for records I already had the information from. Although I spent nearly every waking hour there, I came nowhere close to finishing my list. I don't think I could ever run out of things to research at the FHL.

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