Genealogy is essential to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but you don’t have to be a member to take advantage of its extensive collection of resources that help track family histories.
That was a message church members delivered last week during an open house at the church’s Fredericksburg Family History Center at 20 Boscobel Road in southern Stafford County. The event was held to introduce its new Virginia Remote Operations Center, which will collect and prepare digitized records from the commonwealth that can be accessed by anyone in the world through the church’s FamilySearch website.
“We have put a lot of resources into collecting and preserving genealogical records for a long time, and we freely share all of that with anybody,” said Katie Derby, director of the FamilySearch Virginia Family History Records Project.
FamilySearch is a global website operated by the church based in Salt Lake City that provides free access to genealogical records.
The church hoped Thursday’s open house would also help it recruit an even larger volunteer force to assist in preparing and recording documents for inclusion in the massive database.
“Someone has to sit down and manipulate the digital image, correct it, straighten it, add cataloging information, index it, transcribe the information off of it, and create a database that’s searchable so it can get published,” Derby explained.
That’s where assistance is critical, as church missionaries and volunteers work together to process and prepare countless records for submission.
Nationwide, the church has 15 dedicated genealogy centers staffed by nearly 500 church missionaries. There are an additional 600 virtual records centers across the U.S. and Canada.
The Remote Operations Center in Stafford focuses mainly on gathering historical records that are unique to Virginia.
“By establishing this center, we hope to bring in community members as well as geological and historical societies that are interested,” said Samantha Sulser, who serves as ROC manager for FamilySearch in Salt Lake City. “We want to broaden the records that are available in Virginia.”
Sulser said “top-tier” items such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and death records are the main ones sought for preservation.
“But then the next tier is war, military, probates, wills, land and tax records, cemetery records, any of those kinds of things,” Sulser said. “You need all these pieces to put a family together.”
Although the majority of volunteer work is done remotely, Julie Cabitto of Stafford transcribes historical documents at the center as service missionary work. She said one of her biggest challenges when preparing documents is “overcoming sloppy penmanship.”
“It takes a lot of practice,” said Cabitto. “The Mecklenburg clerk did not have very good handwriting in the 1840s, but the Brunswick clerk had beautiful handwriting.”
For larger projects, such as cataloging large quantities of documents at historical societies or libraries, portable digital kits are taken directly to those sites to scan, digitize and upload documents.
People who simply want to retrieve an old family document or dive deep into their own family history for the first time can visit the Family History Center in Stafford in person to access its vast electronic historical databases at no cost.
“We have something called Fold3 that’s a tremendous database of military records,” said Roger Ellis, who volunteers as the director of the Fredericksburg Family History Center. “There’s a lot of Civil War records, World War II stuff, muster rolls, pension cards, discharge information. A lot of those things have information, like their parents’ name and hometown, which provides sources to validate in your family tree.”
Ellis also said the center has access to a vast global collection of newspapers, dating back as far as the Colonial era.
“Those have very helpful family information, like obituaries, which are useful in building a family tree,” said Ellis.
Interest in family ancestry runs deep for members of the church, who believe that an eternal joining of families is possible through sacred sealing ceremonies that take place at their places of worship.
“Family is core to our church doctrine, and we believe families can be together forever,” Sulser said. “In order to do that, we need to connect them, we need to know who they were and how they lived.”
Consultants are always on hand at the Fredericksburg History Center to help newcomers navigate their way through the vast amount of websites and databases available. Doing so is not only a joy for those who find a long lost family member, but a joy to those who serve as volunteers.
“We see a lot of happy people,” said volunteer Vereen Kennelly of Stafford. “I had someone come in of African American decent, and I helped her find her aunt and where she is buried.
“Those are the moments that make me just excited. The Lord blesses me a lot.”