While growing up, Angie Johnston saw a plaque in her grandparents' house that displayed thumbnail-size portraits of a few generations of relatives.
She recalled recently, “I loved to just look at the pictures. I wanted to know more about these people and I loved to hear stories that my grandfather would tell me about his family.”
Despite that early interest in her family history, when Johnston got to college, she took her first genealogy course in the 1990s, not because she was interested in genealogy but because the class sounded easy.
Nevertheless, Johnston became passionate about researching her family history. She has been doing it off and on almost 30 years. She took more classes and as she became better at it, she started volunteering at the Family History Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1617 Shiloh Road in Tyler.
At one point, Johnston was stuck in trying to learn about her dad’s family prior to her great-grandfather coming from the Czech Republic to the United States in 1882.
She enlisted the help of a professional Czech researcher, and in 2011 she and her husband traveled over there, visiting the ancestral village where her great-grandfather and his father and his father were born. She met cousins she did not know existed.
With the researcher’s help, Johnston now has information about generations of her father’s lineage back to the 1500s.
She concentrated her genealogy efforts on her father’s side because others in her family had looked into the family history of her mother’s line. They were pioneer ancestors who crossed the plains in the 1800s, pushing a hand cart, hauling all their belongings.
Johnston did learn that her 10th great-grandfather on her mother’s side was the religious reformer John Lothropp, who was ordained in the Church of England, became a Congregationalist minister and was part of the Reformation movement. He eventually moved to Massachusetts.
Johnston also discovered that her great-aunt was married to Pendleton Murray, governor of Texas from 1863 to 1865, during the U.S. Civil War. He fled to Mexico when it became obvious that the Union forces would occupy Texas. He died in Mexico.
Johnston unraveled a funny story by going to New York, where she found records showing a great-uncle on her dad’s side had married his first cousin from the Czech Republic at a time when marrying someone that closely related had gone out of fashion but was still legal.
He was married by a justice of the peace and there was no announcement in the newspaper. That was in contrast to his siblings who married in the church and whose marriages were announced in the newspaper.
“My favorite part of doing family history is when I find records and pictures and whatever I am able to discover about my family and I start to piece together their lives," Johnston said. "It’s like putting together puzzle pieces. When you finish the puzzle, you have a beautiful picture. I love getting to know my family, who they were, what they struggled with, what were their successes and failures.”
Most people seem interested nowadays in tracing their family history and there is a big push for DNA tests, said David Poole. He is organizer of a beginner family history course and a volunteer who oversees family history efforts for many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other residents throughout East Texas.
“Everybody wants to know about their ancestry," Poole said. "I think basically we are born with an inherent need to belong to an organization and primarily for most of us, that organization is a family.”
When people discover their ancestors, Poole said, immediately people want to know what kind of family they are from, what things their family has accomplished, what kind of people they were, their family traditions and culture.
“I think it is in us to desire to be a part of something like that,” Poole said. “As much as we can discover about our ancestors, the more we have to belong to and feel allegiance to.”
If people know their ancestors, Poole added, that can give them a purpose and cause them to want to carry on family tradition, not only for their immediate family, but for their future family to come.
It is always exciting to people working on their family history, Poole said, if they learn they are related to someone famous, such as a president, movie star, founding father, the pilgrims or whomever.
Poole’s family history efforts determined that he is related to singer Elvis Presley and George Washington, commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War and first president of the United States.
Most of the time people can research their family tree at least into the 1700s, Poole said, but often they can go as far back as the 1500s.
While study of ancestry is popular among people of all faiths and nationalities, it is especially important to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The church’s Family History Center in Tyler is open to the public and part of a network of 4,600 family history centers in 126 countries.
Dr. Daren Yeager, a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Tyler, said, “There is a strong spiritual basis for family history.”
He said the church puts an emphasis on family history because it is important “to know those people we came from and the people who shaped our lives,” but also because the church believes that God intends for families to be together in Heaven.
Yeager said the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that Jesus’ resurrection brought the path for the resurrection of all people and that they eventually will be immortal and reunited with their family.
He said, “We believe that if we follow God’s plan, the relationships that we have in this life with a husband or wife, children and grandchildren will still exist in the life to come.”
In that vein, Yeager said church members research their family history in order to perform baptism by proxy in the temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for their ancestors who may never have heard of Jesus Christ.
“Even though Jesus was perfect, he was baptized to show the example that we all need to be baptized,” Yeager said.
“Generally, we perform this ordinance for people related to us, which we believe in the afterlife allows them to accept that ordinance of baptism and receive the blessings associated with it. One of the purposes (for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) doing a family history is to provide those ordinances of salvation for those who have gone before us and not had the opportunity to be baptized.”
Currently, Yeager said, the church limits baptism by proxy to ancestors of church members. It is done by immersion with a prayer and someone standing in for the relative being baptized.
Another reason for the church emphasizing family history, Yeager said, is that it is “a way that we can honor those who came before us.”
For example, Yeager’s family history includes pictures of his grandfather, who was killed in World War II, and the letter that his grandmother received from his grandfather’s commanding officer concerning his death. Yeager has traced his family back eight generations.
A family history, Yeager said, can include a lot of memories and important documents, including a birth certificate, marriage certificate and death certificate.
An impact on children is among the many benefits from researching family history, Yeager said, “We encourage our children to do their family history because we know that children who do family history feel a connection to their ancestors. We start with kids that are 8 years old.”
Children who work on their family history, Yeager added, “are more likely to be happier and to have a greater sense of self identity. They tend to avoid getting into trouble. They don’t feel a need to join gangs and crime.”