Tracing Your Ancestry? Thank a Mormon!

Work in the summer continues and while the emphasis is on getting research papers written, I still keep an eye out for good “edu-tainment” pieces that might be useful in the classroom. One of the ones I have been trying out has been the genealogy series’ that have been shown on two networks: NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are and PBS’s Henry Louis Gates’s Finding Your Roots. I admit that while the NBC one is probably well produced, I am much more hooked by Gates’ series. It’s probably because the recent episode included two Asian American celebrities who are children of immigrants, comedienne Margaret Cho and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The series did a great job at reminding viewers that very often new immigrants arrive in America with lives full of tragedy that they will never speak of, not even to their own children.

Finding Your Roots: Martha Stewart, Margaret Cho, Sanjay Gupta

In Margaret Cho’s story, she never heard her father explain why their family left North Korea. As it turns out Margaret’s father’s father was branded a traitor for doing his job under the service of the Japanese flag in the early 20th century when they occupied all of Korea. For some Korean men like Margaret’s father, that’s a kind of family shame he won’t speak of, and didn’t, not to his own daughter even in her 40s.

For Sanjay Gupta, his mother experienced terrible loss as India was partitioned creating the new country of Pakistan in 1947. I was captivated by the map video that traced the path she and her family took from her home city, across the coastline, through the interior of India. She would not see her homeland again. And over 1 million people were killed in the partitioning.

In Cho’s case there was another remarkable dimension, the work of Mormon genealogists. As Gates explains, Mormons collect all manner of data that helps track down the ancestry of anyone who wants to baptize their families retroactively. Given the importance of baptism in the Mormon tradition, they take the work of ancestry documentation very seriously. As it turns out, there are records called (in Korean) “jokbo” which is basically a family record that apparently can be traced back to some prime individual (usually male I believe). The Mormon genealogy center has a microfilm copy of Cho’s jokbo! Apparently her family starts in the 1200s as was seen in the jokbo documentation (written in Chinese as is the Korean tradition).

For Gupta, his father’s lineage was still intact but this time it was held through a combination of oral history (his father visited the village that still has elders who remembered his father or Sanjay’s grandfather), and written documentation held on immensely long strips of paper material stored in a collection held by two brothers in their house (or a structure that doesn’t look fitting for preserving this kind of paper). It struck me how delicate these histories are held by living memory and preserved under conditions that could easily be subject to natural disaster or social disorder. Imagine if the Mormons can make a copy of this and store it in their archives.

So if you wind up searching for your roots, you may want to send a thank-you to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who are fervently working at preserving a wealth of data that can give us a sense of rootedness and meaning that is irreplaceable.

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  • JB

    The Mormons’ database can sometimes be useful for first clues, but any professional genealogist can tell you the LDS records – which are usually transcribed from original records by amateurs who often are ignorant of important details of history methods of research – contain many errors. The two main errors are mistakes in transcription (for example unfamiliarity with archaic script) and/or jumping to conclusions about the significance of the original records.

    In my own research occasionally using LDS transcriptions of English church records, I have seen one of my own ancestors mistakenly recorded as his own father. I have also seen mistaken assumptions about ancestors’ parents’ identities, usually based on jumping to conclusions about similar names.

    On the other hand the LDS transcriptions have occasionally given me clues which were later confirmed by finding the original records. In sum, the LDS database is okay for a start, but it must be corroborated by researching original records.

    • jim

      Every transcription or abstraction must be verified, no matter what group or person did it. You always need to locate the original records (or images of them) whenever possible. The genealogy community would be in a world of hurt if not for the LDS.

  • TH

    It’s no secret that the Mormons have a long history of recording genealogy info. Even many of the commercial researchers and companies rely on or share Mormons’ records these days. When the 1940 US census came out a few weeks ago I decided to try volunteering to “index” their records (so someone can later use a search bar without having to dig through so many documents). It’s true that a few of the names were hard to read, but even as a beginner I felt confident that I had most all of it right. From what I understand, some people do it as serious hobbyists. The originals records are still there to confirm things with, if I messed anything up.

  • Jenny

    It’s a good reminder that anytime you are doing geneology, you should look at the original records whenever possible. Most LDS members are only amature geneologists so mistakes are to be expected.

  • Poqui

    LDS Records has the original books and microfilms of original documents for the professional genealogist to research. Anyone who relies on the transcribed database can face some of the problems described by JB.

    Either way, we owe a big thanks to LDS records for microfilming records all over the world.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints travel all over the world to record archives, and ask permission to make copies, traditionally on microfilm, in return for which they give a copy of the microfilm to the original record repository. The original microfilms have been stored in a temperature ans humidity controlled storage facility that was carved out of the granite mountain from which the stone was cut for the Salt Lake City Temple. Copies are made and can be shipped on request to any of the LDS Church Family History libraries worldwide. The records are being digitized and translated so they can be searched electronically and the original image of each document viewed. This can require huge amounts of time from Church translators, especially for Asian languages that use distinct writing systems that do not use the alphabet. You can go to and find the link to family history resources. There are also other research databases that are offered by commercial groups such as, which build on the LDS Church resources. The LDS Church resiurces are offered at no charge. As people find links to their ancestors in these records, they are often able to add their own information to the whole, which can link them with other distant relatives researching their shared ancestors.

  • kathy

    The LDS records and sites, unlike those of others which charge, are totally free as is the help they offer through their libraries. In over 35 years of genealogical research, I have found the accuracy of their transcriptions to be generally excellent. Are there mistakes? Sure, remember humans do make errors especially when dealing with scripts they are not used to. I would also say I have compared identical records from FamilySearch (the LDS site) with their counterparts on Ancestry and found that overall Ancestry transcriptions have many more egregious errors. All services rely on volunteers, even those who charge. I would suggest JB that you might want to join the 125,000 indexers who volunteer at FamilySearch if you are concerned about accuracy. Give back for all the years of research you have enjoyed as a result of others who have freely given of their time. I would also add that LDS genealogists all would tell you their records are a starting point and you should always go to the original record to view it bringing your own eyes insight for accuracy and other information and clues that might be found. They are always just a starting point. I’ll add my voice…thank you to all the genealogists and volunteers who work tirelessly through the LDS church to provide these records to us and keep them safe for future generations and most of all for providing them to us free of charge. They do a wonderful job and provide an invaluable service to those of us who love genealogy.

  • John Paladin

    As a Latter-day Saint I agree completely with JB.
    LDS genealogical records are a wonderful gift to the world and something that we can justly take some pride in. But secondary records such as the entries in the IGI or Familysearch will never replace primary records in any field of endeavour where some degree of accuracy and intellectual rigour are involved. The well-intentioned efforts of amateurs may be good enough for many people for many purposes but if you really want certainty you must go to the best possible records.
    Fortunately the Church also holds scans, photos and microfilms of numerous primary source documents which are preserved with great care so you can thank them for those too!

  • Jerry

    Thank you to all of the comments so far on this post. I agree with most of them in that while record-keeping is subject to human error, the LDS are able to make use of cutting edge technology to archive and document originals so that cases like the family history of Dr. Sanjay Gupta are not lost in the pre-modern storage shown in the series Finding Your Roots. If their efforts continue, they will have one of the most important copies of all known ancestries since it will be digitized, more easily accessible, more portable, and to some extent more permanent (as long as backups are available somewhere on the interwebs).

  • JRJ

    And if you do find errors, please send photo copies of the original documents to the LDS church so it can be ‘repaired’. We are currently being asked to fix the information on our own lines – self, parents, grandparents -so those errors can be systematically removed. The church will happily take information that anyone can find and document it and add it to their database. With everybody helping, things will eventually get easier and more productive.

  • Tracing one’s roots helps us know ourselves better. Margaret Cho and Dr. Gupta are two of the people included in Proud Americans: Growing Up As Children of Immigrants, a new book that includes over 40 stories about life in the United States. When we understand ourselves, and each other better, everyone wins!