If you’re Mormon or interested in learning about Mormon family history, this guide will get you on your way. Even if you and your family are not Mormon or of Mormon descent, you may still gain considerable value from the billions of records painstakingly amassed and categorized by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the years.
These records are extensive, and many are freely available. Countless professional and amateur genealogists of all faith traditions have found valuable insight from the records kept by the LDS Church.
This beginner’s guide to Mormon genealogy will introduce you to the many resources available to help you uncover your family history. It will cover:
- How to trace your ancestors within the LDS Church.
- How to use the databases, programs, and resources developed by the LDS Church (helpful for both Mormons and people of other traditions).
The LDS Church has a deep commitment to family history. As I’ll discuss below, the Church is the primary benefactor of FamilySearch, one of the largest and most popular genealogical websites. Brigham Young University even offers entire degree programs in family history.
So why such an interest in genealogy?
One reason for this interest is the Mormon belief that the dead can be baptized posthumously.
Countless generations of people died before the establishment of the LDS Church by Joseph Smith in 1830. Still more have lived post-1830 while following different faiths. If you belong to the LDS Church and can identify ancestors who have passed away without belonging to the Church, you can have baptisms performed on their behalf.
As the Church explains:
“Many people have lived on the earth who never heard of the gospel of Jesus Christ and who were not baptized. Others lived without fully understanding the importance of the ordinance of baptism. Still others were baptized, but without proper authority.
“Because He is a loving God, the Lord does not damn those people who, through no fault of their own, never had the opportunity for baptism. He has therefore authorized baptisms to be performed by proxy for them…
“The validity of a baptism for the dead depends on the deceased person accepting it and choosing to accept and follow the Savior while residing in the spirit world.”
Mormons cite various scriptural passages to support their belief in baptism for the dead, including 1 Corinthians 15:29. For devout Church members, genealogy is more than a simple hobby; it leads to the salvation of more souls and the enduring strength and cohesion of the family.
LDS family history resources
If your chief interest lies in tracing LDS family history, the LDS Church History Library in Salt Lake City is extremely valuable.
One of your first steps should be to consult this family history research guide by the LDS Church. It provides an overview of available sources, which you will need to consult to learn more about your family: Church periodicals, migration-related sources, Church census records, letters, photographs, and more.
Another important resource from the LDS Church History Library is this guide: “Find Your Family in Church History.” It points you to notable databases containing information on members of the Church. These include:
- An index of people named in the Joseph Smith papers, which will come in handy if your relatives interacted at all with Joseph Smith.
- An index of letters written to Brigham Young, which comprises around 15,000 letters dated between 1844 and 1877.
- A daily history of the Church, including information from newspapers, meeting minutes, and diary entries, from 1830 to 2008.
In addition, acquaint yourself with the following sites:
- Tracing Mormon Pioneers: Was your family part of the Mormon migration period of 1847 to 1868? Whether they came from Europe, Australia, or South Africa, this site will help you trace their journey to Salt Lake City.
- Early Latter-day Saints: A Mormon Pioneer Database: Another site that can help you locate your family members within early LDS history.
- Archives: LDS Genealogy and Mormon Family Search: Use this site to search for vital records.
- Church History, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Here you can find a wealth of historical information that will allow you to put your own family in context.
- Early Mormon Missionaries (1830-1930): Do you know or suspect that one of your ancestors was a missionary? If so, head to this site to learn more.
You may also want to take a look at the Nauvoo Community Project and the Welsh Mormon Immigrant Project, which I discuss in more detail below as part of Brigham Young University’s family history portal.
The projects, databases, and resources outlined in this section are primarily intended for LDS family history. If you or your family members are Mormon, these resources will send you down the path of discovering more about your family origins.
Now, I’ll discuss the many, many resources developed and supported by the LDS Church to support all forms of genealogical research. The following sections apply to anyone interested in genealogy, regardless of personal background.
One of the most popular genealogical sites, FamilySearch is run by the LDS Church, as an extension of the Church’s strong commitment to family. This service is free to use. So, what can you accomplish with FamilySearch?
- Search databases containing billions of names.
- Find your ancestors in a variety of historical records (birth, marriage, death, etc.)
- Build a family tree.
- Create a photo gallery.
- Keep large quantities of information organized.
- Find a Family History Center or FamilySearch affiliate library in your area.
In short, FamilySearch is a fantastic platform for anyone wishing to delve into family history. It provides access to a range of historical sources and has an incredible large database.
You can also import data from FamilySearch to several genealogical software programs, including Family Tree Maker 2017, Family Tree Heritage 9, and Legacy 9. If you do end up investing in some genealogical software, you’ll be able to merge your findings from multiple sources, an essential part of staying organized.
Brigham Young University: Family History Portal
This portal is an excellent first stop for anyone with an interest in genealogy. It’s maintained by Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. The university even offers four-year degree programs and internships in Family History, in addition to numerous databases, research tools, and resources.
Where to look first?
For beginners, I suggest heading over to the Family History Lab and taking a look at the 5-step research process outlined there. It will provide your research with some direction and keep you on track as your research develops.
I then recommend exploring the materials available at the BYU Family History Library, especially the webinars and tutorials. Ground yourself in the major principles of genealogical research, and familiarize yourself with the kinds of records available.
Then it’s time for a deep dive into your family’s past!
But first, let’s take a quick look at the programs, resources, and links collected in BYU’s Family History Portal:
Family History BA program and internships
BYU’s BA degree program in Family History is the only one of its kind in North America. It prepares students for careers in genealogical research, libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, and technology companies.
BYU also encourages its students to undertake internships in family history. Interns might work at national or regional archives, the Library of Congress, genealogical research societies such as Ancestry, or state historical societies.
If you are interested in a career in genealogy or family history, you may want to look into the extensive programs that BYU offers.
And if your interest in genealogy is more personal, the Family History portal can also direct you to countless genealogical resources to conduct your own research.
Family History Library at BYU
The BYU Family History Library has a truly incredible wealth of information. On the library’s homepage, you’ll find links to digital state archives, maps, online and digitized newspapers, reference materials (Cyndi’s List, foreign word lists, city directories, and so on), and various records (census records, obituaries, military records, and more).
The Library holds regular in-person classes on topics such as: identifying British and Irish church records, using DNA information, researching German ancestors, and learning basic family church skills.
For those who don’t live near Provo, Utah, there are still options to learn about family history from BYU, thanks to its online webinars, YouTube channel, and tutorials.
The Library webinars cover a dizzying array of topics. Just a few examples:
- Making the Most of Ancestry.com, with James Tanner
- Y-DNA for Genealogists, with Paul Dunn
- Deep Dive: FamilySearch.org, with Kathryn Grant
- Beginning German Research, with Laurie Castillo
- Introduction to Slovenian Research, with Milan Pohontsch
- A Deeper Look at Homestead Land for Genealogists, with James Tanner
- Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for Genealogists, with Blake Gulbransen
- How to Write a Compelling Story about Your Ancestor, with Heather Pack
- Inherited Family Records? Now What? With Jean Naisbitt
The are dozens of webinars available. As you can see from this short sampling, they cover a wide range of topics and are suitable for people of all levels of experience.
If, for example, you’re interested in tracing back your German ancestry, Laurie Castillo’s “Beginning German Research” webinar is an excellent place to start.
Or if, on the other hand, your research is well under way but you’re struggling to make the most of certain records or research tools, there are webinars for that too. The Library resources are valuable no matter where you are in your research journey.
If you’re new to genealogical research, I recommend browsing the Family History Library website to get a sense of how it can help you.
Choose a relevant introductory webinar, and don’t get overwhelmed just yet by the hundreds of resources out there. When you’re just starting out, it’s best to take note of your options, and then choose something and get to work.
Once you’re well underway, you may encounter new questions and challenges—and there will almost certainly be a webinar here that can help you!
Center for Family History and Genealogy
The BYU Center for Family History and Genealogy is primarily intended to assist students and scholars in their research and to support family history research projects. However, it also maintains guides and tutorials that are helpful for the general public.
If you are working with old documents, you will need to develop paleographical skills. In this case, check out BYU’s Script Tutorial, which will help you learn how to decipher historic handwriting. The tutorial is most helpful for Western European scripts from 1500 to 1800.
The Center also keeps a list of area-specific research guides and materials it has available in-house. For those interested in LDS research, there are multiple relevant books and CDs at the center (the Mormon Immigration Index 1840-1890, for instance), in addition to several outside links (to Tracing Mormon Pioneers, among others).
The Center has organized lists of links, resources, and guides for numerous areas, including Scandinavia, France, Slavic lands, Ireland, and Mexico.
Finally, the Center offers a companion to the Family History Guide. This website hosts an introductory course on family history, comprising 7 lessons with appendices and worksheets.
Family History Lab
BYU’s Family History Lab hosts hands-on workshops for students in Religion 261 class, a key component of undergraduate training for those pursuing study in Family History. Luckily, you can follow along online with some elements of the class!
Check out online lessons covering Family Tree, RootsMagic, FamilySearch.org, and other useful research tools. The Lab also sums up the basic genealogical research process in 5 steps. In essence, these steps can be rephrased into 5 fundamental questions:
- What do you already know?
- What do you want to learn?
- What kind of records do you need?
- Where can you find those records?
- What do those records tell you?
Keep this 5-step overview in mind as you conduct your research.
Family History Technology Lab
This website will link you up with some useful technological tools for unraveling your family story.
It can point you to Relative Finder, Virtual Pedigree, and Descendancy Explorer. Plus, there are programs such as Pedigree Pie, One Page Genealogy, and Family Calendar, which allow you to organize all your data and display it in visually appealing way.
Note that you will need a FamilySearch account to use the above tools.
Nauvoo Community Project
This ongoing genealogical project aims to document inhabitants of Nauvoo, Illinois from 1839 to 1846. This area was home to many early members of the LDS Church. The project is sponsored jointly by BYU’s Center for Family History and Genealogy and LDS Church Historic Sites.
Findings are entered into a searchable database. In addition, project researchers are working to enhance individual entries with images of grave markers, census records, and other forms of documentation. You can search the project for a particular name, or browse all available records.
Immigrant Ancestors Project
Sponsored by BYU’s Center for Family History and Genealogy, the Immigrant Ancestors Project is a searchable database of emigrant records, collected from various European archives.
Emigration registers contain information about the original background of the immigrant in question (specifically, birthplace in country of origin). This information is often missing from records created in the immigrant’s destination country.
Resources for tracing English and Welsh ancestors
Dr. David Pratt has created an entire website dedicated to tracing English ancestry. If you have (or suspect you have) English ancestors, this resource will be extremely valuable.
Dr. Pratt will walk you through from beginning to end, covering the various kinds of sources you will encounter: church records, marriage records, poor law records, maps, and more. This extensive and user-friendly guide contains essential information whether or not you’re a member of the LDS Church.
Another excellent resource for English family history is Bertram Merrell’s Index of English Marriages. The index covers Chester diocese from 1750 to 1836.
BYU is also involved in the Welsh Mormon Immigrant Project, which may be of interest to you if you suspect you have some Welsh ancestry. The project documents people who converted to Mormonism and immigrated from Wales to the United States during the 19th century.
Missionaries to Wales enjoyed considerable success during this time, leading thousands of Welsh people to convert to Mormonism and move west with Brigham Young in the Mormon Migration. Even today, around 20% of Utah’s population has Welsh ancestry.
You can search for Welsh Mormon family members in the project’s Immigrant Listing.
MyFamily History Youth Camp
Looking to share a love of family history with your children? Or are you yourself between the ages of 14 and 18?
Held over the course of 4 days on BYU’s campus in Provo, Utah, the myFamily History Youth Camp is designed to teach teens genealogical research skills. It’s an excellent way to introduce young people to family history and begin instruction in research techniques that have broader applications as well.
Family History Library, Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City, Utah is home to the biggest genealogical library in the world: the Family History Library. Inside, you can expect to find:
- Trained staff and volunteers to provide research assistance.
- 600,000 books, serials, and maps.
- 4 million rolls of microfilm (and 200 microfilm and microfiche readers).
- 550 guest computers and online access to billions of records and images.
- Free access to scanning equipment.
If you live near Salt Lake City or are able to visit, the Family History Library will undoubtedly by extremely helpful, whatever your genealogical goals are. You can also search its records online. Finally, note that the library offers classes, another great way to get help with your research and meet likeminded people.
Family History Centers
Family History Centers are local branches of the Family History Library and FamilySearch. There are well over 4000 FHCs and they are located around the world, in over 100 different countries. Click here to search for the FHC nearest you!
The exact hours and services offered may vary by location. One great benefit of FHCs is that they allow you to use subscription-based genealogy services for free. Your local FHC will likely have subscriptions to:
- 19th Century British Newspapers Database
- Paper Trail: A Guide to Overland Pioneer Names and Documents
Granite Mountain Records Vault
Constructed in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah in 1965, Granite Mountain Records Vault is the biggest repository of genealogical records in the world. It is now home to over 3.5 billion records, preserved on microfilm, microfiche, and digital media.
Although the Vault cannot be accessed by the general public, FamilySearch is presently working to digitize these records and provide wider access to them.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has done considerable work to promote family history research and make research tools, databases, and source material more widely available. This guide has covered several of the major projects supported by the LDS Church and Brigham Young University.
FamilySearch in particular has broad, general use, allowing you to sift through millions of records and keep track of what you find. Since this service is free, there’s no risk to making an account and seeing how it can help you find your ancestors.
BYU’s Family History Library and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City are vital resources, worth a trip to Utah if possible. The BYU Library in particular has numerous online resources, making it extremely helpful no matter where in the world you are. I highly recommend searching through its online tutorials and webinars to find any that suit your needs.
Family History Centers provide space to pursue your family history research with access to subscription-only databases and a community of genealogists.
Finally, if you are Mormon and interested in tracing your Mormon ancestors, you will be most interested in resources such as the Nauvoo Community Project, the Welsh Mormon Immigrant Project and Tracing Mormon Pioneers. These projects focus on LDS communities and are searchable online.