The 49th annual Conference on Family History and Genealogy was held at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, July 25 through July 28, 2017. There were about 500 individuals in attendance throughout the course of the four-day conference. As is tradition, the first three days were each opened by general sessions with Elder H. Bryan Richards, Jeff Marks, Susan Easton Black, and George Durrant as the plenary speakers.
Tuesday: Elder H. Bryan Richards, “Not Forgotten”
On Tuesday, Elder H. Bryan Richards, who is currently serving as the patriarch of the Salt Lake Holladay Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, addressed the conference. He confessed that he is “not an expert to tell [someone] how [to do genealogy],” but he laid a doctrinal foundation of this vital work and testified of the miracles and power of the Lord in this work. He quoted Malachi 4:5–6 and then quoted the current president of the Salt Lake Temple, Cecil Samuelson, as saying, “What Elijah was to restore was to be so powerful that it would save the earth from destruction.” Elder Richards continued, “if [the Holy Ghost] is not included [in your research] you are missing a vital dimension.”
Elder Richards shared three stories of ancestors who blessed his family’s life and of the miracles of how his family found the ancestors. The assistance the Richards family received came through quiet inspiration, serendipitous opportunities, and unexpected financial gifts. Those ancestors not forgotten in his stories were two little girls, an infant boy, and a daughter from England who came through the Salt Lake Valley but who was lost. This daughter was found buried in the paupers’ section of an Australian cemetery. Since that time, a cemetery marker has been placed on her grave with her vital information and the words “Not Forgotten.”
Elder Richards admonished those in attendance to find the “not forgotten” people in their family lines. He concluded his remarks by saying, “Until we have paid the price ourselves to find someone, we will not have felt the true joy and power of the Spirit [in this work].”
Wednesday: Jeff Marks, “A Family History Journey”
On Wednesday, Jeff Marks took those in attendance on a journey from Seattle to Haiti to Wyoming to Montenegro. It all began when Jeff left Seattle to serve a humanitarian mission in Haiti. It was there that he met Dr. Larry McGarvin, who just happened to be from the same small town in Wyoming as Jeff’s grandfather. Something Dr. McGarvin said sparked an interest in Jeff. He soon learned that his grandfather had changed his surname to Marks from Mijušković, and he wanted to know more.
Upon Jeff’s return to Seattle, he met with his ward temple and family history consultant who suggested that he order his great-grandfather’s death certificate. It confirmed the last name and provided a place to start his research. On the same day that the document arrived, a parent of a patient came into Jeff’s office, and she just happened to be a native speaker of Montenegrin, the native language of his great-grandfather. She offered to translate a letter so he could obtain more information from the Montenegro government offices.
On a whim, Jeff checked flights to Montenegro—$6700. The price made a trip impossible! Then he had a flash of inspiration: what if he were to fly to Iceland, the place where he served his LDS mission, and then fly to Montenegro? It turned out that it would cost $780 roundtrip. He could afford that, and he went to Montenegro with 50 copies of the translated letter hoping to find more information about his family.
On his first day in Montenegro, Jeff went to the local church. No luck. On the second day, he met a man who spoke both Spanish and English. Finally, he could communicate on his own behalf. He told this man what he was looking for, and the man responded, “So what you’re looking for is a miracle.” He sent Jeff miles away to the upper room of the Monastery of Ostrog. Jeff arrived on the third day and found a small room that was relatively unadorned but with a few relics. He took photos, but the trip was a disappointment. When he left, he decided to take a different road than the road he originally took, and he met another man in the middle of what seemed to be nowhere. Jeff handed him the letter. This man motioned to Jeff to follow him. He took Jeff to a place with two uninhabited homes in disrepair and said as he pointed to each one, “Mijušković, Mijušković.” Although Jeff did not know the meaning of that moment, he knew it was significant.
On the fourth day, Jeff met with the president of the historical society. It was a miracle that a young girl was there to translate. He learned that “all Mijušković descendants come from two brothers in the late 1600s.” These brothers, a priest and a farmer, survived a terrible tragedy by being protected by Venetian guards. It was those brothers’ homes that the man had showed Jeff on the third day.
On the fifth day, he met Ilija Mijušković, a translator who was typically available a couple of weeks each year. Ilija took a detailed history of Jeff’s knowledge of his American family and then took Jeff to a local cemetery and commented that there were “so many wars. All of our family history is gone.” Yet one monument stood. It was that of Marko Mijušković, 1839–1935, Jeff’s great-great-grandfather. Ilija later revealed that the family tree he had been working on for 47 years had one question mark: what happened to Jeff’s great-grandfather and his descendants after they emigrated. This is why the encounter began with a detailed interview of Jeff’s family. Ilija descends from the priest; Jeff descends from the farmer. Jeff volunteered to fund the publishing of Ilija’s research, and upon Jeff’s return to the United States, Ilijia wrote to Jeff that they would “write the history of our brotherhood together.” Jeff then showed the audience the results of this journey—a beautifully bound and detailed history of the Mijušković family.
Thursday: George Durrant and Susan Easton Black, “Family History—We’re Living It!”
The final plenary session on Thursday featured two beloved and accomplished LDS authors, George Durrant and Susan Easton Black. George encouraged the audience to seek out “[their] real heritage as [children] of God” and write their personal histories. He suggested that a personal history be written about the heroes in [their] life, not about [them] as a hero. In addition, he encouraged each person to “use [their] heart as [their] source” and “show how [they] dealt with problems.” Using a sports analogy, he concluded, “Some of the stories from the bench are the best stories of all.”
Susan Easton Black shared some of her personal history as a young girl who wanted to hear stories of princesses in fairy tales but instead had a grandmother who shared stories of real people. It was very discouraging to hear stories that lacked the glamour of Cinderella and others. Unlike her pioneer ancestors, she would not have wanted to be seen wearing gunny sacks on her feet as she entered the Salt Lake Valley for fear of what the boys would think!
In her youth, Susan took it upon herself to type the contents of her grandmother’s book of remembrance. Realizing that there were conflicts in the data, she asked her grandmother about it, to which her grandmother replied that she had no money to buy certificates. Susan decided to drop out of piano lessons and purchase certificates to verify the information. When she received her patriarchal blessing, she was promised that she would have great joy in the work of family history. She wasn’t too happy about this pronouncement. She was concerned that she might just “melt into the microfilm.” Susan acknowledged that “being a genealogist requires a lot of private time, but we must make sure it’s not a lonely time.”
In telling their stories, Susan and George provided comic relief on the third day of the conference. They have individually authored a plethora of books and many articles related to family history. Susan remarked, “Family history and genealogy—we’re living it!” Has it brought her great joy? Absolutely!
This conference was sponsored by the BYU History Department, BYU Center for Family History and Genealogy, FamilySearch, Family History Library, and BYU Continuing Education. In addition, the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGen) offered two days of instruction, the Daughters of the American Revolution were available to answer questions and assist in application submission, and the conference offered a myriad of presentations on many subjects including record sets, methodology, and DNA.