Saturday, March 2, 2019

RootsTech 2019: Daily Recap

Saturday, March 2, 2019:

It's early evening and the snow has started falling in Salt Lake City. I'm nice and toasty in the Family History Library (seriously, what's the thermostat set on?!), and reflecting on the final day of RootsTech

I attended four sessions today:

  • Tracing British Ancestors Through the Ages with Else Churchill, Myko Clelland, and Audrey Collins. Else started with an admonition for the audience: "We're British and speak fast, so keep up!" The presenters whisked us through British history spanning the 17th century (pre-Civil War) to the Victorian era and into the 20th century. A bevy of records were splashed on the screen for our research consideration. There was a slew of great research tips, too, including Else emphasizing that, "You've got to be open to variance in name spelling. I think I went from Churchyard to Churchill." Myko advised to be prepared to give leeway in your ancestors' ages in Victorian era census records. The ages were often rounded down. For example, even Queen Victoria was enumerated younger than she actually was.
Audrey Collins, Myko Clelland, and Else Churchill (at podium)

  • Writing and Publishing a Family History: 10 Steps with Penelope Stratton. I've been writing about my fifth great-grandfather for months. This session was fantastic and provided to-the-point tips to make the writing process smooth while tailoring, to the extent possible, the content to appeal to my audience (let's just say my genealogical tome is likely to appeal to a very niche readership!). Penelope implored the audience to action: "No one knows your family history like you do. I urge you to get it into print. It's the best way to ensure you're leaving a legacy. Get something tangible." I was sold! Penelope, who's affiliated with the New England Historic Genealogical Society, has published a book on the topic: Guide to Genealogical Writing. She warned there were only a few copies left at the NEHGS booth in the Expo Hall. After the presentation, I briefly discussed my project with her and then hoofed it over to the expo hall just in time to watch the last copy being purchased. A pox on that shopper's family history! I joke, I joke.

  • Connecting Your DNA Matches with Diahan Southard. I can't get enough DNA coursework because of the potential it holds for helping me advance my Kirk family research (my passion project). Diahan's session focused on the importance of genetic networks to help answer specific research questions. I track my genetic networks using Excel spreadsheets of my own design. I was curious to learn about new tools that automate much of the work, including and Clearly, I have homework for after I fly home tonight in the hotel. 

  • It's Called FAMILY History: Top Tips for Collaborating With Living Family Members with Crista Cowan and her father Stephen Cowan. Crista, who works for, and her father have set a weekly phone date to work through their most recent DNA matches. Why have they conducted this collaboration for more than two years? Simply put, two heads are better than one. It was a touching and funny presentation. Crista joked: "I read obituaries every Sunday night to my dad like they're bedtime stories." There was a particularly funny exchange that happened, which I shared on Twitter:

And that's a wrap! 

During four wonderfully-exhausting days, I attended twenty-three different sessions (very nearly an entire 24 hours of genealogical learning and entertainment). I got to learn from experts in the field who I've seen on TV, listened to on podcasts, and read their published works. 

I met dozens of family historians - some I've known for years on social media but am only now getting to put Twitter handles with faces. I connected with my genealogy community.




Indeed, Connect and Belong. 


As I was writing this post, I was approached by a gentleman who asked if I was Family Sleuther. FamilySearch's Family Tree app includes a Relatives at RootsTech feature that identifies potential cousin matches based on the shared pedigree. We were a match.

Allow me to introduce you to @researchfamtree, my potential 9th cousin!

Friday, March 1, 2019:

Day three of RootsTech. You know the protocol: in my seat for sessions beginning at 8:00 am and buckled in for a day of back-to-back learning. Today's lineup included:

  • Writing Powerful Family History Stories with Valerie Elkins, Rhonda Lauritzen, and Rachel Trotter. In the thick of writing my own book about my fifth great-grandfather, I was keen for tips that would liven up the material (to the extent that's possible). I loved Valerie's recommendation to choose your most cherished, most-told stories because you know them so well, and they make for an easy place to start. Another good point was the recommendation to focus on your story's theme. The advice: focus on your protagonist's change. "Every great story is about transformation."

  • Video Magic: Creating Brilliant Videos Quick and Easily with Lisa Louise Cooke. I've recently started producing short films for a Facebook family group that I administer. The response from group members has been rousing. Lisa is a fantastic presenter, and knows how to pull at her audience's heartstrings. Her advice: make the story personal. Why? Fred (Mr.) Rogers put it best, "There isn't anyone you couldn't learn to love once you've heard their story." Stories that are personalized make for compelling viewing.
Lisa Louise Cooke

  • Chromosome Mapping Tips and Techniques with Blaine Bettinger. I aspire to make greater use of third-party tools that afford me expanded ability to interpret my genetic data. Blaine's session was a breezy walk-through the capabilities of DNA Painter. The program maps DNA that you've pinpointed to a particular ancestor on a graphic illustration of your chromosomes. I look forward to giving this a whirl. I wonder which snippets of my chromosomes can be attributed to Thomas Kirk (my 5th great-grandfather)?

  • General Session with Saroo Brierley, who was separated from his family at five years old, shared his remarkable journey from his adoptive Australian family to his home in India. The incredible saga was recently told in the film Lion.
Saroo Brierley

  • I split my afternoon between two sessions, which were competing interests. First up was David Allen Lambert presenting on Colonial New England Research and Resources. There's fantastic record-keeping in the region and many detailed genealogies (some even dating back centuries). But, David cautions, "Question older genealogies" so you don't perpetuate a mistake that was made 100 years ago. I slipped out to catch the tail end of How to Start a Family History Blog and Why You Might Want To with Laura Hedgecock and Elizabeth O'Neal. A highlight for me was meeting Linda, the blogger behind Empty Branches on the Family Tree. I've followed her work for years, so it was good to finally put a face with the blog.

  • My academic schedule for the day wrapped up with D. Joshua Taylor presenting Land Records: 15 Steps to Move Beyond the Index. Followers of this blog know that I've been toiling with trying to pinpoint the location of a 100-acre tract of land that my maybe sixth great-grandfather Joseph Kirk leased beginning in 1773. I'm eager to apply some of his tips to this lease and see what additional clues I can wring from the record.

At day's end, I joined the crowds back in the expo hall, checking out what the many exhibitors had on offer.

I also met Jenna, aka Seeking Surnames, who won my RootsTech free pass giveaway. I've known Jenna for several years through #Genchat, an online Twitter conversation. I've said this so much this week, but it really was a pleasure to finally meet in person.

Family Sleuther and Seeking Surnames
I also met Nathan Dylan Goodwin, another social media buddy and author of the Forensic Genealogist, a series of genealogical crime mysteries. I picked up the first book in the series, Hiding the Past, which I look forward to reading.

Family Sleuther with Nathan Dylan Goodwin

Thursday, February 28, 2019:

Bright and early this morning, I made a beeline for the convention center. By 8:00 am I was in for another succession of fantastic RootsTech sessions, including:

  • The Ultimate Guide to Tracing British Isles Roots with Jen Baldwin, Myko Clelland, and Brian Donovan. A key takeaway for my Irish research (those pesky Quirks/Kirks) was learning from Brian that Irish Protestants migrated in proportionally higher numbers because they more often spoke English, and they often migrated to Canada because it was government subsidized. I also learned that Irish Quaker records are quite robust, survive largely intact, and date to 1660. Many Irish Quakers migrated to America. I'm not sure whether my Irish ancestors were Quakers, but worth investigating.
Myko Clelland, Brian Donovan, and Jen Baldwin

  • General Session with CEO Margo Georgiadis and featuring Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond. Margo announced a slate of new tools that Ancestry unveiled today, including a new approach for tagging family trees and a DNA tool (ThruLines) to help suss out shared family connections. That latter tool will be especially helpful given that the AncestryDNA database is about to hit 15 million. 
Margo Georgiadis, CEO

Patricia Heaton extolled the virtues of family - no less true for a Hollywood actress - and that, at our core, we all share more in common than not: "We need to remind ourselves that despite our differences, we're all one family."

Patricia Heaton

  • What You Don't Know About Ancestry with Crista Cowan. Crista picked up where Ancestry's CEO left off in the plenary, and provided a precursory preview of each of the new features unveiled today. I'm quite antsy to begin tinkering with them, and see how they enhance my own family history research.  
Crista Cowan

  • Go Behind-the-Scenes of Long Lost Family with Lisa Joyner and Chris Jacobs. I love this show, and was very glad to see the hosts on the agenda. If you haven't yet, watch this series, which seeks to reunite adoptees with their biological family. Although the emphasis isn't necessarily on the genealogical research conducted to connect lost family, the human stories are incredibly compelling television.
Lisa Joyner and Chris Jacobs (center)

  • Ask the Experts with Kenyatta Berry, Angie Bush, and D. Joshua Taylor. The concept for this session was great. Get three expert genealogists on one stage and have the audience pepper them with questions. Even better, the session encouraged users to submit questions via Slido, an online event question aggregator. I was able to get a few questions in, including whether recent popular media stories on DNA (some sensationalized and others with merit) will negatively impact sales and folks' willingness to test (yes, already happening, says Angie). I also asked about the prospects for PBS' Genealogy Roadshow returning for another season. Kenyatta and Josh said that was possible; the show was not canceled just on hiatus. And, lastly, what innovations are on the horizon for genealogy? Kenyatta flagged greater records access, particularly for materials held by academic archives. Josh anticipated technology that would further bridge the divide between DNA and paper trail.
Kenyatta Berry, D. Joshua Taylor, and Angie Bush

Other highlights of the day included wandering through the expo hall, which boasts an array of family history vendors. 

I listened to Lisa Louise Cooke record a Genealogy Gems podcast. Then, a few booths later, I got to share my adoration face-to-face with Brooke, the wonderfully witty mover and shaker behind Reclaim the Records, a nonprofit organization using government open records laws to make genealogically-relevant records publicly available. Financial supporters of the organization received t-shirts, too. Please and thank you!

It was also selfie day at RootsTech. There was no shortage of snapshots with genealogists I admire and engage with on Twitter.





@ShamrockGen, @FamilySleuther, @GenealogyJen, and @Pressingback
Photo courtesy of @ShamrockGen, used by permission

Wednesday, February 27, 2019:

It's been a looong yet fantastic first day of RootsTech 2019!

By my tally, I logged over six hours with some of genealogy's most high profile names:

  • Me and My 1,000+ DNA 4th Cousins with Diahan Southard. After a breezy introduction to genetic genealogy and an overview of autosomal's limitations due to recombination, Diahan walked attendees through her protips to help determine which of your many DNA matches (should you be so lucky to have hundreds, like I do) to focus your valuable research effort and time on. Key takeaway: DNA is a fantastic revolutionary tool that can point you in the right direction, but you will always have to couple it with traditional genealogy to prove a relationship. I'm eager to apply Diahan's strategies, and see if I can make some progress and tame my genetic horde.
Diahan Southard posing for Australian genealogist Jill Ball
  • Tools for Your Genealogy Business with Amy Johnson Crow. Amy offered pointers on how to avoid the social media black hole and make the most of promoting a genealogy business or blog through thoughtful and data-informed social media techniques. I was particularly glad for the chance to see Amy present because she was a key figure who inspired this blog - nearly six years ago! - with her 52 Ancestors blogging prompts.
The author with Amy Johnson Crow
  • Everyone Has a Story, Even You! with Blaine Bettinger, Angie Bush, and Diahan Southard. This genetic genealogy trio walked two normal people (i.e., not celebrities) through their ancestry - essentially a real-time Who Do You Think You Are? The case studies reinforced the premise that Diahan introduced earlier in the morning that DNA cannot be divorced from the paper trail. A complete family history story requires both.
Southard, Bush, and Bettinger

Fantastic connecting with genealogy friends from social media like @sosonkyrie
  • Italian Genealogical Records and Strategies for Success with Mary Tedesco. Mary is familiar to many because of her work on PBS's Genealogy Roadshow. With a compelling passion for Italy, she warmed the crowd up with a round robin of the Italian hometowns of audience members' ancestors. I've enjoyed my Italian genealogy because the civil records made for a methodical research process. One record led to the next, and I quickly bounded back each preceding generation. I'm now at a point where I'm ready to tip my toe in Catholic Church records, but have found the access issue particularly daunting. Mary underscored the potential value of the church's records thanks in huge part to the Council of Trent, which standardized the creation of ecclesiastical records in 1563. The prospect of being able to take my genealogy back anywhere near that year is quite exciting.
  • Use an Ancestor's FAN Club to Get Past Brick Walls with Drew Smith. A longtime fan of the Genealogy Guys podcast, I'm always game to listen to Drew or George Morgan. Drew shared examples from his own research to illustrate the value of the FAN Club principle: researching your ancestors' Family/Friends, Acquaintances, and Neighbors to suss out forgotten relationships that may point to clues needed to help roadblocked researchers puzzle out the truth behind those relatives who were seemingly dropped off at random by aliens (the only conceivable explanation for their sudden appearance or disappearance from the records).
  • General Session with Steve Rockwood. FamilySearch's CEO, Steve Rockwood, welcomed the crowd and reminded everyone that "Family history is not a spectator sport" and nothing happens unless you act on it. FamilySearch announced that it was making a generous $2 million donation to the new International African American Museum's Center for Family History in Charleston, South Carolina. The museum is under construction on the site of a wharf that saw the largest number of enslaved Africans brought to America and sold into slavery. Its president, Michael B. Moore, is a descendant of Robert Smalls who "bet everything he had on everything he dreamed of" and sought freedom in the north at the outset of the Civil War. He eventually served in the Union Army, persuaded President Lincoln to enlist African Americans in the armed services, and even served in Congress until the encroachment of Jim Crow. There's a lot of potential with this new center to deepen the understanding of the ancestral origins for many African Americans. Martin Luther King III joined the chorus of voices on stage to cheer the investment, as he underscored that, "knowing who and where we come from and how we're connected creates a more powerful present and hopeful future."
Steve Rockwood, FamilySearch CEO

Martin Luther King III

I attend many large conferences for my day job, and I can confidently say that the RootsTech team has pulled off an exceedingly polished endeavor. 

There were no lines to get into any of the sessions. Presentations were in large rooms with plenty of seats to accommodate attendees. And the conference app has made quick work of accessing session handouts, rating sessions, and catching last-minute conference updates. I applaud their efforts, which have created a polished learning/networking environment focused on connecting and belonging. And we're only just beginning.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019:

First full day in Salt Lake City is now under my belt, and what a busy day it was.

Bright and early, I joined the chorus of genealogists cheering the Family History Library to open its doors. When the locks finally clicked, we mobbed made our way inside and each headed off for own merry rounds of research.

I dove headfirst into my never-ending, never-yielding Kirk family mysteries (stay tuned for that post next week). Nothing puts you in genealogy purgatory faster than trawling through 18th century (West) Virginia land deeds for hours. Nothing.

At lunch, I made my way to the Salt Palace Convention Center to pick up my RootsTech 2019 conference materials. It was an incredibly smooth process: in and out in a matter of minutes. No uncertainty about where I needed to go. No lines. No hassle. Well done!

After registration and a quick bite to eat, it was back to the library and more research before this evening's RootsTech Media Dinner (as a reminder, I'm serving as a conference Ambassador).

This year, the conference anticipates nearly 14,000 attendees from all 50 US states and 37 different countries. That's a lot of folks to connect with and geek out over our shared passion. Quite fitting when you consider the conference's theme is: Connect. Belong.

Bottom line: this year's event promises a dynamic experience for attendees: high profile keynote speakers, hundreds of classes, tech offerings (check out FamilySearch's Family Tree app and the Family History Activities option to tinker with the gamification of genealogy - which of your ancestors do you most closely resemble?). 

Stay tuned. The updates continue...

Monday, February 25, 2019:

I'm here! Family Sleuther is finally - after a flight delay - in Salt Lake City and ready to kick-off RootsTech 2019. Follow this space in the coming days to catch-up on all of the family history conference excitement as seen through my eyes.

Today's highlights include:

  • Escaping winter weather to successfully fly across country, and having my checked bag arrive, too. Celebrate every victory!
Today's lowlight includes:

  • Discovering that my airplane window seat - for which I paid extra - provided a rather opaque view of the world around me. A five hour jaunt across the country felt like I was in a windowless room. Oh, because I was!

Tomorrow we get down to the business of family history! Check back to see what RootsTech has in store for us. 


  1. You chose the Saturday classes that I had on my list but didn't make it to. It's so hard to choose sometimes, isn't it?

    1. It really is! I was just reading Roberta Estes' recap and saw sessions and exhibitors that I somehow managed to miss (I suppose not too difficult when the conference is attended by thousands of people). So much great genealogy action going on!