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How I Got Hooked: My Confession

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 26, 2009

Hello. My name is Ardis. I am a research addict.

It all started on a fall evening in 1986, and it’s the fault of the gentleman whose picture you see here – John Saunders (1805-1860). Yeah, that’s him. Take a close look. He looks a little odd because his eyes were blue, and blue did not register in the photography of his day. At least he combed his hair before he sat for his portrait, which is more than you can say for his contemporary, Abraham Lincoln.

My father had been interested in family history, or at least the photographs of family members, from the time he was child in Rochester, New York. He collected family pictures beginning in the 1920s and ‘30s, when there were still aunts and uncles around who could identify the Civil War generation, and a few even older. When he joined the Church in 1964, he dabbled a bit in organizing data about his ancestors preparatory to temple ordinances, but his primary interest remained centered on his huge family photograph collection.

Because Dad was himself a photographer, he made copies of his pictures and stored the originals carefully away. Some kids grow up with Sesame Street flashcards; I grew up with my own copies of the portraits of ancestors, learning to distinguish one stern face from another.

But there was one couple Dad could not identify – this man, and his wife, also shown here. He knew they were the parents of Ann Saunders Parshall, but he did not know their names. So for me, too, they remained mysterious – “the scary man who wasn’t really scary (it was only his blue eyes that made him look that way), and his wife.”

Flash forward to 1986, a few days before that fateful fall evening. I was living and working in Provo, trying to get back into school post-mission. Dad called me as excited as I had ever heard him. For the first time in who knows how many years, he had been handling his original portraits, and there on the backs of these two, written as plain as day, were the names “John Saunders” and “Nancy Gage Saunders.” Who knew how those inscriptions had been overlooked for so long? But there they were, and there was Dad on the phone, sounding as though he had just won the lottery.

He was so pleased that I decided to see if I could learn something about this couple by going to the genealogical library. I knew there was one on the fourth floor of the BYU library, although I had never used it, so off I went one evening after work.

I was so green then that I didn’t even know that the genealogical library had a separate catalog from the regular BYU library catalog. I was also so afraid of looking like I didn’t belong there that I didn’t dare ask anybody for help. So I bluffed. I walked in, trying to look as if I knew what I was doing.

Okay, everybody seems to be using microfilms, and getting them from those cabinets over there. So in order to cover my ignorance, I opened a random drawer and drew out a random microfilm. There. Now nobody would know I didn’t know how to figure out which microfilm I needed.

Next I walked over to a microfilm reader and saw that there was a diagram showing how to thread the film. Good. I could fiddle with putting my film on the machine while I looked around at what everybody else was doing to figure out how you did this genealogy stuff. Fiddle … fiddle … fiddle … there, the film was on.

I cranked the machine handle, like everybody else was doing. They would crank for a moment, then look down at the screen, then crank some more, and look down again. So I cranked a while, then looked down like they did. And there on the screen I read these words:

John Saunders, a farmer of Yates County, married Nancy Gage, daughter of Amasa Gage of Gorham, Ontario County.

The film I had taken out of the drawer was a collection of New York county histories; the random page where I had stopped cranking was from a history of Yates County, where my family had lived for six generations.

That’s all it took. I was instantly hooked. For the next two years, I worked every evening, every Saturday, and two Sundays a month (they were closed the other two Sundays) until they kicked me out at night playing those obnoxiously loud march tunes over the loudspeaker. During lunch hours and odd moments at work every day, I would type up my finds from the night before. And every morning before work, I would file and organize my growing collection of documents and family files. The pattern of daily research was broken after two years only when a neighbor plowed into my car, and rather than repair the car I spent the insurance money on a field trip to western New York.

I very soon learned that research wasn’t always – wasn’t ever again – as easy as it was on that first visit. While I’ve had some unusual experiences, usually in connection with John Saunders (who had a way of knocking books off shelves or otherwise bringing himself back to my notice whenever he thought I’d been spending too much time on someone else’s family) still, the work progressed only as fast as I learned solid research techniques and put in the time and thought to uncover the facts in the traditional, professional way.

Fast forward again to 1998 when I found myself out of work and needing to reinvent my life because I couldn’t face the thought of going back to a law office One. More. Day. After doing what I could to explore work options each morning, I spent the remainder of the day in the Family History Library in Salt Lake, working on a particularly knotty problem that had eluded other researchers since at least 1903. (Solved it, too – by then, I was good.)

My aunt, who had been working for a couple of years as a church service missionary reading pioneer diaries in the first step of the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database, found a diary of a stranger who had recorded wonderful stories of our own pioneer ancestor, and asked me to transcribe it for her (it was much longer than she could copy out by hand) – and thus I was introduced to the Church Archives, a place I had never guessed existed.

At the same time, I became acquainted with Bill MacKinnon, Will Bagley, and other history-minded people on an e-list for book collectors, and at the Mormon History Association meetings in 1999 I met them in person … at just the time when Bill was looking for someone to do some typing for his Utah War research project. Typing soon expanded to surveying a few films, then into full-fledged research.

And so here I am, hopelessly addicted to historical research.

And not really looking for a cure.



53 Comments »

  1. What a great story!

    Comment by Randy B. — October 26, 2009 @ 8:48 am

  2. That is the most amazing story I’ve ever heard. Wowee. I can’t believe you just randomly picked the right film. Now if I could find some evidence in the Dannar line . . .

    Oh, and I wouldn’t mind having a sign like that to tell me what my calling in life should be. :)

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — October 26, 2009 @ 8:52 am

  3. Epilogue: In the summer of 1999, a lowly graduate student, who had driven several days in a 1991 Mercury Tracer with his wife and two small children (one just three months old), stumbled into the Church archives to do research on his dissertation. There, sitting at the next microfilm reader, was Ardis who showed him how to use a microfilm reader since by now she was very experienced. She also showed that poor, lowly graduate student the ropes of the archives.

    Thank you, Ardis, for all your help.

    Comment by Steve C. — October 26, 2009 @ 9:14 am

  4. I love this story! I can see you walking up onto the fourth floor and I can even imagine the exact look on your face…

    What can you say about those ancestors who can’t let well enough alone but feel the need to pull strings and make connections. It’s great to have experiences like that and so nice of you to share your experience.

    And, as a final note to your story, thank goodness for Bill MacKinnon, and thank goodness for you, Ardis! You’re a real treasure.

    Comment by Researcher — October 26, 2009 @ 9:17 am

  5. Yeah, I can’t believe I’ve waited this long to tell this story — except that by now, you understand that I really do real research and don’t depend on miraculous help, even from John Saunders (who, since my brother did his temple work, has apparently gone on to other assignments, because he no longer keeps me company the way he did for so many years). I neither want to discount the possbility of help from beyond the veil, nor mislead readers into thinking that it’s always going to work this way.

    Michelle, no matter how I twist and turn, I cannot contort one word of my patriarchal blessing into suggesting that I would have any interest in family history, much less build my life around church history. Without an experience like this, I wonder if I ever would have recognized the call.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 26, 2009 @ 9:18 am

  6. It’s inspiring in two ways — first, hearing how you were led to a profession (or obsession, ha) that seems to exactly fit your talents and interests and at the same time blesses others, and second, hearing that you weren’t born knowing how to do research, and thus there may still be hope for those of us who don’t know the first thing about it. Thank you!

    Comment by Tamary — October 26, 2009 @ 9:27 am

  7. Steve, has it really been that long?! And Researcher, there’s no question that it’s Bill’s generosity that has kept me going this long — history is rewarding in a lot of ways, but seldom in the way that keeps the bills paid. I’ll bet you’ve known the tug of your own ancestors from time to time, too.

    Tamary, the second chapter of how green I was when I started: I didn’t know that there were indexes to the censuses. I knew which counties my people were in, but the only way I knew to find them was to read the entire census for that county, line by line, until I found who I was looking for. That may have been a blessing in disguise because I became familiar with the neighbors of my families, and sometimes those neighbors turned out to be cousins.

    But still, I wouldn’t recommend duplicating my pride or fear or whatever it was that kept me from asking for help. Librarians live for the opportunity of helping patrons — ask!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 26, 2009 @ 9:28 am

  8. Fabulous story. I am glad you told it. When amazing events occur (and they do), it becomes hard to argue that someone upstairs does not care.

    Something tells me that you are doing EXACTLY what you are supposed to do.

    Best wishes…

    Comment by S.Faux — October 26, 2009 @ 9:46 am

  9. Wonderful story, Ardis. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Phoebe — October 26, 2009 @ 10:08 am

  10. Thanks, S., Phoebe.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 26, 2009 @ 10:13 am

  11. Thanks for sharing this story, Ardis, with all its wonderful details.

    P.S. You just started your own personal journal.

    Comment by Hunter — October 26, 2009 @ 10:29 am

  12. Wow.That’s a mission call!

    Comment by Jami — October 26, 2009 @ 10:34 am

  13. Yeah, Hunter, now future historians can prowl through it and pick it to pieces and use it to prove all kinds of irrelevant theses … just like current historians do with the journals of the long-past!

    I don’t know what I expected when I went to BYU that evening, Jami, but it certainly wasn’t that. No regrets, though.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 26, 2009 @ 10:46 am

  14. Great story, and a great job telling it! I don’t understand how you could possibly discount “divine intervention” in your first experience with microfilm.

    My experience is that help from the “other side” becomes more subtle as our own skills improve.

    Comment by Clark — October 26, 2009 @ 11:10 am

  15. Great story, Ardis!

    Obviously, though, your problem was that you were working in the wrong law office!

    Comment by Mark B. — October 26, 2009 @ 11:20 am

  16. Wow! You can’t make up stuff this good. No one would believe it.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — October 26, 2009 @ 11:40 am

  17. I think you’re right, Clark; my experiences since then have been more confirmatory that I’m on the right path, than revelatory of otherwise inexplicable discoveries. I wouldn’t want to encourage anybody to stay unskilled and naive, though — I think we might not be worthy of otherworldly help if we didn’t do what we could to equip ourselves for the work. But I’m so convinced that our fathers want to be known perhaps even more than we want to know them, that I believe very many family historians get occasionally “boosts.”

    Mark, I have never found the right law office; that is true. Are you hiring?

    Nope, Bruce; truth is stranger than fiction, indeed!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 26, 2009 @ 11:41 am

  18. Amazing, Ardis. What a miraculous moment! It rarely happens when you’re actually looking for it to do so, though…

    And thanks for sharing your story!

    Comment by Alison — October 26, 2009 @ 11:43 am

  19. Thanks for the story. I am rather obsessed with my family history and trying to understand who my ancestors were and what parts of me I can attribute to them. I have been to Sweden, the Mexican Colonies, South Dakota, North Carolina, Alabama, Illinois, Virginia, Louisiana and all over Utah among other places to try and walk where he forebears walked. Have you read Outliers by Malcolm Galdwell? He talks a fair bit about his family roots in Canada and the Caribbean. He argues that a person to a large degree is shaped by his family roots. He goes a back a few generations to bare this out. Your such a a unique person, it would be interesting to hear what you think you take from the various ancestral streams that have merged to produce you.

    Comment by Sanford — October 26, 2009 @ 11:52 am

  20. Thanks, Alison; I certainly didn’t expect it, that’s true. Don’t know what I did expect, but it wasn’t this!

    Sanford, I haven’t heard of Outliers but will look it up. I think there is something to the idea of inheritance, no matter how much agency and power an individual has to modify what we’ve inherited. Ancestral streams is an idea I’ve tried to explore before and that comes to mind when I look at this needlework hanging on my living room wall — all those names are families who merged one by one into me.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 26, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

  21. Ardis, I wondered at how you got here. I think you had referred to your unhappiness in the legal profession previously, but it’s great to hear the whole story.

    Having been recently been bitten by the family history bug myself, I can understand the draw. Keep the stories coming!! We’re all glad John Saunders found you.

    Comment by kevinf — October 26, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

  22. As you have related your story of finding your ancestgrs I’ve thought about some of the help/inspiration I have gotten in the way of temple work. I do think there are times we receive this inspiration.

    As with others, I’m glad that you chose the independent LDS researcher course rather than stay in the legal profession. :-)

    Comment by Steve C. — October 26, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

  23. Thanks Ardis. I myself am a great big ball of excitement and energy for doing Church & family history research, with almost no outlets. I’m a noob like you were once, but without the BYU Library at my disposal, so instead I just sit and wish.

    Sigh.

    Comment by Scott B. — October 26, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

  24. John Saunders must be so pleased. =)

    Comment by ellen — October 26, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

  25. Great story, Ardis. What is your secret for finding storage space for your documents/files?

    Comment by Justin — October 26, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

  26. John Saunders is pleased and I am really, really pleased! Really. Standing ovation really. You have contributed so much to my life, Ardis. Thanks again. And again.

    Comment by S. Taylor — October 26, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

  27. Thanks, kevinf; I know one of your family history interests and hope you can dig out enough to satisfy you. Nobody else will know it better than you do by the time you’ve done it.

    I didn’t have a choice, really, Steve, but I’m glad too!

    Scott, you must have a Family History Center near you … chances are you won’t get a whole lot of help from the staff there, but sometimes they can help you get started, at least. (But I don’t know that I ever could have really got going without the BYU and Salt Lake libraries, so I’m certainly not scolding.)

    ellen, he’s one of the very first people I plan to look up when I get There.

    Justin, I used a couple of filing cabinets for years, but I’ve since converted everything to digital files, either by retyping everything or by scanning the images. I’m very glad I kept exceptionally good records of sources right from the beginning. I do still have some paper files for original documents, but having gone digital has done away with the storage problem.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 26, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

  28. S., this story has gone over so well that I’m thinkin’ it’s about time to tell the tale of Stephen and Martha Taylor and their trip from Batavia to Winter Quarters. You know the story already, of course, but don’t you think it would make a great post?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 26, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

  29. “and rather than repair the car I spent the insurance money on a field trip to western New York.”

    That is so awesome.

    Comment by Wm Morris — October 26, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

  30. Re Stephen and Martha’s trip from Batavia to Winter Quarters – indeed I do.

    Comment by S. Taylor — October 26, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

  31. You have quite the knack for many things, and telling a story is certainly one. I love the auspicious beginning; it make me smile. Thanks for sharing it!

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 26, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

  32. Thanks for sharing this, Ardis. I was privileged to get a condensed version of some of this when I gave you a ride home this past summer, and it was fun to read the rest of the story here.

    I’m impressed that you’ve managed to remain true to your interest in family history and genealogy and also take the time to learn the ropes well enough to converse with more academic-minded folk at conferences, in journals, etc. Well done.

    Comment by Christopher — October 26, 2009 @ 5:26 pm

  33. Similar to you, Ardis, I was raised on my family history and pictures from the time was as old enough to talk and to walk. I knew all the names on my pedigree chart by heart. I vividly remember each time my aunt, who was the family genealogist, and who lived next door, would run over waving a letter from England extending our lines back another generation. I morphed into Church history because all of my direct line ancestors funneled through the early Church.

    I loved your story, thank you for sharing it.

    Comment by Maurine — October 26, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

  34. Thanks, all. Maurine, my aunt was also our genealogist, and was always willing to provide pages for me to copy her charts for myself. It’s been fun to read your reactions, and to relive the whole experience. One reader even sent me a photo doctored to show John’s eyes. He doesn’t look nearly as spooky!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 26, 2009 @ 7:45 pm

  35. What a great story! I’ve long been curious about how you got to where you are today, and this answers it in fun fashion.

    I remember the family history library on the fourth floor of the Lee Library. I didn’t have the first clue how to use it, and never tried. (I spent my time with the religion books on that floor.)

    Comment by Kevin Barney — October 26, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

  36. Ardis, you rock.

    Comment by matt w. — October 26, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

  37. I like getting a bit of Ardis history along with all the other great stuff you post. Thanks.

    Comment by Amy — October 26, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

  38. Great story, Ardis! My dad has also been plagued by who the parents of one particular ancestor (couple) are for years (though they lived pre-photography), and has gotten me quite interested in the problem as well. He’s written an entire book about this couple and all their descendants, but we still haven’t managed, after all the research, to figure out who their parents are. This gives me hope that one day we’ll have a moment like you did, because I think divine help is the only way we’re ever going to find them.

    Comment by Vada — October 26, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

  39. This is awesome. My favorite detail is the car insurance money! Pure lolz.

    I imagine you’ve in turn helped many, many a greenie over the years.

    Comment by sister blah 2 — October 26, 2009 @ 11:53 pm

  40. After the first line: “Hi, Ardis!”

    After the rest: “…”

    I love this story, and I love that you’ve waited to share it until now. It really does have quite a kick now that we are familiar with your skillz.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — October 27, 2009 @ 12:23 am

  41. Thanks for this glimpse behind the scenes, Ardis. Fascinating!

    Comment by Kathryn Soper — October 27, 2009 @ 7:05 am

  42. What a fun batch of comments to wake up to! Thanks, you all.

    Though few are apt to see this at the bottom of the comment string, I renew my offer made elsewhere (and never yet accepted by even one reader) to meet any of you at the Family History Library in Salt Lake for a session on getting started with family history research, using your own family background as the model.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 27, 2009 @ 8:25 am

  43. ooh! I just read the bottom of the string, and that offer does sound tempting. Even more so because I’m here on the Wasatch front and it may actually be feasible.

    Comment by Clark — October 27, 2009 @ 9:36 am

  44. It’s a serious offer, Clark. All I ask is that you send me an outline of what you already know about one or several of your lines so that I can plan a research strategy before we go to the library.

    And remember, please, that the point is to help beginners find the courage to begin by showing you some easy tools that you can then use by yourself to work on other lines and other generations. (I’m not volunteering to solve some ancient overseas genealogical puzzle that has stumped generations of professionals!)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 27, 2009 @ 10:05 am

  45. Ardis,

    Your rank amateur story of getting hooked on your family history sonds eerily similar to mine. About 10 years ago, I was hooked up to the internet on a dial-up connection one Sunday afternoon to try out the new church Family Search website. Within a few hours I realized that a lot of the information my husband’s parents had given us was wrong, so I started surfing a little to see what I could see. On my first try I found an indexed census that had a scanned image of a census page with all of the family listed that I happened to randomly pick to research. (Later I realized how rare that was in 1999.) Within a few days, I had found websites and message boards that “coincidentally” led me back several generations on that line–to the tune of about 200 people.
    Since then, I have found over 600 people on my husband’s side of the family that had never been recorded.

    Nothing has EVER come as easily as that first time. I remember thinking I had better type fast before all of it just disappeared.
    Lately I have been a slacker about these family lines, but reading your story has made me think that I should get going with it again.

    Comment by Jeannine — October 27, 2009 @ 10:30 am

  46. Jeannine, that WAS rare in 1999 — so few primary materials had been scanned that you could never count on finding anything with your family recorded.

    One great thing about internet genealogy has pretty well disappeared since 1999, though. In those days when so many people were just coming onto the internet, it was a good idea to post all your queries to all the bulletin boards in early December. Then everybody who got computers or AOL subscriptions for Christmas, but who didn’t know what to do besides search for their own names, would often find your queries and answer them.

    About then, or maybe a year or two earlier, I did just that. I had been able to figure out how many children John and Nancy Saunders had, their approximate birth dates, and even whether they were boys or girls, but for four children who died before 1850 I had been unable to find their names or exact dates. I posted my query, and a man in New York read it and thought the names sounded like ones recorded in that family Bible he had up stairs … and he went up to the attic and dug out John and Nancy’s family Bible, and scanned and sent me the genealogical pages — probably the only place in the world where those children’s names were recorded. He was not really interested in genealogy, and that week or two was the only window I had to find and contact him — but once again, John must have been pulling strings.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 27, 2009 @ 10:43 am

  47. Ardis,

    Holy.
    Cow.

    And, yeah, after experiences like that (that you sometimes don’t realize are miracles until later) how can you doubt that there isn’t some sort of involvement from those who have a vested interest in your work?

    That’s when it gets humbling.

    Comment by Jeannine — October 27, 2009 @ 10:49 am

  48. Awesome

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 27, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

  49. Thanks for posting this, Ardis. It’s fun to know more of how you came to be you.

    I like that you read through complete censuses at the beginning, and that it was sometimes helpful. I find a parallel approach helpful with statistics. Now that our data are typically computer files, it can get really easy to just look at the outputs of stats programs and never really look at the data–the scores on variables–themselves. It can be a big pain just like reading through censuses is a big pain, but it can pay off too, I think, in that it can lead you to know your data better than you would if you just looked at descriptive statistics or something. And of course, I don’t typically recommend it either, but when I’ve been forced to do it, I’ve often found it valuable.

    Comment by Ziff — October 27, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

  50. Like everyone else here I really enjoyed your conversion narrative! It’s funny, too, because my recent “research conversion” was initiated by a similarly fortuitous tying up of a family story loose end.

    After a lifetime in academia I’m now an archival junkie: since my scholarly expertise is in contemporary theory and culture, I’d never had the need to learn any but the basic research skills. And I’d certainly never had reason to poke around records and stuff! But now I adore plundering databases and (metaphorically) ransacking rare books and manuscript reading rooms. And oddly enough, all my research-driven projects center on Utah and Mormon history (very far afield from my academic areas of expertise).

    Comment by Mina — October 27, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

  51. Awesome. :)

    Comment by Kaimi — October 28, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

  52. Fascinating story, Ardis! And fun to read. And inspiring.

    Comment by Sean — October 28, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

  53. This is a wonderful story, and I have been in awe of your skills ever since I can remember (and being your ‘little’ brother only 11 months younger, I can remember a lot!). You provided me with some absolutely amazing information when I was researching a certain community chapel in Eastern Nevada for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Your information added sources for much of the ‘color’ that old building had. It also helped make those wonderful people who lived there and worked there and even died there much more real to me than simply names from a list.

    And by the way, your needlework you mentioned is one of the best pieces of family-centered art I have ever seen. I remember you pointing out many of the little things, guns and tools and fruit and things and telling me the little stories that made them part of the tapestry of our family. (How’s that for cliche?) It was obvious to me then that you really do know these people.

    Keep doing what you’re doing. You inspire us all.

    B

    Comment by Bruce Parshall — October 30, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

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