By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Years ago as a young mother, Kay Nelson set out on a journey to trace her family’s lineage back as far as she could go. Working to expand research done by her mother, Nelson’s findings took her from her native Florida across Georgia and into Mississippi, collecting characters she never could have imagined along the way.
She learned her great-great-grandfather’s uncle killed a young man in a fight, and fled to Georgia’s Okefenokee swamp to escape justice.
“As you might imagine, the Okefenokee swamp is full of gators, mosquitoes, spiders and snakes. But he settled there, and built a home,” she said. “Come find out, nobody was even looking for him. Someone who saw the fight said he had done it in self defense.”
His house still stands, and has been adapted into a museum for the swamp.
A search for her grandmother led Nelson to Mississippi. Through her research, Nelson knew her grandmother died from tuberculosis at a clinic in the Delta.
“Back then, those who died without money were buried in paupers’ graves,” she said. “The gravestones didn’t have their names on them, just the date they died on. But since I knew the day she died, I was able to find her actual grave.”
In many ways, the experience has been a spiritual odyssey for Nelson, one she would recommend for anyone to try.
“My mother searched for a long time, but died without ever finding where my grandmother was buried. Standing at her grave I found myself saying ‘Mother, I found her,'” Nelson said. “It’s a very spiritual thing and very rewarding.”
Evolution of Indexing
Nelson currently lives in Tupelo, and serves as director of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ family history library. Two days each week, she opens the library and helps anyone who comes in to trace their own roots.
In the past, documents like military discharges, marriage certificates, and census forms were kept on microfilm. In fact, when Nelson first started following up on leads her mother found before she died, she would communicate by mail with her mother’s sources.
“I would send them notes with a self-addressed envelope and paid postage, hoping they would write me back,” she said.
With the onset of the digital age, church volunteers set to digitizing such data in a process called “indexing.”
“They used to go door to door to collect census data, and would write it by hand. Those documents have been scanned, but they still don’t turn up on a search because it’s technically a picture,” she said. “So we have volunteers who transcribe information from those forms into searchable data.”
Now, the library uses 11 premium websites, like ancestry.com, which allows users to easily search for information and see scanned hard copies of the forms themselves. One look at the wobbly, hand-written script of census data stirs a greater appreciation for the convenience provided by digitized data.
Nelson said it is easy to get wrapped up in uncovering the past. The library makes it convenient, since would-be historians can visit on their own time as they are able.
“People underestimate, I think, how powerful it can be. We are a composite of all those who came before us,” she said. “To go to the towns where they lived, to find out about them, is to learn more about ourselves.”
Hearts of the Fathers, Children
Nelson said the interest in lineage has increased in recent years. In addition to family history websites, TV shows on the topic have also emerged. One show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” takes celebrities and athletes and traces their family history.
“I think the renewed interest in family history speaks to a universal yearning to understand where we came from and who we are,” she said.
But the understanding of family history holds more than passing significance for Mormons in particular.
“As Mormons, we believe when we die, we bring our family into eternity with us,” said Nelson’s daughter, Gina Thorderson, director of public relations at Tupelo’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In the temple, Mormons undergo a ceremony to “seal” their family together in heaven. According to Thorderson, the process is an idea similar to baptism, and, like baptism, is referred to as a “saving ordinance.”
“My great-great-great-grand uncle who lived in the Okefenoke swamp probably didn’t have much exposure to the gospel,” she said. “We want our families to be together forever, and we’re willing to do the things we need to in order to get them there.”
Thorderson cited the book of Malachi, which said God will “turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers.”
Nelson said more than 4,500 local family history centers exist across the country. Each of them, including Tupelo’s, is free and open to the public.
THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS’S FAMILY
HISTORY CENTER is open on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Center is hosted by the Church, located at 1085 South Thomas Street in Tupelo, and is free and open to the public.