The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has long been a leader in genealogical research. But many of its own adherents—or their descendents—are unaware of family history records relating to early followers of the religion. Those first Mormons blazed pioneer trails, but they also left paper trails relating to migration, church participation, and their personal and social lives.
Latter-day Saint Migration
The LDS Church first organized in New York during 1830, with its earliest converts being the locals. By 1837, zealous missionaries had begun spreading the faith abroad, most notably in the British Isles. An estimated 85,000 converts came to the United States during the 1800s, mostly from Great Britain and Northern Europe.
During the 1800s, new LDS converts often migrated to the church’s headquarters, a location that wandered until the church permanently settled in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1847. By 1930, half the world’s Mormons lived in Utah and about 90 percent lived in the United States. (Today, thanks to an emphasis on building the church internationally, over half of the world’s Latter-day Saints live outside the United States.)
These migrations provide a wealth of genealogical information. Most came to the U.S. through Liverpool, England, leaving in their wake passenger lists and immigrant records that include names, ages, marital status, country of origin, occupation, and even familial relationships.
Overland migration to Utah was so universal and arduous it remains a dominant theme in the church’s cultural history. About 250 pioneer caravans crossed the plains between 1847 and 1869, when the railroad reached Utah. Collections of records relating to these pioneer companies give rich, detailed histories, the foremost being the Mormon Pioneer Overland Trail database.
Latter-day Saints are a record-keeping bunch. Data relating to most members’ baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, patriarchal blessings, and marriages are available, and almost all information is publicly available.
Many LDS congregations, regions, and even missions have written their histories at various times, many of which are available at the Church History Library. The church even performed its own censuses between 1914-1960. An annotated list of these records may be found in Kip Sperry’s A Guide to Mormon Family History Sources (Ancestry, $16.95).
Personal and Social Records
Keeping a journal is looked on as a religious responsibility by many Latter-day Saints. Thousands of personal histories have been collected by the LDS Church and most are accessible to descendents. Some prominent records are indexed or electronically searchable, so even if the journal wasn’t written by your ancestor, they may have been mentioned somewhere in the text. Church History Library and Brigham Young University’s databases are a good place to search for these personal records.
Latter-day Saints have always communicated with one another through the press. LDS newspapers, mission newsletters, and periodicals may include lists of travelers; births, marriages, and deaths; detailed obituaries; mention of church officers; and social or religious events. Though the earliest of these papers circulated from the church’s official headquarters, newspapers and newsletters were also published within specific groups of Latter-day Saints, like the British or Germans.
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism provides definitions of LDS concepts or beliefs.
A Guide to Mormon Family History Sources, by Kip Sperry (Ancestry, $16.95), serves as a comprehensive guide to electronic, filmed and print resources.
The FamilySearch.org Research Wiki puts researchers in the driver’s seat by letting them edit the content themselves. Use the search phrase “Mormon ancestors” for articles on LDS immigration, military records, colonization, biographies, membership databases, and more.
LDS Church History Library and Archives provides links to databases, including the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel (1847-1868) Index.
Brigham Young University Library is home to LDS diaries, biographies, migration records, history and historical images, and full-text searchable databases.