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26 February 2016

Meet a Genealogy Trip Leader & Volunteer: Jim Sorenson

by Jim Sorenson

Photo courtesy of Ron Madson

Recently Jim Sorenson, one of our trip leaders for the upcoming 16th Annual Salt Lake City research trip, answered questions for our blog.  Here are his thoughts on genealogy and the upcoming April 24th-May 1st trip.

Why did you start researching your genealogy
In high school, a history teacher asked us to talk to our oldest living ancestors and construct a family tree. I completed the assignment and the tree was tucked away.  A year later, I met my future wife and was impressed by the family tree her parents had hanging in the living room.

Fast forward to 1985, a cousin of my mother sent her a scrapbook that had been put together by their mutual grandmother and it rekindled my interest, but I didn’t make much progress.  Nine years later the last of my grandparents died, so I sat down with my parents to ask them all the things I should have asked her. With an upcoming move from Los Angeles to Maryland, I knew I was finally ready to find out about my family’s origins.

What did you need to learn?  Everything.  At this point, there was very little available on the Internet, so it was very old school.  Fortunately, living in Maryland gave me close proximity to Washington, DC and its unique research resources.  

Suddenly, all of our empty nester vacations had a family research objective for either my wife or myself.  We had a blast scouring New England, NY, PA, WV, KY, OH, MT, GA for genealogy!
We even made a few trips to Northern California.  I have roots in the area going back to 1868, plus it was where both of our sons were attending college.  Ok, so it’s also beautiful and there’s San Francisco...

What helped you master genealogy research?  
I attended several National Genealogical Society (NGS) conferences and learned a lot of the nuances of research.  I was still living in Maryland and didn’t know many people outside of work, so I threw myself into genealogy. 

Some of the more useful things I picked up along the way: How to use census index books, how many different ways there are to spell the same name, the value of researching siblings, how to research at a courthouse with their unusual indexing methods, how to read property records and old maps, and how to read a family journal written in Welsh.
What were some of your first experiences with the California Genealogical Society (CGS)? 
As I faced retirement, I knew we would be moving to the Bay Area to be near our son’s family in Alameda. I searched for a good genealogical library and found CGS. 

I became a member in 2007, two years before moving. Once settled into our new home, I volunteered to do look-ups for the research group. I loved doing research for others and began to get heavily involved with the society.  I’m also now a member of the board.  One thing I can definitely say, “I don’t feel retired!”

As one of the leaders of the upcoming research trip to The Family History Library in Salt Lake City (SLC), what can a researcher gain by attending? 
Although a lot of their microfilmed information (over 2 million rolls) is now available on, about half is not.

Although I’ve done research in over 25 courthouses and more than twice as many local libraries, in my opinion a trip to SLC is less expensive and more productive than traveling all over the country.

Their international records can’t be matched anywhere else in the world. Plus, traveling with like-minded researchers exposes you to new ideas and sources.  Fellow trip leader Lisa Gorrell and I are also available each day to help point you in the right direction.  Some of our attendees have been going every year for the past decade!

Have you had a personal "a-ha/brick wall break-through moment" while researching in Salt Lake City?  If so, would you describe? 
I’ve busted several brick walls and encountered some surprises, in addition to verifying many items found online.

Perhaps most notable was what my wife found in one day. We knew she had a great grandmother born in Sweden to English parents (Sprague) but didn’t know the story of why. I had found a tree online that mentioned that two of the Sprague children were born in Nova Scotia.

In SLC, she was then able to find images of their birth registers.  One register mentioned that the father was a mining agent in Nova Scotia who in 1869 had married in Sweden, while the other mentioned the name of the parish in Sweden.  We still didn’t have our answer.

However, at the international desk there was someone who spoke Swedish who found a Swedish book that covered the parish that had been gleaned from the Canadian records. The book mentioned that an English group had established the Swedish Copper Company Ltd, in 1863---and voila, we understood!  Because of all the incredible resources available, I was later able to unfold the whole story using the incredible Swedish church records for that parish. 

Do you have any last thoughts on genealogy?  
As a volunteer researcher for the California Genealogical Society, I find that most of our research clients have already gathered the low-hanging fruit of their family tree, either from family members or popular online sites.

Our researchers can lend value to a client primarily in four different ways:
  • Breaking down brick walls  
  • Verifying unsourced “facts” in online trees  
  • Broadening your family tree in a search for cousins   
  • Seeking the truth behind various family stories

Two things to consider before embarking on your family’s genealogy:  Your ancestors were human, subject to the same aspirations and temptations we all face.   And you will most likely find secrets that are unknown to the current generation, which to some people may be inconvenient truths.

Lastly, due to the recent advances in DNA genealogy research, it is more important than ever to identify the paper trail for each of our 32 great, great, great grandparents.  They each have a story to tell, but we must be vigilant to insure that the stories we discover are truly the stories of our ancestors.
That’s where genealogy research is invaluable!

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