Finally, finally, we were on our way, winging our way across the world from near and far – flying and motoring into snowy Salt Lake City for RootsTech. It seemed like we had been preparing forever, and Murphy visited many of us as gremlins trying to keep us away – but we persevered, and Murphy’s ploy just didn’t work.
Grab a cup of your favorite beverage, because you’re going to RootsTech with me!
I started out very early in dense fog which was a precursor to a nightmare at the airport. We didn’t know that yet, and the sun emerged beautifully as we were on our way.
Utah was blanketed with snow a few days before our arrival. We were hoping for no more snow.
The snow cover made for stunningly beautiful photos from the air.
The Kennecott Copper Mine outside Salt Lake City is three miles wide, nearly a mile deep and looked very interesting and beautiful laced with snow. These terraces are actually roughly 500 miles of dirt road. This used to be a mountain that was 8400 feet in elevation.
During the flight, I read about my ancestor, Stephen Hopkins and couldn’t help but think about how shocked he would have been that I flew across the country some 413 years after he was shipwrecked in Bermuda on the way to Jamestown, eventually lived in Jamestown for 4 years, sailed back to England, remarried, then arrived on the Mayflower in Plymouth Colony.
His ships and mine were very, very different.
Some of us arrived early for research or meetings, or both.
FamilySearch took the opportunity presented during the Covid shutdown to remodel and upgrade the facilities significantly. The new library is both beautiful and super-functional.
The workstations now have three monitors.
There’s a lovely new break room with vending machines, tables, and a fridge.
To put things in perspective, the break room is larger than the preserved pioneer cabin that stands beside the library.
I’m struck by the contrast of the small cabin standing beside the FamilySearch library at left, and museum at right, and just a block away from skyscrapers.
Rather than leave and waste valuable research time, we had a picnic lunch in the break room.
I went to Salt Lake City early to visit the FamilySearch Library and attempt to break down a brick wall. I think I might have done that. We will see.
Other researchers did the same thing, and you can view a special GenFriends episode, here, hosted by Cheryl Hudson Passey, where several of us shared our excitement about our research, discoveries and simply gathering together again.
I was very excited to meet my cousin, Audrey Hill, for the first time in person, at the library. We’ve been collaborating for several months on our John Hill (1737-1805) and Catherine Mitchell (1738-1827) line. She’s already following up on a lead I never did (my bad.) Go Audrey!!
I spent two days perusing book after book after book in the Virginia and Maryland counties where my Dobkins and Johnson ancestors were known to have lived, then moved to the historically adjacent counties.
I was incredibly discouraged, but on the evening of the second day, back at my hotel again, I reviewed all of the library resources and noticed that I had missed one book that was shelved elsewhere.
Glory be, I *think* I’ve found him and his family.
My Peter Johnson line’s Y-DNA matches the Jochimsson (Yocum) line, so I have a LOT of work to do. But now at least I know where to dig!
I needed this entire book, not just a few pages.
Fortunately for me, Jim volunteered to scan the entire book at one of the new book-scanning stations.
I’m SOOO excited.
RootsTech and the FamilySearch library ran golf carts back and forth between the facilities throughout the conference.
Well, if you can’t decide, just go to the chocolate shop to think things over😊
The Night Before
Preconference events began on Wednesday evening with the media dinner which allows us to understand the layout, when to be someplace, and where that place might be. It also allows provides accurate information to pass on to you.
Of course, many of us have known each other for years. As the first event of RootsTech, after three years of being apart, it felt like one huge family reunion with everyone catching up. So many hugs!!!
It was wonderful to see Marie Cappart again. I’ll never forget walking down the street in Amsterdam with two friends and hearing someone shouting my name from some distance away. I turned around and there was Marie, running toward me, arms outstretched. What are the chances??
The influencers and media were treated to a tour of the show floor after setup was supposed to be complete.
Finishing touches were being put on the Expo Hall and booths. I guess I never realized how large these booths are and that they actually have to be “constructed”.
The next morning, the show would open and thousands of excited genealogists would descend on the Salt Palace for the next three days.
Finally, the Salt Palace, with its legendary signs outside, was ready to receive genealogy guests.
Everyone was so happy to see each other again. My friends, Janna Helstein, Schelly Taladay Dardashti and Daniel Horowitz with MyHeritage photobombing the group. This was the best of several photos because we were all joyfully laughing so hard.
The absolute best part of RootsTech 2023 was seeing people again, in person. Zoom and similar platforms have been sanity-saving for the past three years – but they aren’t people.
Humans are, I think, wired for connection to each other.
I’ve worked “home office” for decades now, but not without regular contact with others.
The classes were great and there was a lot that was wonderful at RootsTech – but hands down, the best part was hugging so many people.
In case you aren’t aware, genealogists are huggers.
If someone were to have followed me around taking photos, there would have been hundreds of hugs. And I don’t mean polite greeting distant hugs. I mean the “OMG I haven’t seen you in a lifetime and everyone was concerned we might never see each other again” holding tight, never-letting-go hugs.
Mags Gaulden and I spotted each other in front of the WikiTree booth, and some kind soul took our picture. I tried to do a nice thing for her and made DNA masks, not remembering that she was allergic to my cat assistants. Thank goodness Mags realized it quickly enough to remove the masks before they had the opposite of the intended effect. I really do not want to be listed in her obituary! “Cause of death: Roberta’s masks.”
Tears streamed down people’s faces as they saw each other, especially that first day. And I don’t mean because of cat hair, either.
There were thousands of selfies joyfully taken. Lots of “blooper” ones too, but just the giddiness of being together again was intoxicating and overshadowed the challenges of the past few years. For a minute, or a few, everyone could just forget about everything else and enjoy our three-day adrenaline high.
And of course, sometimes things change, and many people weren’t there, for a variety of reasons. I missed so many people and there was more than one moment of silence.
Here’s the RootsTech Expo Hall from the second floor. It felt like “coming home” after a long absence.
I was standing inside when the doors opened on the first day. People were waiting, but not the mob like past years.
In a Zoom call with RootsTech staff a week or ten days before the conference, they said they had 6000 paid admissions at that time, and a week or so later, they said they were anticipating the same number of attendees as 2020 which was about three times that number.
That number was clearly aspirational, but it didn’t happen.
I’ve been attending RootsTech since 2018, and the actual in-person attendance, based on observation, was lower than it has been since I’ve been attending. Of course, while we may be getting used to Covid, it’s not over and still a significant concern to many. I had my doubts.
Now that I’ve said that about attendance, let me expand. There were over a million registered online for the virtual sessions PLUS the livestreamed sessions that were held in person as well. I don’t know how many more than a million attended, but that number will only grow because those sessions remain available for viewing after RootsTech. In other words, Rootstech sessions have become a library which you can find and enjoy, here.
Clearly, more people in total were reached in 2023 than in 2020.
Questions for Attendees
This year, I had three in-person classes, and no virtual classes. All three were well-attended.
I don’t know how many people attended my sessions, but I know I took about 2000 DNAeXplain ribbons that were passed out to attendees at the exit doors of my classes if they wanted them for their RootsTech badges. I brought home maybe 100.
After everything is set up for the session (thank you Jim,) I always chat with the people in my sessions that show up early. There’s no reason not to have a little fun for everyone.
My first session was at 9:30 the first day, right after the conference opened at 9. I was passing out ribbons personally to people who were early and I saw the confused looks. So I demonstrated what to do with the ribbons with my own badge.
Ribbons on badges are a RootsTech staple, and it’s the only conference I’ve ever attended with that tradition. I realized, based on the confused looks, that we had several first-time attendees.
I was so excited to welcome people at the beginning of my first session, back to in-person genealogy, and that feeling was palpable throughout the room and the conference as a whole.
How Many First-Time Attendees?
When my session started, I asked how many people were attending RootsTech for the first time, and I was very surprised to discover that roughly half the room raised their hands.
That’s HUGE. No wonder there were so many confused looks about the ribbons.
My three sessions, in order, were:
- DNA for Native American Genealogy: 10 Ways to Find Your Native American Ancestors
- DNA Journey – Follow Your Ancestors Path
- Big Y for the Win
I mention this because of the next questions I asked.
Who Has Taken a DNA Test for Genealogy?
In the first session, “DNA for Native American Genealogy,” I asked who had taken a DNA test, and more than half raised their hands, but several had not. Frankly, that surprised me given how long DNA testing has been available now. I talked to people afterwards, and the common thread for those who had not seemed to be:
- They didn’t know which vendor or which DNA test to take for this purpose.
- They thought the ancestor was too far back in time and they would not have any Native results. In my session, I talked about testing the older generations and your cousins. Also, that you don’t know what you don’t know. I asked how many people would purchase a book if they thought the answer to that question even MIGHT be inside, and every single person raised their hand.
I also pointed people to the Native section on my blog, to my book, DNA for Native American Genealogy, and to my second blog focused entirely on early Native American records, www.nativeheritageproject.com.
In the second class, “DNA Journey – Follow Your Ancestor’s Path,” probably three fourths of the class had taken a DNA test. That session was really fun. I used several case studies to illustrate how different kinds of DNA have broken down brick walls AND showed me exactly, and I mean literally exactly where my ancestors were from. I used Y-DNA, mitochondrial DNA and autosomal to accomplish this. Who among you DOESN’T want to stand where your ancestors stood?
Yep, we all do.
I think it was in the second class that I asked a question about how many people had taken the three different types of tests, and here’s the breakdown:
- Who has taken a DNA test? – The majority of the room
- Who has taken an autosomal test – It looked to be the same number of people as above
- Who has taken (or sponsored) a Y-DNA test – Maybe 10% of the room
- Who has taken a mitochondrial DNA test – A scattering of people
As genealogists, we need to do more Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA testing, because we don’t know what we don’t know and may well be missing.
In the third class, “Big Y for the Win,” which included both Y-DNA STR testing and the Big Y-700, comparing and contrasting the tests, how to use them, and why the Big Y provides significant advantages, most of the people had taken some type of DNA test.
The second question I asked in the Big Y class was how many people had taken or sponsored a Big Y test, and significantly more than half had, which is what I would have expected.
However, given the session topic, I was surprised to learn that few had used the new, free, Discover Tools, or the recently released Group Time Tree. Both were developed and created by FamilyTreeDNA to maximize the usefulness of Y-DNA haplogroups, and they are amazing.
How Many People Have Tested?
As part of the information that I gathered during the conference, Ancestry has tested 23 million people and MyHeritage 6.5 million. I don’t have a current number for FamilyTreeDNA or 23andMe, but the last numbers I heard some months ago were 2 and 5 million, respectively.
There are clearly more (and new) people who are interested in genealogy and are still DNA testing candidates – especially Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA which have separate inheritance paths, providing additional and unique benefits as compared to autosomal tests.
The keynote sessions were livestreamed, so you can still view them here. Be sure to watch Steve Rockwood’s welcome. He may be the CEO, but he’s an exceptionally caring, inspirational and humble, man.
I attended two of three keynote sessions. Each keynote session actually included three speakers, which was initially confusing.
Steve Rockwood’s message is that “All Means All” – everyone is included. He also thanked and encouraged people to not be further divisive during this difficult time, and instead to choose inclusion.
Steve asked several questions and in answer to his queries, attendees were encouraged to hold up their phones with their flashlight on. As you can see, the entire huge room is filled with light – our light. One at a time. We can all be the light. You can hear Steve’s message for yourself, here.
Another session I enjoyed immensely was Jordin Sparks, the youngest ever American Idol winner. I’ve been in concert venues that were smaller, so it was a real treat to enjoy this inspirational story plus four of her amazing songs.
I really encourage you to watch this video, especially if you love music. Even Jordin’s guitarist was wiping his eyes!
She literally played to a packed house and I don’t think there was a dry eye anyplace.
Jordin has an incredible voice and an inspirational story. Do yourself a favor and listen, here.
MyHeritage Keynote and Announcements
Aaron Godfrey, VP of Marketing with MyHeritage announced new products and initiatives during the keynote on day 2.
The new Photo Dater app, available soon, will estimate when a photo was taken based on clothes, hairstyles and other items in the photo.
Additionally, Aaron announced the cM Explainer, a wonderful new tool which predicts relationship estimates between DNA matches and includes the ages of the testers, among other factors. cM Explainer is incorporated into your DNA matches at MyHeritage in addition to being independently available for free, here.
I’ll be reviewing this new feature in an article, soon.
In another surprise, Aaron announced that MyHeritage has donated another 5000 kits to DNA Quest, for adoptees, here.
MyHeritage also introduced color coding for family trees, here. If you’re a MyHeritage user, this feature is already available for you on your tree, so check it out.
MyHeritage takes the “most new announcements at RootsTech” award with these new features.
Vendor Booth Sessions
Truth be told, I didn’t even get to visit all of the various booths. I meant to, but it just didn’t happen.
At least two vendors offered sessions throughout all three days. There were probably others, but between my three RootsTech sessions, three booth sessions and the book signing, in addition to keynotes, meetings and interviews, I just wasn’t able to attend many booth sessions.
The ones I did attend were wonderful. I focused on DNA, of course. Let’s start with FamilyTreeDNA.
Sherman McRae presented “Unexpected Y-DNA Results” in the FamilyTreeDNA booth where he’s showing how to utilize the Y-DNA Time Tree in the Discover tool, and the Group Time Tree.
You can view Sherman’s main session, Connect the Forefathers, here.
You just never know when a pilgrim is going to show up for your session.
Janine Cloud, an enrolled Cherokee tribal member and manager of Group Projects at FamilyTreeDNA discussed Y-DNA, mitochondrial and autosomal avenues to prove Native ancestors using DNA, using her own Cherokee ancestors as an example.
Dr Paul Maier, Population Geneticist, Goran Runfeldt, Head of Research and Michael Sager, Phylogeneticist answer questions about Y-DNA in the AMA (Ask Me Anything) session.
Paul and Goran also hosted an AMA for mitochondrial DNA as well, an often overlooked but valuable resource.
In addition to the Native American AMA session for FamilyTreeDNA which I gave with Janine, I gave two booth presentations for MyHeritage, “Time Travel with Your Ancestors” and “AutoClusters for the Win,” both of which were recorded meaning you just might see them in the future.
The Time Travel session utilized the MyHeritage AI tools to see what my ancestors who came from specific regions or cultures might have looked like in that time and place. In the slide above the AI photo of my grandmother is combined with the document and with the Genetic Group that incorporates that part of Germany.
I combined the AI images with MyHeritage records that link those ancestors to a specific location, showing the predicted ethnicity, genetic groups when applicable, and then the actual location – some of which I’ve visited. My ancestor owned that windmill in the Netherlands, above. Combining these tools is so much FUN. My heritage provided the AI photos, records and ethnicity. I’m the one who did the traveling, of course, but in this way, time travel is possible!
I really enjoyed using this story-telling methodology that incorporates all 4 types of genealogy research and clues.
In the AutoClusters for the Win session in the MyHeritage booth, I discussed how I utilized AutoClusters to solve an adoption case in my own family, and how you can use this very powerful tool as well. The methodology I used works equally as well for genealogy mysteries.
In another MyHeritage booth presentation, Janna Helshtein told an amazing and moving story about her grandparents, their escape from the Holocaust, move to Israel, and more – in their own “voices” using MyHeritage’s Deep Story.
We all sat spellbound.
Janna also offers a free guide on how she created and integrated the Deep Story verbiage that her grandparents “spoke.” It was actually quite easy.
There was more to Janna’s story, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.
I believe MyHeritage intends to make their booth sessions available through social media.
Here, Janna and I are celebrating with a quick picnic style lunch after her presentation. She truly knocked it out of the park.
I’m sharing my opinion here, and not anything a RootsTech spokesperson told me.
I was surprised that the in-person attendance was down as much as it was, truthfully. I think in-person was down by either half or maybe even two-thirds. Some decline wouldn’t have surprised me, but this much was sobering.
I was also VERY surprised that roughly half of the attendees were new. And that number could have actually been higher. That’s a good thing, meaning new people are being attracted to genealogy.
These two things, together, suggest the following to me:
- The passing of time, Covid, and aging-out of some people caused some decline. I know several people who passed away during the past three years, not to mention those whose lives changed dramatically due to their partner’s illness, passing or life circumstances. Several people lost jobs or moved, or both, or are in that process now.
- Now let’s flip this and say that the virtual and FREE capability for much of RootsTech made the conference accessible and available to many who could not attend in person. For that, I’m very grateful. I have a friend who has been very ill and participated by taking selfies of herself with the livestreamed sessions on her monitor behind her. She posted her photos on social media to be with us. That warmed my heart so much.
- I think that the reason there were so many new people was because they were able to attend virtually during 2021 and 2022. Essentially this means that while virtual RootsTech was challenging for everyone on the behind-the-scenes production side, to put it mildly, it served to recruit many new genealogists who would not have participated in person had they not previously attended online.
Based on discussions at the media dinner table, and other statements by Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch, FamilySearch, including RootsTech, is reaching out to young people and to other areas of the world as well.
According to Steve, who, by the way, turns out to be my 11th cousin according to Relatives at RootsTech and the FamilySearch Tree, RootsTech will forever be a blended conference event.
This year, in addition to the local emcee, there were 15 people in other countries hosting in their locations, times and in their native languages.
This year there were 304 virtual classes, 205 in person, and some of those were streamed online as well.
Don’t forget that Relatives at RootsTech is still available through March 31st and you can contact cousins to collaborate. Some may represent Y-DNA or mitochondrial DNA testing lines that you need for matching and to complete your tree.
That brings me to the topic of vendors.
Three of the four major DNA vendors were present, meaning Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage. 23andMe was absent in 2020 and again this year. Their last DNA innovation was their genetic tree in September of 2019.
Many of the smaller vendors were not in attendance. I had made friends with several of the Mom and Pop vendors and almost none of them were there this year, nor were many of the organizations and smaller companies. I spoke with several people and they said, almost universally, that the cost of the virtual booths over the past two years, the work involved, and the fact that those virtual booths did not generate many sales, not even equal to the amount of the booth rent, had soured the experience.
Not only are conference booths very expensive, so is the invested labor and time. For those of you who don’t know, booth rent is only a part of it. You want carpet? That’s more. A chair? That’s more. Two chairs? More. A trash basket? More. Oh, you need wireless to handle sales? LOTS more.
I’d say that the Expo Hall was only half to one third of the size it had been previously. Mind you, it’s still huge, especially compared to many other conferences, but I missed seeing many of my favorite vendors.
For example, neither Genealogical.com nor Deseret Books were there this year, so there was no bookstore, and neither were many of the fun t-shirt vendors or others that sold jewelry or genealogy-related merchandise.
I hope that FamilySearch will put their creative caps on and perhaps reach out to their vendors, both past and current, and figure out a way to make RootsTech vendors attractive to the online crowd. Perhaps a “search” game where you have to visit vendor booths to find items. Maybe there could be some permanent online stores as well.
There were fewer food vendors too, but in case anyone was wondering, I could still smell cinnamon-almonds throughout the facility😊
I did run into some of my long-time vendor friends.
My friend Jessica Taylor with Legacy Tree Genealogists. I regularly refer people seeking genealogists who understand both genealogy and DNA to Legacy Tree Genealogists.
I don’t need to tell you how much I love DNAPainter and it was great to see Jonny Perl and Patricia Coleman in the DNAPainter booth.
I feel kind of bad because I obviously caught Rob Warthen and Carol Carman by surprise in the East Coast Genetic Genealogy Conference booth, but it’s the only photo I have of their booth.
Last fall’s ECGGC conference was very successful and I’m planning to speak in person this year, in Baltimore, October 6-8, 2023. Save the date. Last year was the first year and it was wonderful.
My Book Signing
FamilyTreeDNA was kind enough to host my book signing for DNA for Native American Genealogy in conjunction with the Native American Ask Me Anything session. Many thanks to Joe Brickey for her help with this event as well.
After the AMA session, which was the final event of Saturday, just before closing, we took a group picture with the FamilyTreeDNA team, or at least the staff members in the booth at that time.
I did learn that perhaps the last thing Saturday might not be the best time for a book signing, because lots of people leave on Friday night. On the other hand, on Saturday, admission to the conference is free, at least to the show floor, with lots of children’s activities and programs for LDS families. Saturday is always very busy in terms of traffic, with sometimes more Saturday visitors than paying conference attendees. It will be interesting to see final RootsTech conference numbers.
The Thank You That Made My Day!!!
One lovely lady, Charis, came up to me after my first session and explained that she saw an ad for RootsTech. She decided she needed to purchase a ticket and attend. She had never heard of me, but she is very focused on documenting her Native ancestry. She sat in the front row in my first session and paid rapt attention. (Speakers do notice, in case you wondered.)
Charis came up to me afterwards and told me that this class alone was worth her registration fee.
She made my day, but I thought to myself that she would attend other sessions that she would find equally as valuable. After all, the conference was just beginning. She found me the next day and repeated what she had said. On day 3, she attended the Ask Me Anything session, arriving early. She said the said the same thing, AGAIN, and I asked if we could take a picture together. As presenters, we take our time, spend our money to attend these conferences, and invest the effort because we want to help people.
People like Charis make this all worthwhile.
I’m sorry, I just can’t resist sharing the sweetest picture series ever.
In 2020, I met my cousin, Heidi Campbell and her baby at RootsTech. Three years later, I saw Heidi again, with a beautiful new addition to the family.
I just can’t tell you how wonderful it was to hold this baby. The last baby I held was Heidi’s little one, three years ago. The look on Heidi’s face is priceless too when he’s reaching for my glasses. He had the biggest smile EVER on his face and he’s booping noses with me. We had so much fun.
My heart just melted into a huge puddle. I so much wish they lived close so I could “grandma.” Thank you, Heidi, for sharing your sunshine with me.
Rolling Up the Sidewalks
On Saturday, literally at one minute after 3 when the conference closed, the workers at the Salt Palace started rolling up the sidewalks, or in this case, the carpets.
It’s a wrap!!!
At the Salt Lake City airport, I ran into two people and had the opportunity to talk to them again and hug goodbye once more. You’d think we would all have had enough of genealogy, but not a chance. More hugs, gratitude for togetherness, and anticipation for next year.
Winging my way home again, having walked about 6 miles each day, according to Fitbit, I was tired, desperately tired, and my everything hurt. However, I was also incredibly fulfilled to have connected again with old friends and met so many new people that I now look forward to seeing again. We are very fortunate to be members of such a wonderful, diverse and universal community.
I couldn’t help but think, as we crossed the winding Mississippi River, how fortunate we are that we have “time travel” in this way. I’m also struck with how many different ways we have to time travel, with Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA at FamilyTreeDNA, autosomal testing and ethnicity at various vendors, and actual historical records that are becoming ever-more available remotely.
Using artificial intelligence, we can “see” our ancestor’s heritage in our own faces, or, in this case, the face of my grandfather using the MyHeritage AI Time Machine.
Using our DNA, we can identify the parts of those ancestors that we carry today, reaching back in time several generations with autosomal DNA. In addition to autosomal, both Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA provide close matches and reach back in time, focused on one specific line, providing insights for millennia.
Time travel, truly reimagined.
There are so many ways to discover and connect with our ancestors available to us today. If we don’t carry the DNA of ancestors a few generations upstream, perhaps selected cousins do. We have several tools and databases at our disposal to find testers.
The DNA of our ancestors can and does actually lead us home, to them and, sometimes, exactly where they lived, as I illustrated with several case studies in my presentation, “Follow Your Ancestors Path.” Today, these options are available to everyone.
RootsTech is in the history books for another year, with new friendships made and old ones renewed. Indeed, we were finally reunited with each other, and introduced to cousins we had never met before. We shared tools, methodologies and information to identify our ancestors. We all left fervently hoping to be reunited again next year.
Please enjoy the amazing RootsTech musical finale here.
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