Matthew McBride is the Web Content Manager of the Church History Department, author of A House for the Most High: The Story of the Original Nauvoo Temple, and a graduate student at the University of Utah.
Over 30 years ago, Mel Bashore began to create a list of Mormons who migrated to the Great Basin, pre-railroad. According to legend, the “database” was stored for years in a Word document. Eventually, the data was made available on the web as the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travels database. In addition to becoming an instant hit with family historians, the database has become an indispensable resource for historians of 19th-century Mormonism and sparked scholarship on the trail experience.
The pioneer database began as an incomplete set of data gathered by Bashore and other researchers—tens of thousands of trail pioneers were unaccounted for. With time and the help of missionaries and the community of family historians and trail scholars, it has grown by thousands of pioneers to become far more comprehensive. This combination of crowd sourcing and careful verification (which continues under the leadership of Marie Erickson at the CHL) was the model that inspired the new Early Mormon Missionaries Database, launched last Thursday at RootsTech.
The database was started early in 2015. Missionaries at the CHL were assigned to help reconstruct a roster of proselytizing missionaries from 1830 to 1859 using some fragmentary notes created under the direction of Andrew Jenson in 1925. The missionaries checked Jenson’s research against some other readily available sources to verify dates and better document the individuals in his list. This resulted in a record of almost 2,500 missions served.
In 1860, the clerk for the Missionary Committee began to keep ledgers documenting all (or almost all) of the missionaries set apart in Salt Lake City. The mission registers, as they are called, contain birth, baptism, and mission information for each individual as they reported for their missions and were kept until 1959. We arranged with the Family History Department to let us use their indexing platform to capture the data in the ledgers through 1930 (the current limit of our privacy window for this project). This resulted in an additional 39,000 missions served. We have also added to the data, with the help of our team of missionaries, almost 15,000 links to journals, letters, photos, and mission reports that have been digitized at the CHL and the BYU. We hope to double the number of links to documents by mid-year.
Impressive as it is, we know the current data is probably as deficient as Mel Bashore’s list was when he put it online. Many missionaries were called to full-time service locally and their service was never recorded in SLC. Often, the clerk keeping the registers made mistakes or omissions that need correcting. We can continue to comb through local mission registers and other sources to flesh out the data, but we expect much of the improvement to come as we work with descendants as they submit information about their family members. Once submitted information has been adequately verified, it will be published along with the data compiled at the CHL.
With time, we hope the database will not only be a hit with families, but will fuel scholarship on Mormon mission. I have found it incredibly helpful already in my research on early women missionaries. In a few weeks, I plan to publish a short web article showing a statistical overview of the data. In the mean time, kick the tires. You might be surprised to find an acceptance letter by an ancestor. Or perhaps as likely, you might find a gap you can help us fill.