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The Australian teen, Studio C and finding cousins: Cool stories from RootsTech 2015

The 2015 RootsTech conference attracted an estimated 25,000 local and international visitors last week, according to FamilySearch, the nonprofit family history arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Among the masses was a 15-year-old from Sydney, Australia, named Tasman.

How he came to Salt Lake City for the world's largest genealogy conference is a remarkable story — one of several to come out of the fifth annual family history/technology conference.

"(Family history) is quite a demanding pastime. It takes a lot of time and effort," said Tasman, who spoke with the Deseret News on Feb. 13. "But it's really rewarding. … Learning where you come from and all the people in your line, it's really interesting to learn about them, the lives they led and how you ended up being where you are today."

The teenager first became interested in family history in 2011 when his aunt encouraged him to find out more about his great-grandmother. His research eventually became a school project complete with birth and death certificates, laminated boards, photos, maps and flags. Not only did his teacher give him high marks, but his project also became the example his teacher showed others students.

Fast-forward to three months ago. Tasman heard about RootsTech from a family friend who suggested it might be fun, considering his interest in genealogy. The Australian teen looked into it and decided the conference, sponsored by FamilySearch, would be worthwhile, but getting there would not be easy.

First, Tasman had to come up with about $5,000 to pay for the trip. If he could manage that, phase two of the plan would be to convince his parents to let him go.

The high school sophomore said earning the money was the easy part. He began by "busking" on the streets of North Sydney, meaning he would find a busy corner near a shopping center and play his saxophone for hours after school or on weekends in return for whatever money a passer-by would toss into his collection box. He also had a paper route and a little money already saved.

He soon earned the money. Tasman then watched for the right moment to ask his father for permission. Tasman said his father is supportive of the family history hobby but was reluctant to let his son travel all the way to America. He eventually caught his father in a good mood, surrounded by friends, during a family trip to Hawaii. Permission was granted.

It was decided that Tasman's aunt, Mardi Bennett, who also has a passion for genealogy, would accompany him. Between naps on the 16-hour flight to the United States, he passed the time by working on his family tree. After a five-day layover in San Francisco, the duo arrived in Salt Lake City in time for the conference.

They split up to hit as many classes as they could, Tasman said. He attended classes on interviewing, writing, organizing genealogy and finding cousins. He found the information in each class useful. His favorite class was about DNA research. He hopes DNA can help him uncover more information about the same great-grandmother who originally inspired his family history journey.

Tasman said the skills gained from the RootsTech classes will also help him as an aspiring genealogist. He already has four clients — family friends or friends of friends — who have hired him to help with their family history. His fee is $1 per year of research, meaning if he traces a family tree back 100 years, his fee is $100.

In the few years since he started, Tasman has learned some fascinating details about his heritage. His first ancestor to come to Australia was Richard Newham of Yorkshire, England. This man was convicted of stealing sheep in 1803 and sentenced to be hanged until a judge reprieved him and issued a new sentence — 14 years of hard labor in Australia. Part of Newham's hard labor included building roads between Sydney and Canberra that still exist today. Tasman's family line also includes at least eight convicts/prisoners who were exiled from England to Australian prisons.

Tasman, a Christian, also finds it interesting to discover which religions his ancestors belonged to and how faith may have impacted their lives.

When he finishes high school, Tasman would like to attend the University of Technology in Sydney. This kid who likes surfing, tennis and soccer is also interested in history, journalism and media, and could see himself as a teacher one day. He encourages other young people to start their family history work by interviewing older relatives. He wholeheartedly agreed with research shared at the conference regarding the positive health of children who know something about their family roots.

"Children who are aware of their heritage and family background are more able to cope with stresses and conflict," Tasman said. "I agree with that."

Cousin connection

As part of his keynote remarks Friday, FindMyPast director of family history D. Joshua Taylor, who is also a host on the PBS series "Genealogy Roadshow," discussed a fragment of his family tree that he never really explored before. He told of an ancestor from England named William Heaps who was arrested and sent to Australia for stealing cheese.

After Taylor's remarks, two women approached the FindMyPast exhibit in the expo hall and related to Taylor's colleague, Ian Tester, that they believed they were related to the same William Heaps. The women pulled up their family trees on their cellphones and, sure enough, the connection proved to be accurate.

"They were actually cousins of Josh Taylor," said Tester, the director of partner products at FindMyPast.

The women were eventually introduced to Taylor and compared notes on their common ancestor. Although nothing new was uncovered, Taylor appreciated meeting his new relatives.

"We do descend from the same lines," Taylor said. "They didn't know what had happened to him either. They had heard the same rumors that I did. I guess it goes to show that you will always find something new at RootsTech. On an unrelated note, their son had just texted them to bring cheese home."

Family Discovery Center

At the beginning of the conference, the LDS Church and FamilySearch held a grand opening for the Family History Discovery Center in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. The center is designed to provide visitors of all ages with a high-tech, interactive family history experience.

Elder Allan F. Packer, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, and other church leaders participated in the event, as did cast members of BYUtv's "Studio C."

Prior to the grand opening, Elder Packer recalled bringing his family in to experience the center. The one feature his grandchildren marveled at the most was a large, interactive map of the world with pins displaying the immigration path of ancestors.

"To see their eyes open up was impressive. It was more fun watching them than actually going through for ourselves," Elder Packer said. "They want to come back and spend more time here."

What impressed "Studio C" cast members was how simple and easy the technology was to use.

"Family history is something that has always been intimidating and foreign to me," Whitney Call said. "But they have done a lot of work for us here. … This humanizes the whole experience."

James Perry was thrilled to see photos of ancestors he had never seen before. Mallory Everton learned a number of things at the center. For example, she has Swedish roots, she is a distant cousin of Ezra Taft Benson and Benjamin Franklin, and the first LDS convert in her family joined the church in 1835.

"I didn't know any of this stuff before, so it's pretty cool," Everton said.

Tasman's last name has been withheld for security reasons.

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