Grandpa was a mule skinner and other family factoids

Genealogical research brings life to history

Posted: Tuesday, January 23, 2007

For longtime Sterling resident Bill Thomas, it’s probably good that he knows what a mule skinner is.

No, it’s not someone who skins mules. Actually, because of the abrasions often created on the animals’ hide, the job title — from a bygone era — is used for the person who drives a team of mules.

Thomas came across the unusual descriptor while doing research on his family tree.

In a mine record on one of his ancestors, Thomas found the following:

“Levi Reese Thomas was my grandpa. He was short with white hair and a glass eye. He first came to Hiawatha (Utah) as a young man driving a team of mules.

“He stayed and went to work with the survey crew laying out the town. His next job was in the mine as a mule skinner; then on to the track-laying crew as a foreman over the Chinese track layers.”

Though the mine record entry adds little factual data to the development of Thomas’ genealogy, the anecdote, like many found along the way, brings to life the times in which his ancestors lived.

“I love my family,” Thomas said from the Family History Center at the back of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints building on Marydale Avenue in Soldotna.

“I want to know the people who came before me ... who they were ... their hardships,” he said. “The little pieces go together to present the whole picture of my family.”

Thomas, who is a member of the center’s executive committee, said about half the people who use the Family History Center are not members of the LDS church.

“It’s open to the public,” he said.

The center is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and again in the evening from 6 to 9 p.m.

The center offers free use of computers, printers and copiers; high-speed Internet connection; access to free genealogical Internet sites; an extensive microfilm and microfiche library with media readers; and printed maps, books, magazines, journals and newsletters.

“Most people are interested in getting online,” said Sherry Gamble, director of the center. “Microfilm is more complete; it has more information than the computers.”

Uta Thomas — no relation to Bill Thomas — helps maintain the microfilm library.

“If I don’t have a film, I can order it through the LDS church site,” she said.

On Wednesday, she happened to be helping a woman search for records from Langenelz, Germany.

“If I have the town name, I can find the town records and the church records from the town,” she said. “I can search back through as much as 10 generations.”

As Uta Thomas continued her probe, her eyes suddenly sparkled.

“I have it,” she said, expressing her joy in already having that particular microfilm in her file drawer.

Church records don’t necessarily have to be from LDS churches. People can access Catholic church records and the center has a catalog of Jewish records, as well.

Users of the Soldotna center also have access to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City — the largest library of its kind in the world, with family histories, biographies and genealogies.

Thomas said when people first become interested in researching their family history, he advises they download a free Personal Ancestral File.

“We can download it right onto the person’s computer,” he said.

The Family History Center keeps current with new software programs that Thomas said are coming out all the time.

Included in its records collection are birth, marriage and death records for the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Scandinavia and Australia.

Actual federal census records dating back to 1880 are available and Thomas said one program allows people to view the original, hand-written census documents.

“People want verification of information by finding the actual documents ... birth certificates, probate records,” Gamble said.

“I want to know the boat (my ancestors) came over on from Wales,” said Thomas.

Part of the research collection includes ship passenger and immigration lists available from the Ellis Island database.

Many members of the LDS church believe they have a mandate from God to complete the genealogical research, but Thomas said people who come to use the Family History Center will not be approached with church doctrine.

Gamble said, “Delving into ancestry makes history come alive for me.”

Jon Jensen, a spokesman for the church, said he knew, by way of stories passed down through his family, that his great-grandfather did some work for the railroads back in the time when they were completing the transcontinental line at Promontory Point, Utah.

Until he began doing ancestral research, though, he did not know the story of how Peter Jensen managed to get the solid gold payroll past highway robbers on his way to Promontory.

“What he did was load the gold in a single layer across the bottom of his wagon, and then place a full load of hay on top,” said Jon Jensen.

After his father made the trip successfully, and his method was learned, the highwaymen reportedly told him he’d never get away with that again.

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” said Thomas. “You might find out about a daughter an ancestor had that you did not know about. It opens a whole new area to work in.”

Phil Hermanek can be reached at

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