Researching the Jonestown Family Trees

by Emily Yaden Schneider

(Background note: In 2004, while researching an essay for the book Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, Rebecca Moore collected a great deal of demographic data on the people who died in Jonestown, including information on family groups. That essay was adapted for this website, then superseded in 2017, with accompanying charts and graphs.

Based on that research – and in an effort to identify family connections to include in individual biographical boxes accessed through the Jonestown Memorial List – this website created a page on the Family Trees of Jonestown. As differentiated from most trees, these are limited almost exclusively to those people connected with Peoples Temple, including the Jonestown dead, survivors and former members of Peoples Temple, and family members who were part of the Concerned Relatives.

Over the last two years, Emily Yaden Schneider has expanded upon this limited research to give more detailed histories of the lives of Jonestown residents, in the form of more traditional family trees. Most of Ms. Schneider’s work is accessible through the current listings of Jonestown family trees – for example, the Swaney family tree has a link to the extended tree prepared by Ms. Schneider – but eventually these will be reflected in the individual biographical boxes as well.)

I began this project a few years ago while trying to come up with a genealogy project that would interest me. Having exhausted the family histories of all of my friends and relatives, I was inspired to research the genealogy of those who died in Jonestown after reading Jeff Guinn’s book The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple and learning about the many family connections between members.

The decision to conduct this research for Jonestown families was in some ways ideal because I already had (a) exact birthdays and birthplaces from passport information and (b) exact death date and locations. With that said, the overwhelming number of deaths in the isolated area of Jonestown did present some problems, since there are neither death certificates nor Consular Reports of the Death of an American Abroad. These forms typically have very useful information, but the requirements for each were waived in light of the scope of the tragedy. Nevertheless, my goal with this project is to discover, at least, the parents and grandparents for each person who died. This is easier for some people than others, depending on what information is available in the sources available to me.

The tools I use for genealogy can vary based on the time and locations of the family I’m researching, but the resources I’ve used most often for Jonestown research are Ancestry.com (sometimes free through your local library), FamilySearch.org (free), America’s Obituaries & Death Notices database by Newsbank (sometimes free through your local library), and, when all else fails, Google.

The majority of my time is spent on Ancestry as well as FamilySearch. Ancestry and FamilySearch have a lot of overlap, but there are some collections exclusive to each site. There are also instances where the handwritten document has been more accurately indexed on one of the sites, so the information is easier to find there.

This can be especially true for census records. In the past, the only requirement to be a census taker was the ability to read and write; penmanship, spelling, and basic common sense like “don’t rest your coffee cup on a stack of important records” were apparently not considered important.

Other times, the actual differences between the search engines can be helpful. Ancestry tends to be more accurate in the searches but also really favors records saved by people who have made similar family trees, which is great if those before you saved the correct records, but that is not always the case. Family Search, on the other hand, has no such bias and can be quite helpful in finding information that is contrary to previous research. Ancestry also likes to assume that people only have children with their spouses, so it will automatically include the other person as their spouse in searches, even when you’ve specifically marked the couple as not married. This can be remedied by editing the search, but you have to remember to do it each time you search.

I have only found a few published obituaries for those who died in Jonestown, most often if their family members provided them and still have them. The America’s Obituaries & Death Notices database claims to have obituaries back to 1860, but most of the people I’ve found there have been those who died in the last 35 years of so. Obituaries can also be found on Google or sometimes on FindAGrave.com. Obituaries are where you can find more recent information that may not be available elsewhere, such as the surviving spouse’s current spouse/partner’s name, death location, the names of children and children’s spouses, and other information about the person. What I’m usually looking for in an obituary are the names of their relatives who died in Jonestown either in the list of surviving relatives (pre-tragedy) or predeceased relatives (post-tragedy) or for any other names that will confirm the family connection. A person’s children and parents are typically named in an obituary, while spouses are often only mentioned if they are a surviving spouse. Sometimes the spouse is mentioned if the couple was still married when the spouse left for Jonestown, but it is not unusual for previous spouses not to be mentioned in an obituary, especially if the person remarried later on.

Google is where I go when all these options have failed me. If I’m lucky, I might find a news article or remembrance written by or about a living relative, a reference to a book, a relative’s obituary or biography. In one extremely lucky case, I found a whole website dedicated to the history of the family in question, the family of Eloise Williams Sneed and Syola Williams Turner. Sometimes I’m also able to find the website for a local historical society (e.g., the Mendocino County Indexes), which may have some otherwise unpublished birth, marriage, or death dates, cemetery records, or newspaper articles listed. If I’m having to resort to Google, though, I’m usually not optimistic about finding more information.

Some difficulties I’ve had in the research have been with those who were born after 1940 and have no known relatives born prior to 1940 whom I can research instead. The year 1940 is key because this is the most recent United States census publicly available. By law, individual census information is confidential for 72 years after that year’s “Census Day” and can only be requested by the person named in the record or their heir or legal representative during that period. If I can find someone in a census record, I can often find much more information about them, such as the names, ages (approximate), and relationships of people living with the person. Other information you can find or infer, depending on the census year, is marital status, birthplace, parents’ birthplaces, marriage year, number of children, occupation, income, and more. If someone is born after 1940, there’s not always much you can find about them that will connect them to their family. However, the 1950 census will be available on April 1, 2022, so I hope to revisit some post-1940 mystery people sometime at the end of next year.

Another difficulty is one that is common to all of genealogy, which is finding a woman’s maiden name. Not being able to find a married/divorced woman’s maiden name is a frequent brick wall in genealogy research. There are various ways to find the maiden name, but none of them are foolproof or guaranteed to be available. Marriage records are the most obvious way, although the woman’s name on the record could be from a previous marriage, but at least then you have a starting point. Her children’s records can sometimes have the mother’s maiden name listed on it, but you have to know her children’s names. Another source is the U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 database on Ancestry.com, which will sometimes show the person’s parents on record or will have the list of names used during the time the person had a social security number. Sometimes, a woman will use her maiden name as a middle name after marriage. After that, you have to get creative in your searching. Did the person have a sibling or parent living with them in the census who you can research? Are they listed in the probate records for a relative? Does her spouse’s obituary have her maiden name? Even with my best efforts, I still have some I have not been able to find maiden names for some.

I think the most surprising thing I have come across in my research is how resistant, even now, some people are to acknowledging that their relatives died in Jonestown, even on a forum like  Ancestry, where you have to have a paid membership to even view other’s family trees and only if the person has marked them as public. While researching, I have come across trees where the death date simply reads, “Nov 1978,” and the death place is blank or vague, even though they have the same sources as I do which spell out exactly when and where the person died. In one case, the person put in “19 Nov 1978” as the death date, even though every related source had the correct date. Other times, every one of the person’s siblings or other family members in the tree will have a full list of sources and information, while the person who died in Jonestown might only have an estimated birth year and place and maybe their spouse. Sometimes the people are marked as “Still Living,” which hides any information attached to them in the person’s tree in Ancestry. Was this on purpose, or did they just stop researching? After so many, I have to believe that at least some are on purpose.

I should add, though, that this is more of an exception than the rule. I have found many trees that have been extremely helpful in helping me piece together people’s family lives 40-odd years later. I have also been contacted by a few people who had no idea what happened to their cousins, grand-aunts and -uncles, etc., after they moved to California, and are grateful for the information I can provide.

The work I’ve done so far has been slow but rewarding. I’ve enjoyed it because it has allowed me to explore more diverse areas of genealogy research than I have previously, and I have found myself researching topics that I never thought I would need to research, such as, “What was the presence of the International Peace Mission Movement in Los Angeles circa 1940?” (If you’re curious, it was at the beginning of its decline but still had many members living communally in the city.)

As I continue my research, I look forward to the different topics I will find myself researching.

(Emily Yaden Schneider can be reached at yadenemi@gmail.com. Any genealogical information you can provide to her about families of the Jonestown dead would be greatly appreciated.)

Originally posted on October 7th, 2021.

Last modified on October 15th, 2021.
Skip to main content