How to Prepare for a Family History Trip
After identifying and documenting your ancestry (including the crucial step of determining your family’s foreign hometown), a natural next goal might be to visit the sites, scenes, and places where your ancestors lived and died. Genealogy and research tours can be exciting and enlightening, but require ample preparation. Paul Woodbury, Legacy Tree’s Outreach Manager and genetic genealogist, has made several such trips of his own. Below, he shares some tips both from his personal experience and from things we at LTG have done to help others prepare for family history tours.
FAMILY HISTORY TRIP GOALS
As with any genealogy research undertaking, an important first consideration is a clear definition of your goal(s) for the trip. Are you hoping to extend your ancestry further through documents which are only available onsite by means of an archive or church? Are you hoping to visit the places where your ancestors lived and worked? Are you hoping to connect with distant cousins? Any of these efforts are worthy endeavors, and each requires sufficient preparation to make sure they can be met.
If one of your goals on a genealogy tour is to obtain additional information regarding your ancestors and their origins, make sure that you have thoroughly exhausted the resources already available online and on microfilm. There is nothing quite as disappointing as making the journey to a distant archive only to realize that it is closed for a holiday, or that the records you were hoping to consult are already available online.
To avoid such mishaps, make a detailed research plan of the types of documents you would like to consult and identify where those documents are held. Consider contacting the archives you hope to visit several weeks in advance to ensure that the records are accessible and that the archive will be open. Many archives have published catalogs of their holdings which you can purchase from the archive, access online, or consult at the Family History Library.
Contacting archivists and researchers onsite may also help you in the development of a research plan as they may have suggestions for record types and collections that you may not have considered. With ample notice of your arrival, they can prepare to work with you directly and assist you in your family history research. They can have the documents you are hoping to access ready for you upon your arrival. Depending on the primary language of the country you’re visiting, it may also be helpful to enlist the services of a local researcher for translation help. While archival staff in many places throughout the world speak at least some English, it’s best to be prepared in case they don’t! Keep in mind that different records in the same archive can be kept in a variety of languages as well, so it may be best to find a translator who can read several different languages.
One of the most exciting parts of a research trip can be visiting the places where your ancestors worked, socialized, worshipped, and lived – though this can be tricky. Sometimes it is impossible to determine the specific address where a particular family may have lived. The home where they resided may have since been destroyed or rebuilt, or they may have lived in the area before the advent of records which documented their residence. Even if you are able to find a specific address, sometimes street names have been changed and the numbering recalibrated.
On a recent genealogy research tour, we found that the client’s ancestors lived in a section of Glasgow, Scotland that has since been torn down and turned into a shopping mall. Even though the client was unable to see the original tenements where their ancestor lived, they were able to visit several museums that detailed what life was like more generally during that time period and place.
On another research tour, I worked with a local parish priest to identify the homes where my ancestors lived. Some of them were still owned by family members centuries later, and others had been abandoned for decades. One of the homes visited was decorated with engravings made by my fifth great-grandfather in the early 1800s, which detailed the creator’s genealogy back five generations! (I recently spoke with Extreme Genes radio host Scott Fisher about this story. For more detail, you can listen here, beginning at the 0:25:09 mark in the podcast.)
If you cannot pinpoint a place of residence, consider visiting churches, schools, and places of work which they may have frequented as part of their daily life. This, too, can be rewarding. On a research trip to Denmark, I found amazing murals in the 16th century parish church where my ancestors were baptized, married, and buried. Though the tombs where they were actually interred had long since been dug up and reused, it was still exciting to see the scenes and paintings that they experienced on a weekly basis – some of which were quite gruesome!
Some records that may provide more information about addresses and locations of residences include maps, tax records, civil registration, censuses, and land records. Collaboration with other living family members and distant cousins can also help to pinpoint the exact location of an ancestral homestead. In order to reconstruct the nature of your ancestors’ daily lives, it may also be necessary to take a step back and look at the history of the village, town, or city where they lived. Don’t miss the forest for the trees and don’t miss the local history museum down the street from where your ancestor lived.
Another important element of any genealogy tour is an exploration of the stories associated with the places you will be visiting. Before you arrive, make sure to document and record what you have already discovered regarding your family. When exploring the biographical details of your own ancestors’ lives, make sure to search out additional information regarding the area and its culture through local historians, museums and newspapers. Search for historical context for their lives. With sufficient preparation, you may be able to eat at the pub where your great-grandpa was arrested for getting into a brawl. You can visit the farmer’s market where your ancestors sold their produce for generations, or you can tour the site of the woolen mills where your ancestor worked as a weaver.
In preparation for a recent genealogy tour, one individual discovered that their ancestor worked at the New Lanark mill in Scotland. In recent years, this mill has been renovated and turned into a UNESCO World Heritage site with detailed working displays on the weaving process, what life was like in New Lanark during the time period it was in operation, renovated workers housing, and beautiful hikes and gardens. While visiting, they also had the opportunity to visit the onsite archives for the mills and find records regarding their ancestor’s time there. Even if the mill or factory where your ancestor lived or worked is no longer standing, search for nearby sites that could give an idea of what their life was like.
Connecting with living cousins who remained in the area where your ancestors lived is an amazing experience. To identify living relatives, consider searching compiled genealogies relating to your own ancestors. If your ancestors appear in someone else’s family tree, then they may have a distant relationship to you. Also consider working with onsite agents who are more familiar with the local genealogies and families, or even going the DNA route. Genetic testing can connect you with cousins who share the same DNA from your common ancestors.
In one recent research trip, I connected with a 2nd cousin three times removed. She was the last living great-grandchild of our common ancestors and her family had been unaware of the fate of their American family since the time that ancestor left for the U.S. in 1870. She was delighted to learn of their exploits in the American west and was excited to share the stories she knew of her own family who remained in France. Through this connection, I obtained several photographs of the French family members that remained in France and made valuable contacts onsite for future research.
If making a trip to the onsite location of your ancestors sounds like something you’re interested in but is perhaps beyond your skill level or time, Legacy Tree Genealogists would be happy to assist you with a plan. We have extensive experience identifying the archives, collections, and records you should consult; can assist you with locating places that would be of interest to visit; and can also perform descendancy research and/or analyze your DNA results to help you try to identify living relatives in the area. Please note, however, that we can never guarantee specific results (you never know what you’ll find until you start looking!) and that most research of this sort takes a minimum of 10-12 weeks (often longer), so consulting with a professional genealogist early should be one more item on your list of preparations to take care of before booking plane tickets.
Whether it be to search for additional records, visit the places your ancestors lived, discover the stories of your ancestors’ lives, or connect with living relatives, following these tips can help you to make the most of your genealogy tour. With ample preparation it is sure to be a wonderful experience.
Let Legacy Tree Genealogists help you in your preparation so you can make the most of your trip. Contact us today for a free consultation.