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Genealogy Travel: How to Find Your Family Tree

Visiting family may be the most common reason most people travel; even among independent and wide-ranging travelers, most still make regular trips to attend family reunions or visit parents, children or siblings.

Increasingly, folks are also traveling to visit family who are no longer around, in the form of genealogy travel (also known as “ancestry travel” or “family tree travel”). Genealogy travel involves making a trip to the land of your ancestors to research your family history. The Internet has made it easier than ever to find your family tree, but when the digital trail runs its course, many inquisitive travelers head to the towns, churches, streets and even houses of their forebears to learn more.

It may take months or years of research before you’re ready to visit your ancestral homeland, but when you’re ready the whole enterprise can be a great excuse to visit a place you might never have considered otherwise — and to which you will have a connection that you could never have imagined. Many travelers find genealogy trips to be among the most satisfying of their lives.

There are lots of special considerations for genealogy travel. Before you start booking your trip, the following information will prepare you for what lies ahead — or in the past, as the case may be.

More Than One Homeland

Unless your family came to its current home very recently, your ancestral ethnicity or nationality is likely a diverse mix. In my own household, tracing our backgrounds would require trips to Norway, Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany and Quebec (and then whatever country we found out the family Quebecois came from).

This may call for some tough choices once you get to the travel planning stage. Make sure you have exhausted resources at home to determine which location might yield the most information or emerges as more important to you personally based on the information you can find.

One location simply might end up sounding more attractive as a tourist destination; of all the potential ancestry travel destinations in our household, one family branch leading to the Lofoten Islands in Norway is especially enticing. Even if the research didn’t go all that well, we would still be in a really cool location.

What You Might Find

Genealogy research can dredge up all kinds of stuff, and you’ll want to be prepared for almost anything. Some find out they are descended from royalty, others that they are descended from criminals. You might find out a recent ancestor was adopted or even “illegitimate” (as the old terminology had it), which can shatter a lot of your more comforting assumptions about your family, and sometimes even about yourself (not to mention derail your research). Brace yourself for the truth being very different from what you might expect.

DNA Testing

As an aside, getting a DNA test is becoming more common for folks who are deeply serious about their family tree research, and it does have some implications for your potential travels. Family lore can sometimes be an unreliable guide, as it can be biased toward the most interesting ancestor or location — all it takes is one colorful uncle who kissed the Blarney Stone, and the story is handed down that the whole family is Irish. Then the DNA test results come in, and you’re Lithuanian.

If you are inclined to do a test before booking flights, the Legal Genealogist offers a good resource for choosing a DNA testing company.

Domestic Travel Opportunities

When most Americans think of traveling for family tree research, they think of the old homelands — but digging around stateside can be extremely satisfying and fruitful. Think of actually seeing your ancestor’s handwriting in a giant book from Ellis Island; it will be hard to find a more personal connection to a long-ago ancestor than something written in his or her own hand.

Additionally, the lives of more recent ancestors can be as interesting as those from distant countries. One of my great-grandfathers was a bootlegger who set up operations behind the Sunshine Park nudist colony, where he figured no one would rush to have a look around (although photographer Diane Arbus did, producing her famous snapshot of a Sunshine Park waitress). I am easily as interested in knowing more about this location as about where his father (my great-great-grandfather) lived in Germany.

Whether your research leads you to the Lofoten Islands or to a crumbling nudist resort in South Jersey, chances are it’s going to be interesting.

One more note on domestic travel: A few years ago I read about someone who visited an immigrant ancestor’s grave and discovered his original birthplace listed on the headstone. With that information, the search for the family homeland can become very specific indeed. Strongly consider stateside travel before you go abroad.

Genealogy Travel Tips

1. Try to find a local contact. Once you have a bead on where you need to visit, a local contact can help considerably, especially if you can find an actual family member. Many researchers use Facebook to search on family names in specific locations, then just reach out by email to see what happens; stories abound of finding direct relatives within hours.

2. Check ahead of time. Before you jet off to your family homeland to ransack a county clerk’s office, make sure in advance that there is actually a county clerk’s office to ransack. You will also want to make sure libraries and military/town/immigration offices are open, churches still exist and records are still where you expect them to be. ThoughtCo.com has a good list of questions to ask before you show up at a research facility.

3. See if tourism offices can help. Many countries and localities have noticed the surge in ancestry travel and offer specific information and assistance; in some cases there may be stateside historical associations that can help. Here are a few examples:

Germany
Ireland
Japan
Romania
Scotland
Various countries (Jewish ancestry)

4. Find a tour guide. Tour guides who focus on ancestry research are popping up worldwide; do some Web searches for guides operating in the country/region/town you will visit. The closer they are to your final destination the better, as local knowledge will go far in this case.

5. Check national libraries and archives. Many offer very good ancestry resources; for example, stats indicate one in nine Americans have some Irish ancestry (including President Obama, who visited there in 2011), and Irish institutions have responded to the boom in roots seekers with dedicated genealogists in both the National Library and National Archives.

6. Avoid traveling with original documents. Many genealogists recommend making copies of any original documents you may have already found and leaving the originals at home.

7. Prepare to be sidetracked. Don’t overplan for a trip like this; a snippet of information on library microfilm might send you miles out of your way chasing new clues. Book hotels a night or two at a time and improvise from there.

8. Prepare to be disappointed. In researching this article, I was struck by how many folks were disappointed in what they found for one reason or another. Some found that their forebear’s villages were completely gone, replaced by shopping centers. Some found their relatives were not such great people. Sometimes the place was so harsh that they too wanted to escape to America.

9. Walk the land and breathe the air of your ancestors. If your family left the area long ago, get out of your car and walk a lot, in the same way they would have a century or two ago. No matter what you find, our travels are always enriched by matching our own footfalls to those of our forebears and predecessors.

When walking the stones of the Coliseum or the Acropolis, Angkor Wat or the Great Wall, it is almost impossible not to think of the truly rich tapestry of human beings who have walked there over thousands of years, which includes emperors, kings, presidents, slaves, and more — any of whom could be your remote relatives.

So while the point of your trip is to find information, don’t forget to inhabit the world of your ancestors as best you can. Take in the food, the air, the smells, the light at both ends of the day. Find the things that remain the same across centuries, and hold fast to those.

And remember that your ancestors didn’t get to see the things you see, either, and certainly didn’t get the chance to try to know you; take a moment to feel just a little bit lucky for all the microfilm and tour guides and air travel and Internet that brought you there.

Additional Genealogy Travel Resources

Setting off to find your family tree has never been easier, thanks to a growing number of websites that help get you started. Facebook and other social networking sites are increasingly used for ancestry research and contacts. There are also a few dedicated genealogy websites worth checking out:

Ancestry.com
APGen.org
CyndisList.com
FamilySearch.com
FamilyTreeMagazine.com

Have you ever traveled to the homeland of your ancestors? Tell us about it in the comments!

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