Explore Your Roots
People have always been fascinated by their family history, and these days there are quite a bit of ways to research it, such as websites like Ancestry.com, speaking to older relatives via email and telephone and exploring maps of regions that your ancestors come from. But sometimes that’s not enough, and you feel compelled to visit the very place your family originated in person.
The popular TV show "Who Do You Think You Are?" has made family roots vacations more popular than ever, but unlike the celebrities on the show, the average person does not have access to a staff of genealogists and producers at their disposal. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t go it alone. Here are 10 essential tips to make the most of your journey.
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Check Event Schedules
The first thing you should do when planning your trip is decide when to visit the area where your forebears lived. Are there “homecoming” festivals or local fairs that might put some of the people you want to speak with together in one place? You should also look for special historical tours of an area, talks, presentations or special celebrations to commemorate the anniversary of an event that may have impacted your family.
Cindy Small, executive director of Kent County Tourism in Dover, Del. is very familiar with tourists coming to seek information on their roots. She says that Delaware, aside from being the first state to ratify the Constitution, is also a hot spot for people who want to learn about the Underground Railroad. Dover hosts “jam sessions,” for example, to allow people to share historical information and ask questions.
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“Cultural museums are a good place to start a vacation on family roots,” says Diana Baculis, director of marketing and communications for the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
National cultural museums are a great place to look, but if you’re headed to the hometown of one of your ancestors, remember to look for local cultural museums as well if the area was once known or is still known as a home to a particular ethnic group.
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Meet With Experts
Does the town or city you’re visiting have an official archive, a historical museum or a genealogical society?
“If you ask one (or more) of those groups before you leave, you may find something specifically connected with your family that will be of special interest to you and you can make plans to incorporate that into your visit,” says genealogist Janice M. Sellers.
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Try the Library
Libraries can often have a wealth of information, with local newspaper archives and books written by local authors on the history of the town and its people. If it’s a small town, the local library is a good resource, as well as the local visitor’s bureau and chamber of commerce.
“Unlike other organizations which depend on volunteer help and collection of records, someone on a visitor's bureau staff has consistent time and resources available to help on the research and the vacations to that place,” says Robin Jacobson, public relations manager for the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau.
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Stay in a Historic Hotel or B&B
If you’re trying to get a feel for a town’s history, consider staying in a historic hotel or a bed-and-breakfast. Sometimes grand old hotels or homes large enough to house B&Bs were once the center of activity for a town, and you may just learn your relatives had connections to the very place you’re staying.
Inn keepers are also typically well-versed on history and can tell you information you may have not known, and they might have a little library in-house with more clues as to the local history. Some hotels and inns even offer history tours and websites such as BedandBreakfast.com will list places in their system that were once part of the Underground Railroad. Other inns and hotels may have genealogists on site, such as The Lodge at Doonbeg in County Claire, Ireland.
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Bring a GPS & Updated Maps
Once you arrive at your destination, you don’t want to be thrown off by outdated maps or the pencil drawing your grandpa left behind of the old homestead. “Even if it's the town you grew up in, things may have changed since you left,” says Sellers, the genealogist. That means that any new maps or GPS devices you have to compare old documents to will help you on your hunt for information.
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Bring Names & Records
Although you may think you have all of your family’s names committed to memory, Sellers advises aspiring genealogists to bring a full list of family names along with them, just in case you meet someone who may drop a name that you may or may not be entirely sure of. “When you meet people, you have the best chance of making a connection,” Sellers says.
Also, historical or cemetery records may help you connect the dots if you have a full list of family members with you.
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Make a Connection With the Locals
Just as it is with your immediate family, the oldest members of a community typically have the most information. Make it a priority to connect with the locals on their turf: in community centers, cafes or even the local barbershop. Maureen Wlodarczyk, a genealogist and columnist, wrote to the mayor of her ancestral home in Italy, who connected her to a tour guide when she arrived – and there was a bonus: the guide was actually a distant relative. She also met someone who knew a distant relative and who was able to connect her to her Irish roots after she had an accident in Ireland. The two are now friends.
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Take Pictures & Videos
Don’t forget to take your camera (and video camera if you have one) – they’re great ways to document the places you visit and the people you meet, and they serve as a good record for your children and grandchildren, says Sellers. After all, if you had more pictures to go on yourself, your ancestry search would probably have been easier.
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Leave Extra Time on Your Schedule
The best part of taking a family roots vacation is that you will most likely discover places and people you didn’t know existed. Sellers recommends leaving yourself some extra time, so when these serendipitous moments happen, you can follow up on the lead and not have to stick to any kind of strict schedule.
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