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Heritage Travel: How to Trace Family Roots

Why not take advantage of your travels to trace family roots you may have been wondering about for years?

These days, many of us come from somewhere else. 

Even if we grew up in one country, one or both of our parents may have been from another one. Or, we ourselves may have been born elsewhere. My father was from the Middle East, I was born in Paris, and educated in Canada and Spain, Iran and Algeria. Each time someone asks me where I'm from, I cringe.

Brought up far from any extended family, I've always wanted to know more about my origins.

As individuals we may face many unanswered questions: who we look like, why did we inherit certain characteristics, whether our ancestors were famous or notorious or involved in major historical events. Or we may want to reconnect with part of a family we never knew.

We may have (or are planning to have) children, and we'd like them to know about their heritage. Or, our own parents may have lost touch with their families and in their old age, they might want to reconnect - and we can help.

Immigrants to Ellis IslandImmigrants on Ellis Island, 1931. Photo Wikipedia DE

It's often called heritage travel and it's something that has often tempted me, a chance to find out more about who I am.

Most countries have genealogical societies with whom you can get in touch to explore family ancestry. Just search for genealogical society or association - and then drill down by nationality or location - something like "genealogy + German" or "genealogical association + France".

Another great place to find local contacts and information on family trees are genealogy forums, where hundreds of people post requests for information and exchange tips and leads on family ancestors. Again, your search string would be "genealogy + forum".

family roots old photographsI'd love to know more about who my ancestors were...

If language is a problem, you might consider trying to find someone to help with translation. One idea might be to contact the English department of the local university - at least someone will understand your phone call or email, but more importantly, you might find a student willing to do a bit of interpreting for you in exchange for some native English conversation or for a small fee.

Failing that there's also Apgen, the Association of Professional Genealogists, where you can hire a pro.

Potential sources of information are limitless. But if you're on the road, why not take advantage of being in the right country?

If you're anxious to search out your roots while you're abroad, here are some simple steps to get you started. 

  • Gather as much information as you can before you leave home. Talk to existing relatives, especially elderly ones, and find out who's who and the name of Great Aunt Harriet's second husband. If you're already overseas, get on Skype and stay there until you've spoken to every knowledgeable cousin.
  • Write it all down.  Draw a simple chart of your various relatives if you have enough information. A mind map is a great way to download that information, as is a basic business organizational chart. Or if you prefer you can buy one of these smart charts to make up your own family tree.
  • If you haven't done this yet, gather as much information as possible online. Do general searches of course (as mentioned above) but try specialized searches as well - census bureau, military archives and the like.
  • Once you're in the country you are researching, go to the village or town hall and ask about distant relatives who may still be in the region. You'll often find many distant relatives left behind and if immigration in your family was relatively recent, a few generations, you may be able to gather some good intelligence. Use your visit to the town hall to look up records they might still have. In some European cities records go back many centuries and you might be in luck.
  • Speak to the local religious leader, the priest or pastor. They often know more about what goes on than anyone else, and may have birth and death records (especially if a cemetery is linked to the place of worship).
  • If there is a local doctor, notary or lawyer who is local to the area (the town hall should know) then make an appointment and drop by.
  • Drop by the local newspaper office to search back issues.
  • Visit the local library - libraries often have plenty of searchable records

More resources to help you trace family roots

For your UK family tree, a good genealogy web site to start is the BBC History website. It is filled with useful background information, as well as practical 'how to' guides. You'll find more online resources for the UK at ancestor-search.info, which pulls together databases, libraries, genealogical associations, record offices and official sources.

If you're trying to trace family roots from the UK or Irelandpassenger lists are a good resource - most Irish immigrants came to North America by ship.

Searching for ancestors in languages other than English is a little trickier unless you speak the language, although there are an increasing number of English language genealogy sites to help you along. To trace family roots in Sweden, for example, Swedish church records are available by parish and since 1860, although you'll have to pay for extracts. In Norwaythis site should be of help. The Polish Connection is a gateway to ancestors from Poland. For other countries, try either Rootsweb or Ancestry.com.

To trace family roots in a more whimsical manner, try the DNA Ancestry Project, and for the most complete online database, search the Church of Latter Day Saints website.

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