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Ancestry Travel: How to Trace Your Roots and Origins

Women on the Road
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If you love to travel, there's every chance you've thought about your own origins – where your ancestors originated, or how you ended up where you are. If these questions remain unanswered, why not take advantage of your travels to trace your family roots?

These days, many of us come from somewhere else, or at least our families do.

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, because I don't really know what to say.

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

what is ancestry travel, exactly?

It's often called something else – heritage travel, heritage trips, DNA tourism, genealogy tourism or ancestry tourism. Bottom line, it means visiting a place that means something to your family history. A by-product is finding out even more about your family roots and past.

This adventure could take you anywhere, from visiting old homesteads to digging through dusty basement files in forgotten registry offices. Whatever you find, it will bring you one stop closer to your past.

how to trace your ancestors without leaving your living room

It makes sense to start from home when tracing roots. After all, it's the endpoint and you'll have to trace backwards from here. Here's how to go about it.

1. Check everything around you

Take your clues from your surroundings. Do you have any old photographs on the mantlepiece? What about items you've always been told not to touch because they belonged to your Great Aunt Addie? WHY were these items important?

Are there any family albums or scrapbooks gathering dust in an attic? Heirlooms or keepsakes that were always special to someone in your family? What about stories you've heard over and over again which happened in the past – there's often truth to them.

1A. get a dna test

I'm numbering this 1A because I'm not convinced about the DNA testing. I realize it's incredibly popular and that companies like 23andMe, AncestryDNA from Ancestry.com and My Heritage have fine-tuned this undertaking to make it seamless and simple: the test comes in a kit, delivered to your mailbox, you take a swab and mail it back.

My worry is with the privacy issues of that information, although the companies do state your data is protected. It's your decision, and I know as many people who are comfortable with it as who are not...

2. establish your family tree as it stands now

There are things you can already find out about and you may know more than you think. My first step in anything is always to start a new notebook (as a bona fide stationery addict). Let's call it "My Family Tree", our goal being to fill it.

In this notebook I'd write down the questions I need to ask, along with the answers I receive from everyone around me. Keeping it all in one place ensures all the information is at hand whenever you need it.

I'd talk to all living relatives – parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and if they live at home, grandparents. Start asking simple questions:

  • Who were your parents? 
  • Where were they born?
  • In which city did they live?
  • Do you know anything about their childhood?
  • Do you remember any stories they told you?

In your notebook, draw a simple chart of your various relatives with all the information you have so far. 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 family tree.

The idea is to find out what is available within arm's reach: we're after the low-hanging fruit, the basics.

3. widen your circle of research

This step is similar to the previous one, except that your circle should be enlarged. This is when you start contacting the people you may know about but who live further away. Some might even be in far-off places and you may have the opportunity to visit them when you take your ancestry travel trip.

Talk to existing but more distant relatives, especially elderly ones, and find out the name of Great Aunt Harriet's second husband. Get on Skype and stay there until you've spoken to every knowledgeable faraway cousin you've been able to track down.

4. check official records

Most cities, regions and countries have records and many of these can be accessed online.  Look into whatever records you can find locally – birth and death certificates, marriage records and the like. 

5. do some serious online research

I'll have some additional resources for online research at the bottom of this article but you can already begin being proactive on the Internet.

  • Start doing some specialized research, for example the census bureau or military archives.
  • Search for and join genealogy forums, where thousands of people post requests for information and exchange tips and leads on family ancestors. You could Search for something like "genealogy + forum".
family roots old photographsI'd love to know more about who my ancestors were...
  • Facebook: many genealogists, amateur and professional, have taken to Facebook to help them track down family. Use the Search bar on Facebook to look for your last name and you'll see just how many there are. You can join general genealogy Facebook groups, or Search for your Family Name + Genealogy (or Ancestors or Family Tree – be creative!)

6. start doing your international research

Most countries have genealogical societies with which 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".

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?

taking advantage of travel for my ancestry search

Solo travel is a wonderful thing and one of the many reasons we travel (other than wanderlust) is to find out who we are, whether by pushing our boundaries or searching for our past.

I haven't had a chance to do this yet but I'd love to do some research on both my Turkish and my French families. I suspect there have been both illustrious members and heinous ones – but I'd like to know. This is high on my list and I'm putting things in place for when that trip takes place. You could do the same:

  • Once you're in the country of your origins, go to the town hall in the village of your ancestors (you'll know this from your conversations with all those relatives back home). Ask about distant relatives who might still be in the region. You may find a few ancestors or cousins this way 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. I know that the French side of my family comes from the village of Les Milles, near Aix-en-Provence, and clearly the town hall will be my first stop.
  • Speak to the local religious leader, 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 doctor, notary or lawyer who is local to the area (the town hall should know) then make an appointment and drop by. Often, these professions are hereditary and today's doctor may have a grandfather at home who once treated your own grandmother.
  • Drop by the local newspaper office to search back issues. With luck they'll still be around.
  • Visit the local library if there is one – libraries often have plenty of searchable records.
  • I find that visiting places where older people congregate is a great way to start gathering gossip. In France, that place would be the weekly market and I'd have no hesitation in walking up to an 80-year-old and asking her whether she was from the village, if she'd lived there all her life, if her parents had, and so on. As I write these words, the prospect of doing just that is becoming increasingly exciting.

these resources will help you trace your family tree for free online (some are free)

All of the above steps should keep you busy, and we're fortunate these days to be able to search online. There is a risk though: you may be so fascinated that you end up in a rabbit hole and emerge a year later, wondering where the time went. Here is a piece of unsolicited advice (gleaned from personal experience): set a time limit for your research!

Here are a few more resources to help you get started in your search:

  • Possibly the best free resource is Family Search, of the Church of Latter Day Saints; there is a surprising amount of information here!
  • A good free research site is Rootsweb - and a good place to start.
  • Geneanet is a good place to start if you're looking for ancestors from France.
  • ItalianGenealogy has an active forum where you can get help in tracing your ancestors.
  • This page is full of resources if your family is of German origin.
  • There's JewishGen to trace your Jewish roots.

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