On many of my trips, I intentionally visit places to research my family history. I have been an avid amateur genealogist for over a dozen years and have even taught some classes on the subject.
I have seen estimates that less than five percent of genealogy records are on the internet. So while you can definitely learn some things about your family history online, you might (as I have) do much research offline. One fantastic place to start online research is Cyndislist. Others are Rootsweb.com and FamilySearch.org.
Here are eight great places to visit on your travels that may help you with your family research. Included are a few personal examples because genealogists are looking for clues everywhere. Someone may recognize a name and contact me! Enjoy and let me know what you think.
- Washington, DC. You may have visited the National Archives building in Washington, DC to see copies of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Magna Carta. Well, that is just one room. Most of the building houses historical records, including immigration, military, and land purchase. Another great resource is the DAR Library–“one of the nation’s premier genealogical libraries.” At DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), you can learn if your ancestor fought in the American Revolution and so much more. Yesterday I visited the Library of Congress–the world’s largest library–specifically to research in a book that is in no other library in the western hemisphere (although there are copies in private collections).
- Libraries. There are thousands of other libraries in the US and the world. Nearly every local library (or at least the main branch) has a local history section. Visit libraries where your ancestors once lived and you are almost certain to discover information that you cannot find elsewhere. I have found some of the best resources in the smallest of libraries–so leave no stone unturned. Visit every possible location that your ancestors once lived. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City (affiliated with the LDS/Mormon church) is the largest genealogy library in the world. While they can send microfilms to family history centers (local churches), much of the collection stays at the FHL. A few years ago, my flight to Alaska had a six hour stopover in Salt Lake City and I visited the FHL. I was struggling to research a distant ancestor from the 1700s, Barbara SIM (from online records). I found nothing about her family by looking for SIM, SIMM, ZIMM, etc. The FHL had a book with records from her German hometown during those years. In the book, I found that her surname was actually SIRN. So someone incorrectly transcribed the name leading me on a wild goose chase for years. I was able to find the right information only from a German book in a library in Utah. Go figure!
- Museums, Historical Societies. Published and unpublished works are sometimes found in other places, like local museums, historical society libraries, and town halls. DAR is one historical society. Other large ones include NEHGS (in Boston) and NGS (near DC). Many states, towns, and regions operate historical societies containing different resources than libraries. For instance, a society member may have transcribed all of the cemetery headstones in that town. There are also dedicated societies for religions, military orders, surnames, and more.
- Courthouses. Records related to a town’s business are located at the local courthouse. You can learn about who owned and leased land and property, crime, vitals (birth, baptism, marriage, death), and more. It is fun (for me) to go through giant antebellum (pre-Civil War) ledger books and find pieces of data to help me solve family history puzzles. At a small courthouse in Arkansas I found an ancestor’s entire household inventory and a mention of who would care for his young orphans.
- Cemeteries. Cemeteries, burial grounds, and graveyards are excellent sources of historical information. In addition to the emotional aspect of visiting the resting place of an ancestor, you may be able to learn something. Grave stones may be engraved with birth and death dates, family members (spouse, children, parents), military service, and other information. One of my examples is this picture. I knew my ancestors lived in a certain area. Internet and library sources just did not prove it. They all listed a “John M. Coole” and I wondered if he was related to my MCCOOL/MCCOOLE ancestors. You can see from the inscription that it is obviously “John MCCOOLE” but was transcribe as “John M. COOLE” and then every subsequent publication used the same data. By visiting the cemetery I learned the truth and am able to correct decades-old errors. Another reason to visit cemeteries is to observe burial patterns. You can see what other families are buried nearby; there was often some connection. I have been able to determine wives and children this way (when there was no mention in any records).
- Ancestral Homelands/Farms. By knowing where ancestors lived (from National Archives land records, for instance), we can visit the exact spot where they once lived. I have not discovered anything earth shattering but I have had some nice experiences. It is interesting to see what has happened to land that ancestors owned in the 1800s. Four years ago, a distant cousin showed my family the MCCOOL homestead in Northern Ireland. We have been able to trace the MCCOOL family history to 1680, when they lived in this house (it was only one story then). Another example is of a place I did not visit. The owner of a farm where my COLE ancestors once lived (Logan county Ohio) contacted me when she found headstones on the property. She googled the names on the headstones and found my published research and queries. I have also made discoveries by driving around places family members lived long ago; things like small cemeteries, distant cousins still there (by seeing familiar names on neighboring mailboxes), and my family names being used in current development.
- People. Perhaps the most gratification comes from visiting relatives and maybe even discovering or meeting new ones. If you are interested in your family history and have older living relatives, I encourage you to talk to them SOON. I am fortunate to have a 91 year old grandmother who is still very sharp. By visiting her, I have been able to get copies of vital documents (birth and marriage records), contacts of other distant relatives, and wonderful stories. On a road trip this summer, I made a point to have a mini-reunion with cousins I have seen one time in 40 years and aunts I have not seen in over 30 years. Oh the stories they had for me! On a trip to Germany about 10 years ago, I was researching RAUSCH ancestors apparently from Saarburg. I visited the archives in Trier, then drove to Saarburg and knocked on the door of the only RAUSCH person for hundreds of miles (found through online telephone directory). She did not know any English and I knew only a little German. She took me to the town doctor who was an American soldier from World War 2 and settled in the town. He translated. I discovered that she was not related and knew of no RAUSCH town history. There is a RAUSCH vineyard in Saarburg (I learned prior to the trip) but they think it is not named for a person but rather for the roar of the river through the town center (alternate possibility is that RAUSCH is a slang term for feeling tipsy or intoxicated). So, I did not learn any RAUSCH family history but I met some incredible people. Rick Steves would be proud!
- Other Places. People tell me that Ellis Island is a great place to visit. I have not been there but I have searched their records online. Cultural and ethnic festivals, fairs, and restaurants are fun and useful places to visit for research purposes. Having trouble with Scottish research? Visit a Highland Games festival and talk to people (there are often genealogy tables, too). You can visit schools or places where ancestors went to work or church. So many places, so little time.
Whew, that was a long post. Thank you for reading. Let me know what you think. Will you try any of these? Do you have a new interest in genealogy? Have you visited other places for research?
Charles McCool is an independent consumer travel advocate.
© 2011, Charles McCool