Genealogy Research Trips

    If you have not already started to plan your research trip(s) for this year, now is the time to get started. This article has some handy tips to help you plan your next trip mixed in with a little of my humor.

    While most people cannot wait for the snow to melt and the flowers to start blooming, Genealogists are waiting for the tombstones to become visible.

    This article has also grown into a lecture. For information on Jeff's lectures, please see www.JeffBockman.com and then select Lectures.

    Post your comments about this article at www.genealogyblog.com/?p=3582

 
Genealogy Vacation – Myth or Reality
By Jeffrey A. Bockman
Originally published in Heritage Quest, Issue #99, May/June 2002, page 30.

The two words "Genealogy" and "Vacation" are rarely used in the same sentence let alone together except possibly in a divorce proceeding. They conjure up images of racing around from place to place like in the 1969 movie "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium." You can just about see the marquee for Chevy Chase starring in "National Lampoon's Genealogy Vacation" with the Griswald family in their station wagon visiting their downtrodden relatives, backing over tombstones, and then finally making it to the "Family Research Megacenter" only to find that it is closed.

Planning your "Do all of the research that you possibly can" genealogy vacation is easy. All that you have to do is:

Pick the geographic area where you need or want to do research.

Get a detailed map of the area

Get a map from your home to the area if you are driving.

Place Red dots or pins on every town with a courthouse or research facility where you have ancestors.

Use Black dots for every cemetery where you have ancestors buried.

Use Blue dots for any living known relatives (down to 2nd or 3rd cousins)

Put a Yellow dot or Smiley face on the tourist attractions that your disinterested spouse or children want to visit.

Use Green dots for any attractions that you want to see.

 
Connect all of the dots so that you can:
  • Visit courthouses early in the morning before the clerks get tired of the questions and family histories from all of the family history hunters.
  • Visit every research facility on a day that it is open and during operating hours. Remember that many libraries stay open in the evenings.
  • Visit cemeteries during daylight hours on the days that the office is open and when the caretaker is not cutting grass for the first time after eight days of rain.
  • Travel under the cover of darkness after the libraries have closed.
  • Eat and stay with relatives if they have new family evidence, everything else is closed, or they happen to be really nice. (Leland added: maybe you should wait for an invitation.)
  • Arrive at attractions that are "pay per ride" late in the day, accidentally of course, to keep costs down.
  • Drop off the family early in the morning at "single price for the entire day" attractions. Remember to pick them up.
  • At least once during the trip, sit back and enjoy the scenery, take a few pictures, eat a nice meal so that you can have one good memory to convince yourself that you had a vacation.
 

Just like the proverbial "Kid in a Candy Store" or the person at a smorgasbord who's "eyes are bigger than their stomach" you are not going to be able to take them all in. You cannot resolve five to twenty years worth of genealogy questions within a one to two-week research trip. Even if you could visit all of the places, this type of a trip would not be considered a vacation.

You can use the prior list like a menu at a restaurant. Pick a variety of the items so that everyone will be satisfied. To design a real vacation you will need to make several decisions based upon:

  • your research priorities,
  • your individual interests,
  • the time necessary for the various activities including travel time,
  • the hours that places are open,
  • the costs,
  • the practicality of putting it all together,
  • and the possibility of returning again in the future.

To truly make it a genealogy vacation you will need to dedicate some days to research and others to "vacation". Trying to mix a few hours of each into a tight schedule will leave everyone frustrated. From a planning standpoint start with the most important sites and then the farthest away. You could possibly visit the closer sites on a shorter trip in the future.

One way to have a successful genealogy vacation is to leave out most of the research and just "Walk a mile in their shoes." Visit the family homestead or homeland, meet distant cousins, eat the local food, and drink the local beer, wine, or beverage of choice. You can possibly learn why your ancestor left the area, especially if he was a younger brother and the land could not support several families. You might be able to see where they were born and raised, learned their trade, and find out about the culture that influenced their lives and possibly yours.

[Ljubljana, Slovenia]

No matter what type of trip you take it will be more successful with good planning. You will want to make the most effective use of your limited vacation time. Before you leave home: Do as much research as you can; Learn about the research facilities and their collections; Know what references you want to review. In other words "Do your homework at home."

The Internet is a great tool to help you plan your trip and your research. You can make travel arrangements, locate tourist sites and research facilities and then print them on maps. You can start with my Genealogy and Travel links page (http://www.JeffBockman.com/links) to access all of the sites listed below.

To find Research Facilities and Libraries use World GenWeb (http://www.worldgenweb.org/) for each country and US GenWeb (http://www.usgenweb.org) for each state, or county where you plan to do research. They should tell about courthouses and the research facilities in the area and hopefully their days and hours of operation. The web site of the local genealogy society should also be helpful. Use the research facility's Website to find out more about their collection or even search their on-line catalog. Try to identify those facilities with unique records, that you need, that are only available at their facility. You don't want to spend your vacation time reading a microfilm or book that is available at your local library. Learn as much as you can about the facility before you go. Print out a list of the records you will want to see, floor plans, parking instructions, or any other useful information. Try to find statewide or regional research facilities, like the Ohio Historical Society Library, that will let you do research on a variety of counties without having to drive around and visit a number of different facilities. It will save you the time it takes to both get there and to get familiar with a new place. It is difficult to plan how long your research will take. You never know what you will find. If you do find those elusive parents then you now have two new people to research. I doubt that you will then want to rush off to the next place on your itinerary just because it is two o'clock.

Some places like the Family History Library in Salt Lake City might store records in a remote site or an annex. Contact them ahead of time and let them know when you will be there and what you want to see. They will make sure that the records are available. The FHL puts requested microfilms in special drawers in the first aisle.

When asking for help at a research facility be very specific. Tell them what you are looking for and quickly what you have already checked. For example, I am looking for the parents of a (name of person) born in (the town) in (the year). I have already looked at (these) records. Ask then "What else do you have that could possibly help me?" Be sure to thank them for their assistance even if you didn't find the proof you were looking for. You now have one less source that you need to check. You should also hope that the person just before you at the next facility is just as polite.

Courthouse tips: Don't wear your Hawaiian shirt and shorts and tell them all about your family if you really want to be helped. If you come in looking professional and ask to see specific records they will probably be very helpful. They are there to manage the records under their custody. They are not there to do your research and they really do not care about your family. If you keep an ear open while doing your research you will probably hear a review of most of the restaurants in the area while they are deciding on where to go for lunch.

Cemetery Visits can provide some memorable moments, such as standing at the 300-year-old grave of your seventh great-grandfather that can only be experienced in person. You can locate cemeteries using maps, telephone books, or the following internet sites: USGS National Mapping Information - GNIS ), Mapquest , or Bigbook.

(2009: There are now many others including Google.com provides maps and telephone lookups in addition to web searches.)

If you only know that someone had died in or was buried in a town then try to find historical maps and see what cemeteries were in existence at the time of death. The historical or genealogical society might also be helpful.

Be sure to stop at the cemetery office if at all possible to locate the burial site and to get the information from the office records. The data will vary with each cemetery but it should include the plot owner and the name and burial date of everyone buried in the plot. You want to see the records since there may be some people that do not have grave markers. Some cemeteries may have other information such as the death date, the names of the parents, and the cause of death like at Greenlawn Cemetery in Columbus, OH.

 

[A Greenlawn Cemetery record includes the birth date and place along with the parent's names]

The caretaker does have a business to run. If there is a funeral in progress, someone is purchasing a plot, or they are cutting the grass after a week of rain they will probably not be able to help you very much, if at all. See if there is a convenient time to come back if you are staying in the area for a few days. If not then explain that you are only here for a short while and only ask for the one or two records that you really need.

When you visit the grave, record all of the information on the stones. Record the information from the nearby plots as well. These can often be in-laws or married siblings. Look around for everyone with known names. If the cemetery records did not include a diagram of who is buried on the plot then draw one yourself. Take photos of the stones and the overall area. Photos do not replace taking notes since the photos may not come out or you might not be able to read them.

If a stone cannot be read, then try to find an old book of transcriptions by the DAR or the local genealogy society.

(2009: This was cut from the original article:

When visiting cemeteries with children the following statement can be helpful. "We can go to <fill in your favorite fast food restaurant> as soon as we locate the tombstone of <fill in your missing relative>." You will know if you have been visiting too many cemeteries when you are looking for a picnic area and your children say "there's one" and you look and see a cemetery.)

Historical tourist sites such as Mystic Seaport, CT and Old Deerfield, MA let you experience a little bit of what life was like when our ancestors were living in that area. Learning a bit of history can be both entertaining and informative and allow some shared experiences with the non-researchers in your family. One added benefit is that they both have very good historical libraries hidden away. I stopped in the library at Mystic on a cold spring day in 1990 partly because it was heated and I asked about any history or genealogy books for Stonington which is nearby. One of the books had a picture of the 1690 hand chiseled stone on my 7th-great-grandfather's grave. It was thought to be the front step from their home.

[Here lies the body of Lieutenant Thomas Miner aged 82 buried 1690]

The book also listed eight male ancestors back to Bullman who was given the name of Henry Miner by Edward III in 1339. The librarian then brought out other local family histories and showed me how to find the cemetery. The Old Deerfield library had the collection of Massachusetts Vital Records before 1850 for the entire state and many local records.

Doing Research in tourist towns can present some unique challenges since they do not appear to get many requests. I have visited Aspen and Leadville Colorado several times on vacation but going there to do a little loose-end research was very interesting. In Aspen, I was looking for the name of a baby that was killed in a railroad accident in nearby Basalt along with his parents and an aunt. I was also looking for the location of the fire company that his father belonged to and the cemetery where they were all buried. I didn't have any luck at the library. I found a birth record at the city hall but it did not give the first name of the child. Neither place knew about the cemetery. I went back to the motel and there in the lobby was an aerial view drawing (2009: It was a "panoramic map.") of Aspen about 100 years ago and it showed both the fire company and the cemetery. As my wife and I were walking down the street she said, "Look in there." A hiking supply company had a large wall covered with topographical maps of the area and we were able to locate the cemetery and the road that went there. So much for traditional sources. We were able to find the grave and the marker that was erected by the railroad company. It had the only record of the baby's name that I have been able to find.

[Tombstone of Clarence L. Son of Frank & Mary Ellis July 11, 1891 aged 9 mos. & 6 days.

(2009: After we finally found the grave on the side of the mountain, I took photographs, remember 35 mm film, of the tombstone and then went back to the car. Neither my wife nor I could remember his name and I had not written anything down. If I had not found a transcription at the local historical museum the next day I would have climbed back to the grave the next day.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do/did, WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN.)

In Leadville I was trying to locate my Great-Great-Grandfather's Mount Massive Hotel, or roadhouse, that opened in 1879. I knew that it was near the fish hatchery since he sold some of his land for it. The county clerk's office had no idea and sent me to the assessor's office. He hadn't heard of the hotel but asked me for his name and as soon as I said Hiram Demary he was on the phone to the person who lived on the Demary Placer (property) and then handed the phone to me. The next morning my wife and I went out and met him and he walked us around part of the property and showed us the remains of the cabin where Hiram and his nephew George spent their first winter in 1861.

[The remains of the Demary cabin]

Part of his driveway was the former "highway" that Hiram helped to get built so people could get to the hotel. I took a drink from "Soda Spring" (naturally carbonated water) and thought that it was kind of good while my wife thought that it was horrible. I guess it is truly an "inherited taste". We talked with a number of very friendly and interesting people while we were just trying to locate where an ancestor lived for part of his life. It had nothing to do with births, marriages, or deaths in the family tree program, just getting to know an ancestor a little better. In some areas land is as strong a tie as blood. Hiram has been gone for over 100 years but his name is still used to identify the property.

After doing research all day, spend a little time in the evening reviewing what you found. See if it changes what you are going to look for next.

You also want to get any research materials ready for tomorrow. It is easier to travel with your research materials in a three-ring notebook or a small plastic filing case that closes securely. Make sure you take only copies of important documents.

Do not take any originals or single copies. Take ancestor charts and family group sheets for all the people in the areas being visited.

We have tried the "connect the dot" research trip mixed with a little vacation and came home exhausted and not really satisfied with the research or the vacation. One trip that worked out well was doing two full days of research at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City on a San Francisco to Denver vacation with the stops in Aspen and Leadville.

Our trip to Slovenia in 2000 where we met 22 cousins who were living or spending weekends in the village of Prelesje, the birthplace of my grandmother, was a wonderful genealogical vacation (see Cousin to Cousin Genealogy in the Heritage Quest July/Aug 2001 issue. It will be posted here in the near future).

 [Prelesje, Slovenia]

Your Turn!

You will need to plan your genealogy vacation and find a balance between doing research, having a "fun vacation", and visiting places where your ancestors lived or died. Planning the vacation and then reliving it with pictures and memories will let you enjoy it far more than the one or two weeks of the actual trip. Shared experiences, good or bad, are what makes a family a family.

Now it's your turn to load the family into the old station wagon and head to the "Family Research Megacenter". Just make sure it will be open. Remember, it is up to you, whether your genealogy vacation will be just a myth, or actually become a reality!