Genealogy Trips are the New Family Vacation
Genealogy trips can bring your family history alive!
Online archives and DNA have made it easier than ever to discover our ancestors and our heritage. So why not visit the places where your great-great-grandparents lived and died?
As you walk where they walked and do the things they did, you and your family will better understand “why you are, the way you are”.
Here are 15 tips to help you plan a genealogy trip for your family. You will have fun – and you may even discover more ancestors along the way!
Tip #1 for Family Genealogy Trips: Do Your Homework
Before you get out your suitcases, do your homework! The key to figuring out where to explore your family roots is to talk to family members.
Find the person in your family who is the ancestor expert – there’s usually one in every family! Whether you visit them in person, contact them by phone, or chat virtually, you will find that they are treasure-troves of knowledge.
Use your phone to record your conversation and then write down the facts and stories they share with you after your visit is over.
Family stories can be like playing the game of telephone. One little piece can get changed with each retelling of the tale, so be sure to do some fact-checking because hard facts will be needed for you to plan your trip successfully.
Tip #2 for Family Genealogy Trips: Dig Out Your Old Photos
Old family photos can reveal so much! Before you head out on your family genealogy trip, examine the details in your pictures and ask yourself some questions.
Can you see any house numbers on your ancestor’s front porch? Were they dressed in business suits or workplace uniforms?
Was there an elderly person present that may have passed away shortly after the date written on the back of the photo? That could help you to find their gravestone!
Does the number of people in the family photo match the number of people listed on the census for that time period? Who might be missing?
Is the name of the photography studio in the corner of the photo? Does it list the location of that studio? Does the photography business (or the building it was housed in) still exist?
Select the photos that match the area and ancestors that you will be exploring on your trip. Then put them in an album or water-proof case to take along. Seeing these photos when you are in the locations where they were taken will be amazing!
When taking pictures of your own family on your genealogy trip, try posing in the same positions that your ancestors did in their photos. Then ask your family members to vote on which ancestor you each most resemble.
Tip #3 for Family Genealogy Trips: Choose Ancestral “Travel Buddies”
To make your trip come alive, have each member of your family choose one ancestor that they will represent. This will be their imaginary “ancestral travel buddy”.
Use BillionGraves, FamilySearch, and other sources to research that person’s vital records and other facts:
- birth year (see census and birth records)
- residence (see census records and city directories)
- occupation (see the 1900 census)
- number of children (see the 1900 census)
- height, weight, hair color (see military draft registration cards)
- death date and place (see BillionGraves and death certificates)
If someone who is alive who knew that ancestor, ask about their personality.
Do a little social history. Did they live during war time? Did they drive a horse-drawn carriage or a car? Did any trains pass through their town? What movies or music might they have experienced?
Then while you are on your trip, keep a journal as if you are that person as they revisit their homeland!
Tip #4 for Family Genealogy Trips: Dress the Part
Have your children or grandchildren play dress-up while on your genealogy trip, dressing the part of their ancestors.
Whether their ancestors were pilots, explorers, doctors, or cowboys, children will be more likely to identify with their ancestor’s role in life if they act it out.
Be sure to snap some pictures of your little actors as you travel!
Tip #5 for Family Genealogy Trips: Create a Travel Plan
Decide whether you are going to use the services of a genealogy company or create your own DIY adventure.
Map your route so you can visit as many of your ancestor’s places of origin as possible. Go to BillionGraves.com/volunteer to find cemeteries along your route that still need to have photos taken.
Use cemeteries as your “rest stops”. Have everyone watch for cemeteries as you are driving. (As you secretly check the BillionGraves app on your phone and drop hints when one may be coming up that still needs to have photos taken. Wink. Wink.)
Then when your car rolls to a stop, everyone jumps out and takes photos up and down a few rows. BillionGraves’ GPS feature will track what you have done so future volunteers can pick up where you left off.
Tip #6 for Genealogy Trips: Go Cemetery Hopping
Cemetery-hopping can be some of the most fun and rewarding experiences on your genealogy trip.
Here’s how you can get started using the BillionGraves app to take photos of gravestones as you travel:
- Download the BillionGraves app to your smartphone from your app store.
- Create a free account on the app or at BillionGraves.com.
- Open the BillionGraves app as soon as you arrive at the cemetery since the GPS feature will work best if the app has about 5 -10 minutes to connect before you begin taking photos, especially if you are taking photos in a remote area.
- At the cemetery, check the bottom of your screen to see if the name of the cemetery matches your current location. If the wrong cemetery name is listed, tap on it, and then select the correct cemetery name.
- From the main screen of the app, click on “take pictures” to begin taking photos in your local cemetery. The GPS coordinates will be recorded automatically.
- Go up and down the rows, taking pictures of each gravestone until you have completed an entire section or the entire cemetery. Keep moving at a quick pace. If you take 1 photo every 15 seconds you will have taken almost 250 photos in an hour!
- If you are working with another person, leap-frog over each other’s rows until you have completed a section.
- When you are finished, connect to Wi-Fi and tap on the “X” in the corner of your screen.
- When the orange button that says “upload” appears, tap on it to submit your gravestone photos.
- Repeat! 🙂
Seeing your ancestor’s gravestone in person can give you clues about their life. Click HERE to learn how to use gravestone clues to grow your family tree.
And if you come across an abandoned cemetery or a cemetery on a farm that is not on the BillionGraves website, click HERE to learn how to add it.
And if you find yourself in a large cemetery, you can use the BillionGraves app to easily find your ancestor’s gravestone thanks to its amazing GPS technology. No more wandering the grounds for hours as you might do without the BillionGraves app! Click HERE to learn how to find your ancestor’s gravestone in a cemetery in just minutes.
Tip #7 for Family Genealogy Trips: Visit Your Ancestor’s Home
You may be able to find your ancestor’s home address on a census record. If so, do a search for the address on an online real estate website.
If the building is still in existence, you may be able to see it in an aerial view map or even in a street view.
Then check it out in person when you visit your ancestor’s hometown!
Take photos of your ancestor’s home be sure to include the house numbers in the photo if any are present.
Your ancestor’s home can be a story in and of itself! Did they homestead? Did they have indoor plumbing? Did they build their own home?
Your ancestor’s house may now be in a state of disrepair. Try to imagine what it was like when it was brand new.
Many families lived in apartments above their own business.
One of our family ancestors built barns in midwest America using the skills he had developed as a ship-builder in Denmark. Can you visualize these rafters turned upside-down as the hull of a ship?
Tip #8 for Genealogy Trips: Wander Their Workplace
The 1900 census often includes the occupation of those listed. Before you leave on your genealogy trip, do a little research to find out if your ancestor’s workplace is still in existence.
If it is, wouldn’t it be fun to wander their workplace and walk in their footsteps?
My grandmother was one of the thousands of seamstresses who sewed soldier’s uniforms during World War II. Her job was to sew the sleeves to the shirt. All. Day. Long.
Got milk? Or pigs in the family? If any of your ancestors were farmers (which SO many of them were!) see if you can arrange a trip to any farm near your ancestor’s hometown. It will be an experience your children won’t forget.
Tip #9 for Genealogy Trips: Play a Game they Played
If you are road-tripping for your genealogy trip, you will have to make rest stops along the way to stretch your legs. Why not bring along some chalk so you can play a game of hopscotch like your ancestors would have done?
Or a round of family jumprope?
Baseball was likely a past-time some of your great-granddads grew up with. Take along some ball equipment and learn to play catch in a field near your ancestor’s homestead.
Or tuck some marbles in your travel bag. I bet your ancestors had some too!
Tip #10 for Genealogy Trips: Eat what they Ate
When our family was on a trip to Boston, we were served some amazing dinner rolls. When we raved about them to our waitress, she returned from the kitchen with a copy of the recipe! It was titled “Thomas Jefferson’s Favorite Sweet Potato Rolls”. (Yes, THAT Thomas Jefferson.)
If you had a baker or cook in the family, it would be fun to buy their specialty while on your genealogy trip.
If you have some French heritage in your background, order some crepes while on your family genealogy trip.
Or how about some Italian wedding soup with spinach and meatballs if you are of Italian decent?
If you are of Mexican or Spanish decent, tell stories about your Latino ancestors while you order up some delicious tacos.
Tip #11 for Family Genealogy Trips: Hit the Antique Stores
Antiques stores are like free history museums.
Find an antique shop in your ancestor’s hometown.
Then walk through to see some of the types of tools they would have used . . .
. . . or instruments they played.
Who knows, maybe some of the antiques actually did belong to YOUR ancestors?!
Tip #12 for Family Genealogy Trips: Look for Living History Sites
There are more than 35 million descendants of the Mayflower pilgrims in America. A trip to Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts could really be exciting if you are one of them!
When I visited Plymouth Colony I saw my ancestor Pricilla Mullins (or rather a woman in costume playing her part) in her yard stuffing a mattress with fresh straw. It gave me an appreciation for how hard they worked in their daily lives.
Are there any pioneers or cowboys in your background? Visit a western living history town.
Michael P., age 7, wrote on his family’s genealogy trip, “We went to a Civil War reenactment. They had a doctor’s tent where they amputated arms and legs. There were loud cannons that shot blanks.”
Do you think he will remember more about this period of history now than if he had just read a textbook about it?
After visiting a one-room schoolhouse, 8-year-old Jane L. said, “My mom told me that my great-great-grandpa carried in the logs for the classroom stove every morning in the winter when he was a little boy. Without him, they would have been really cold.”
Do you think Jane will remember him when she is asked to do her own chores?
Tip #13 for Family Genealogy Trips: Mail Yourself a Postcard
Pack some postage stamps for your genealogy trip. Then while visiting your ancestor’s hometown, buy a postcard with a picture from the local area and mail it to your home address.
It could be a view of the current landscape.
Or a vintage postcard that shows what the town looked like when your ancestor’s really lived there.
Compare the “old” to the “new”.
Repeat this in each area you visit. Jot a few notes on the back about what you did each day.
Then when you get home, you will have a record of both your trip and your family heritage.
Tip #14 for Family Genealogy Trips: Find Family History Libraries
Family history libraries are what we often think of when we talk about genealogy trips. And those trips are often for adults. But there are also some amazing family experiences to be had in the world’s most famous family history libraries. They are about families after all!
Salt Lake City, Utah
Salt Lake City is considered to be the “genealogy capital of the world” and at its heart is the Family History Library run by FamilySearch, the genealogical branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This five-story genealogical center has something for everyone. There are interactive displays especially for children and more records than the adults could view in a lifetime. There are more than 600,000 books and maps, 1.3 million rolls of microfilm, and billions of digital images.
Drop-in unannounced or schedule a visit in advance. Either way, you’ll get one-on-one attention and help with your family history research.
Fort Wayne, Indiana
While the library in Salt Lake City is the world’s largest private genealogical facility, the one in Fort Wayne, Indiana is the world’s largest public genealogical library. So don’t be too surprised if your ancestors are there somewhere between the pages of their 1.2 million records.
Have you got more family history papers and records than you know what to do with? Then bring your own spare family history documents, books, and photos along because the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne accepts all documents from the public. They will digitize them and add them to their collection. Then you can still enjoy them online.
Another awesome service this library offers is that they will copy and bind your family history. Two copies will be printed – one for you to keep and one to stay at the library to be discovered by generations to come.
Ellis Island, New York
More than 25 million immigrants entered the United States between 1892 and 1924 but it didn’t stop there. The American Family Immigration History Center on Ellis Island has a collection of 51-million arrival records in its archives. Woah. That’s a LOT of people!
During your visit, check out ship passenger lists for your ancestor’s names, ages, date of arrival, last residence, and sometimes who they were going to stay with after they arrived.
In addition to its jaw-dropping architecture, the National Library of Ireland houses newspapers, city directories, Parish registers, baptismal records, Irish census, and property records.
Tip #15 for Family Genealogy Trips: Preserve Your Memories
When you get home, be sure to preserve your memories.
Upload all your BillionGraves’ cemetery photos, if you haven’t already done so.
Add memories to your ancestor’s family tree.
You may even want to have your ancestor’s story – along with your family trip – printed into a book for your family to enjoy for years to come.
Oh! And be sure to check your mailbox to see if got any postcards from yourself!
It’s awesome to have your lineage recorded on your family tree but there is nothing like getting out and seeing where you are from for yourself.
Touch the tools your ancestors handled. Take photos of their gravestones. Walk the path they traveled from their home to their childhood school (uphill – both ways – in the snow, right!?). Have a picnic to sample the flavors they tasted. Finding physical proof of your roots is what makes it more real!
If you would like to volunteer to take gravestone photos with your smartphone click HERE to get started.
You are welcome to take photos of gravestones at your own convenience, no permission from us is needed. If you still have questions after you have checked out the resources above, you can email us at Volunteer@BillionGraves.com.
Would you like to lead a group in documenting a cemetery? Send an email at Volunteer@billiongraves.com and we’ll be happy to send you some great tips!
To volunteer to transcribe names and dates from gravestones, go to billiongraves.com/transcribe.
We wish you happy trails on your family genealogy trips!
Cathy Wallace and the BillionGraves Team
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