If you ever have a chance to visit your ancestral homeland, you should. Everyone in the United States has one or more ancestral homelands, with the exception of full-blooded Native Americans. When you go to where your ancestors lived before they came to the United States, you get a unique perspective on your roots and the people who made you who you are that you simply can’t experience by reading about it in a book. Walk the streets they walked. See the sights they grew up seeing. Go to the port where they embarked for America. Maybe even go to the church they attended, or, if you’re extremely genealogically fortunate, visit the house they lived in. There’s nothing quite like this type of experience in all of genealogy.
Just be sure when you go, you go with a well-organized plan. Here’s how to plan so you get the most out of your trip to your ancestral homeland.
Visit the Port Archives
You don’t want to miss this. The port is where your immigrant ancestors left their homeland, many of them seeing it for the last time, before embarking for America. Most nations with ocean borders have port archives, usually located right at the port, but sometimes in local museums. If you do some research before you leave the United States, you may be able to find your ancestor’s immigration record, and know which port they used in their homeland. If you don’t find this information before you make your trip, you may still find it in other record sources while you’re there. As long as you find it, you really do need to visit the port archives. The more popularly used ports for embarking for America often have exhibits and information that will help you understand why your ancestor chose to immigrate, and what the experience was like for him or her.
Go to the National Archives
These are typically rich repositories for information going back centuries in many nations, particularly Canada and European countries. You will find compiled genealogies, books about families connected to yours (or even your actual family), information on families left by visitors, and even ancient records complete with red wax seals still on them. These are particularly fun to find, as you are reading something that was created at the actual time the event it records happened, often by the people involved, so it really is first-hand knowledge, and a primary source in the truest sense. If you don’t read the native language, there will usually be someone available who works at the archives to interpret for you.
Visit the Churches in the Towns and Villages Where Your Ancestors Lived
Parish (aka church) records are a gold mine of genealogical information. They often go back centuries, sometimes even into the Middle Ages, and can help you trace generations of your family back even deeper into history. It was usual for the same family to live in the same area for generations, and even centuries, in Europe in medieval times, and even up to modern times in some places. There wasn’t a lot of moving around, because there usually wasn’t much reason for it. Land was handed down from generation to generation, with large parcels being divided up to give to multiple children and their families, and the pattern continued, unbroken, for a long time. If anyone did move, it was usually due to famine, plague, or both, and was typically temporary until it was stable enough at home to return.
This means your ancestors probably attended the same local church for centuries at a time. You can often find birth, death, and marriage records, written by the local parish priest or a clerk at the time of the event. Because these records usually listed the name of at least one parent (and both, if you’re lucky), you can trace backward in time, and also forward in time by looking for names of children of your ancestor in those same parish registers.
Even better, if someone did move, they usually had a letter of dismissal from their local parish that they brought with them to the new one. This was a letter of character reference ensuring the new church members that your ancestor was a good addition to their congregation, and of sound moral character. You can use these letters to trace the people who moved, and go to the parish registers in their new homes to continue researching the family (or go to the one they came from to research backward in the family line).
Local Genealogical and Historical Societies
If the town or region your ancestor lived in has a genealogical or historical society… and many of them do… you might find more original records on your ancestors, books or compiled genealogies on them, artifacts that once belonged to them, and maps. Maps are really intriguing, because they can be used to help you discover the location of your ancestor’s house. Spend some time with the people who volunteer at these places, as they usually know everything there is to know about the area. They may even personally know members of your extended family who still live there. You can get introduced to people who may have more family artifacts, the family Bible, and family photos you won’t find anywhere else. And, if you locate your ancestor’s house, it might still be standing, and you can visit it. Sometimes, relatives are still living there, and it’s always nice to get a tour of the ancestral home from a distant cousin who knows the family history.
If you plan your trip well, you will discover a lot of genealogical gems and treasures in your ancestral homeland. Don’t forget to plan some time to see the important and famous local landmarks, too. While genealogy is your main purpose for being there, you don’t want to miss out on the other things that make the area famous. Get your genealogy research done, but don’t make it the only thing you do on the trip. A good mix of genealogy and sightseeing will give you the most fun trip possible.