The Road to Discovering Your Roots

Fueled in part by TV shows such as NBC’s hit Who Do You Think You Are? in which celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Spike Lee discover their ancestral heritage, interest in roots travel has taken off in the past decade.

In an Ancestry.com poll last year, four out of five Americans said they were interested in learning about their family trees, which can often be accomplished in a series of mouse clicks, thanks to the extensive collection of digitized records on the Web. But now more resources are becoming available to help families on the ground in the old country, whether it’s locating gravestones, retracing immigration journeys, or meeting long-lost relatives.

Here are some tips to get you started on your own roots journey:

Collect data: The genealogy trend taps into a collective yearning for connection in our transient culture, says genealogist Megan Smolenyak, whose latest book, Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing, delves into her experiences tracing the ancestry of the Obamas and other prominent Americans.

“Families have dispersed so much, [genealogy] gives us a way to feel we belong,” Smolenyak says. Before jumping online, she suggests gathering names of ancestors and dates (births, deaths, marriages) — as many as possible. Look through old memorabilia, such as military discharge papers, Bibles, and yearbooks, and chat up older relatives. “If you have a few specifics in hand, you may avoid barking up the wrong tree.”

Search the Web: Use genealogical websites to help you fill in the blanks. At ancestry.com, a $35 monthly subscription buys access to a trove of ten billion records. Other sites, such as lowcountryafricana.com, which explores African-American genealogy in the Southeast, are geared toward specific diasporas.

The granddaddy of ancestral record collections, however, is Family Search in Salt Lake City, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with the names of three million deceased people. The records are still being digitized, but armed with key dates, you can order microfilm to be shipped to one of the library’s 4,500 branches.

Make connections: Tourism offices can also be a resource.

Discover Ireland, for instance, has a section on its website devoted to helping Americans trace their heritage, as well as a toll-free number that helps connect callers with ancestral towns. A government initiative this year is capitalizing on the roots travel trend by inviting anyone in the Irish diaspora to the Gathering 2013, a series of events in the country throughout the year.

Go the extra mile: Once you’re on the ground, dig further or search for original documents at local archives or churches, depending on the country. In Ireland, some hotels even have genealogy butlers.

Or just page through the local phone book to look for residents with family names. “Call them up and start comparing names of ancestors,” suggests Michelle Ercanbrack, Ancestry.com’s family historian. “There’s something incredible that happens when you go to these places,” she says. “It’s an absolute adventure.”

>> Where have YOU traveled to discover your family rootsSend your stories and photos to Travel_talk@ngs.org or tell us about them in the comments section below, and your response just might make it into an upcoming issue of Traveler magazine.

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