The ancestry tourism industry is growing, and for good reason. With companies like 23andme and Ancestry offering DNA testing for minimal costs, it is easier than ever to identify your family heritage. Kirsten Maxwell of Kids Are A Trip, recently took an ancestry trip to Puerto Rico with her father and son, and shares this advice for planning your own trip.
Write down everything you know
I have been fascinated by our family’s history and started using Ancestry.com twenty years ago to find records. Back then, information was not as easy to find and there were even times I had to visit the local library to dig deeper. Fast forward to today where the research is literally at your fingertips: on the computer.
Start with the easy things. Write down your parents, grandparents, every person you can remember on the family tree. Dates and locations will be helpful too. Once this information is complete, it’s time for the next step: research.
Use multiple methods for research
Using a website is great for research, but don’t overlook the obvious — the people involved. For our family trip to Puerto Rico, I asked my dad a lot of questions. What did he remember? Where did he live? Who does he know who still lives there? All of this information filled in the pieces of the ancestry puzzle.
If family photos or Bibles are available, those can be useful as well. Look for letters, other relatives who may have completed part of the family tree research, or hidden boxes in the attic. Whatever you find will be useful.
Using the leads my father provided, I turned to Ancestry.com and found a wealth of information. There were census records, birth and death records, and almost all of these had street addresses. I made note of the addresses as places we would want to visit during our trip.
Don’t be afraid to connect with long lost relatives
There are multiple genealogy websites available that can provide a vast amount of information, including the names of living relatives. Don’t be afraid to send an email or pick up the phone and call them. You might be surprised by the family stories they can share.
We are very fortunate that through the years we have stayed connected to many of our family members in Puerto Rico. We spent several days with them and explored former family homes and places my father remembered from his childhood. During this time, we marveled at the personality and physical traits that were passed from generation to generation. My son and I both enjoyed listening to my father and his cousins excitedly sharing stories from the past, while we had a front row seat to the show.
Leave time for the unexpected
One of the most unexpected parts of this journey was seeing the rush of memories that came back to my dad once we arrived on the island. This led to many questions, emails, and changing plans, but it was all part of the process. Finding one’s roots and discovering lost memories does not come in bits and pieces. At times, it seemed to come as a flood. And that was okay, it was just unexpected. When planning your own trip, know that the journey might veer off course every now and again.
Know that the research never ends
One of the most interesting facets of ancestry research is the labyrinth it creates. Once you journey down a path, multiple options open before you and the research takes off in a new direction. There are endless cousins, grandparents, and aunts and uncles to document (and possibly reach out to if they are part of your story). Find a way that is easy to track all of your findings (I like the family tree feature on Ancestry,) so you can use it for quick reference as needed.
Document the experience
I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t write everything down, but the same holds true for everyone who takes a trip with family. Whether you journal, video, or take photos, don’t forget to document the important moments. There will be other family members who didn’t make the trip or even future generations who may be interested in what you learned and experienced.
Embrace who you are and where you come from
Ancestry tourism is a journey into oneself. It is learning about who you are and where you came from. Take that first step and find your path, your roots, and embrace your family’s heritage.
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