A “Roots” Vacation


When my NASA scientist husband called with the exciting news that we would travel to Scandinavia as soon as our passports arrived, I immediately called my mother and asked for the family genealogy, certain it would help me identify each ancestral site. My maternal grandparents were of Swedish descent, and talk of that beautiful country had been part of my life since childhood.

But my mother was silent for a moment. “I can’t do that,” she said sadly. “Those records went directly to the temple for processing. We won’t have a copy for several months.”

So we went to Sweden without records, and as we drove through the countryside, I wondered what village my ancestors had called home, in what houses they might have lived.

Since that trip twenty years ago, I have approached family history more systematically. Because of my skills as a genealogist, I have been able to document two hundred years’ worth of Swedish family records and travel into many areas from which our families emigrated. I have learned that, with research and preparation, almost anyone can take a “roots” vacation that is a successful genealogical adventure as well as a delightful experience. Here is how to prepare for such a vacation:

Do your homework. Research your family history carefully. Keep accurate notes. Use the Church Family History Library in Salt Lake City or a branch family history library in your area.

Study area history and language. Before your trip, study the history of the area. If you plan to go to a foreign country, study the language. When we first visited Sweden, we could not speak a single word of any Scandinavian language. Somewhat arrogantly, we had expected everyone to speak English. Later, we signed up for classes in Norwegian at a local community college. Learning Norwegian was hard, but when we traveled to Norway, we found that we could communicate easily.

Communicate. Write to or call relatives, no matter how distantly related, who may have visited or who live in the area you plan to visit. Make a file of addresses and memories.

My husband and I were able to contact five Norwegian relatives before our trip to that country. When we arrived at the Oslo airport, we were paged.

A cousin we had never met was waiting to take us to a family reunion! We discovered that the five relatives were elderly sisters living in various towns in Norway and in Paris, France. They had arranged to gather with their families in Oslo to meet their American cousin, with whom they shared a fourth-generation ancestor.

Write ahead. Send family history inquiry letters to chambers of commerce, lineage societies, public recorders, local libraries, the national archives, and state and local archives.

A library with which I once corresponded sent me a brochure listing family history materials available plus names of local pioneers. Knowing how to use local sources can save lots of time in research, especially when vacation time is limited.

Make copies. Leave the original documents at home, but take copies of everything with you. Separate the documents into large manila envelopes—one for each family or locality you plan to visit.

Take extra copies of pedigree and family group records to leave with relatives along the way. Because you likely will have more information than the local residents, be prepared to share information.

As you travel and visit ancestral sites, read copies of journal pages, diaries, and letters. This can make your visit come alive for you in unexpected ways. When we visited Wales, we took with us a diary written by a great-grandfather as he bicycled through that country. We were amazed at how closely the countryside resembles what he described one hundred years ago.

Take correspondence. Include copies of family history correspondence in your manila envelopes. This can be a key to immediate assistance at a family history site.

One of our ancestors had owned land and later a farmhouse at the Antietam National Civil War Battlefield in Maryland. Before our visit, I contacted the information center, explaining our interest in the area and plans to visit, and received additional information. The day our family visited the park, there were many tourists. We showed the guide the letter we had received, and he immediately called a park official, who let us visit the monument’s private archives. Later she gave us a tour of the farmhouse, which was not then open to the public. We learned that it was from this house that Union General George B. McClellan had observed the battle of Antietam. Our correspondence opened doors to a family history experience not otherwise possible.

Carry maps. Take copies of maps—historical, parish, probate, topographical, city, street, ward, county, farm, road—of the area you plan to visit. Use them in conjunction with each other. Be sure to check for name changes of ancestors or localities while you are researching.

Did an ancestral home have a name? Many European homes have titles rather than street numbers. These can be found in census records, farm histories, or parish and probate records. During a recent trip to northern England, we visited a relative who lived in a large home called the “Mouse House.” Why the name? we asked. He said that no one knew why, but the property had been called the “Mouse House” for decades.

Record impressions. Take along a small, dependable, battery-operated tape recorder to interview relatives, local ministers, historians, “old timers,” public officials. Don’t forget extra batteries! Record your impressions at the end of each day, but don’t let this take the place of a journal, because the tapes could be damaged or lost. One of our most memorable tapes contains our feelings when we visited the mining area of Lancashire, England, from which an orphaned grandfather had emigrated at age eighteen along with his eight-year-old brother.

Take lots of pictures. If possible, take two small, dependable cameras—one with black-and-white film to record family history, and one with color slide or print film for your vacation shots. Archivists advise the use of black-and-white film, especially when copying archive photos. Consider a zoom lens or other accessories, but don’t overload. Carry extra film with you, because stores are not always available or open.

Plan ahead, but be flexible. Make appointments in advance if you wish to visit a family-history-related facility, because many have irregular visiting hours. And include time for the unexpected. One of the biggest disappointments of our trip to England came when we visited a parish church to which we had traced our ancestors. After a long, tedious side trip, we found the tiny stone church surrounded by a locked, spiked, iron fence. Even the roof was protected—with barbed wire. We learned that many old churches are protected in this way because vandals steal artifacts from inside and lead from the roofs. A sign said guides would not be available for several days. Because our time was limited, we could not return.

Talk about it. Talk to everyone—friend and stranger alike—about your proposed “roots” vacation. Casual conversation can have surprising results, both before and during your trip. Recently a woman from my family history class at a community college took her car to a garage for service. She mentioned a forthcoming trip to Germany, and the German repairman, who overheard her, gave her the address of a records repository in his hometown. She followed this lead and was able to add four hundred years of names, dates, and places to her family tree.

When we were visiting the small town in northern Wales where my ancestors had been baptized into the Church in 1846, a casual conversation led to a big adventure for us. We had hoped to find the woolen mill my great-great-grandfather had sold in order to enable his family and other Welsh converts to emigrate to Utah. We spent a long day traveling and finally reached a picturesque village inn, where I discovered an inviting down comforter bed and soon fell asleep. My husband chatted with the owner and explained why we were so far from the usual tourist track. Soon my husband was shaking me awake. I hurried to listen as the innkeeper told of an old stone woolen mill located in a nearby canyon. We asked him to take us to it the next day. He shook his head. He was very busy, and if we wanted him to guide us, we would have to go that minute. So, aided by a lantern, we climbed a Welsh mountain in the middle of the night and found the ancient mill as well as the stream in which my ancestors had been baptized. It was one of the most touching moments of my life.

Try tours. Investigate family history tours and study groups conducted by professional genealogists. Check with your local travel agent to find what’s available. In addition, contact colleges and universities, which often conduct such tours in connection with their courses.

Many tours come from all over the United States to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Other countries have tours as well. For instance, in Great Britain, English historians offer family history tours in conjunction with genealogical research training.

As you arrive in a new area, check with branch libraries for local history tours. Check genealogical journals and magazines for trip advertisements.

Pray. The Lord wants us to seek our dead, and he will help us. It is impossible to describe the emotions of love and kinship I have felt for my ancestors as I have visited the areas where they lived. A treasured moment in my life came when, on a trip to Sweden, I came upon a fallen-down stone building. Somehow, I knew I was standing on sacred family ground. Later research confirmed my impression—those stone ruins had been a chapel in which some of my ancestors were married.

Let the Spirit guide you in your search. Good luck with your “roots” vacation!

[illustrations] Illustrated by Stephen Moore

Lynne Watkins Jorgensen, a family history consultant, is a member of the Granite Seventeenth Ward, Salt Lake Granite View Stake, where she teaches Spiritual Living lessons in Relief Society.