Heritage trips: Getting started
Heritage trips can be a fun and interesting way to experience a culture or country. Adequate preparation can make the difference between leads that result in exciting finds and those that yield disappointing dead-ends. There are numerous ancestry websites, some of which charge fees (try to free ones first, of course!). One of the easiest and cheapest places to start, although seemingly depressing or morbid, is to look through death records. The amount of information that can be gleaned from a simple certificate can be surprising: name; birthplace, birthdate and age at death, occupation, and names of parents and their countries of origin (to list the most basic items). If you look through enough records, you will find inconsistencies with countries of origin and spellings of names that will help make searches on other websites or in archives more fruitful.
So where should you start? Recent vital records (birth, death and marriage) may still be at a county courthouse, while older records may be filed with the appropraite historical society. Many historical societies have additional resources, such as newspaper clippings, and county or city histories which often include the names of town and business founders, and office holders. You may find your ancestors’ membership information and life events in the records of churches and other places of worship. If you get really out-of-control, you may wish to read cultural and country histories to help you figure out family naming patterns. But that’s a whole other level of nerdy-ness into which you may not want to delve.
Once armed with some specific information, you can send emails to town halls, or people or places of interest in cities or towns you plan to visit. They may have historical documents or ancestry records of use to you. If you are sending emails to countries that don’t use English as their primary language or that have reasonably significant bureaucratic systems, you may not receive a reply, but it doesn’t hurt to try!
Good examples of online records
MN Historical Society
Next month: Identifying key towns to visit
--Amy Rosenthal is the Southern and Eastern Africa Editor at