“What was the first name?” asked the elderly local woman seated at the table. The visitor across from her replied, “Lewis. Lewis Greenwood.” “No!” she exclaimed. “ He was my grandfather!” During a few moments’ animated conversation they worked out how they were related. This scene played out in front of us in a crowded basement room of the Gloucester, Massachusetts City Hall. It’s an example of the unexpected connections that often arise when seeking family history on the road. Searching for our ancestors enriches our travel. Walking the streets of great grandfather’s home town brings us a little closer to him and connects us to that place. A little luck and perseverance yields a distant cousin, some old family homes, a poignant grave marker.
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Some years ago on a Fall trip through New England, we stopped in the small town of Machias, Maine, where Stu’s Grandmother said her father was born. We had little to go on. The bookstore clerk directed us to the seventh house on the left past the Grange Hall. After knocking on the front door, two women–town historians and genealogists–greeted us. Graciously invited in, we spent an hour acquiring town history, learning of an ancestor killed in the first naval engagement of the American Revolution, and discovering that we were sitting in the early 19th-century “Harper House,” quite possibly built by another ancestor! A good bit of luck helped in this discovery, but we did a couple of things to improve our chances. First, we interviewed Grandma at length. Second, we approached locals and asked for help.
We’ve found that a little advance research enhances our chance of success. Start with yourself and work backward. Interview older relatives and ask them about grandparents, aunts, uncles, more distant ancestors, where they came from, and family stories. Write it down. Inquire about other living relatives who may have information. Perhaps a cousin is researching family history. Ask about old family Bibles, letters, other records, and old photos, maybe with notes on the back. And now there’s a valuable tool not available when we began: the Internet. Rootsweb.com, Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, among other sites, allow you to research family names, connect with others who may be working on the same families, and even search census records.
Recently we drove to an address of a 2nd great grandmother and found a beautifully maintained Victorian bungalow. As we parked on the residential street to photograph the old family home, we struck up a conversation with a neighbor and found that family members had lived in that house until the 1950s or 60s.
Though we have many New England ancestors, we also located the house a great grandfather built in Eureka, California, tracked down houses in Albuquerque designed by an architect grandfather, and stood with an aunt in front of a grocery in Moorpark, California originally built as a Ford garage by another grandfather. We even stood in what the English call a redundant (meaning no longer supported by a congregation) 13th century stone church in Bedfordshire, England, where distant ancestors once worshiped. We chatted with locals in a rural Scottish pub who pointed us to Foreland, where the 1851 British Census records suggest Stu’s great grandfather lived as a small child.
Cemeteries and memorials also connect us with ancestral places. In Alfred, Maine’s Evergreen Cemetery, the grave digger directed us to older graves toward the front of the cemetery where we discovered the Day family plot. In Gloucester, Massachusetts’ First Parish Burial Ground, dating from 1644, a survey of markers was conducted around 1900. Based on this information we located the grave of a 5th great grandfather and grandmother in the overgrown cemetery. Although the original grave marker was largely destroyed due to vandalism, a 1900 headstone survey recorded these words: “Abraham Williams, Revolutionary Soldier. Also, his Wife Lois Williams. They rest from their labors and their works shall follow them.” And the Fisherman’s Memorial in Gloucester lists another ancestor as among the hundreds of local fisherman lost at sea.
Travel also provides the opportunity for additional family history research in local libraries, city, county and state archives. We’ve discovered both home and business addresses in old city directories and received valuable help from local research librarians, including locating a grandmother’s high school and a family tavern. Specialized family history and genealogy libraries such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society Library in Boston are valuable resources worthy of a visit.
Maybe thoroughly researching your genealogy doesn’t appeal. Still, a little digging into your ancestry rewards you when you travel–meeting interesting, usually helpful local people; even finding a distant cousin you didn’t know you had. But no matter who or what you find, you’ll gain a sense of personal connection to places you visit.
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This story originally appeared in RV Journal magazine.