Thursday, December 5, 2013

Visiting Where your Ancestors Lived

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While increasingly one can find information about family history online, you may also learn a great deal visiting where your ancestors lived, if at all possible. I have had the opportunity to visit small towns in Illinois, Tennessee, and Colorado, and found such visits very helpful! The first time I tried such a visit, I wasn’t sure what to look for, and as a result found less than I probably could have found with more preparation. For example, after spending a day exploring a village in Colorado where my grandmother had been born, I found out later that I was in the wrong village. Names of towns had been changed between the time she was born and my explorations, a possibility I hadn’t thought to ask about.

I have found that you need to start with a plan based on finding out as much about your ancestors as you can, ahead of time. For example, using resources such as census data and, go fully supplied with the names of your ancestors, who lived where, and grave sites if possible. Then plan to use the visit to check out things such as the following:

Graveyards and other burial records.
I have spent hours wandering through old cemeteries in search of grave sites, usually with good results. Sometimes I have been able to find out ahead of time which cemeteries to look in; other times I have gone “fishing” from cemetery to cemetery because I wasn't sure where people had been buried. It is worth finding out ahead of time where the oldest cemeteries are, and whether you can access records of who is buried where. It is also worth trying to find out whether your ancestors are buried somewhere other than in a cemetery, such as in a family gravesite.

You may find headstones that are too worn to read well; you may also find what look like new headstones of ancestors who died over a century ago. If so, you might locate distant relatives by asking who furnished the new headstone. You may also find graves clustered in a way that suggests that people who shared the same surname probably were actually related, which you may not be able to tell from census data. You may discover graves of babies and small children you didn’t know about, since they died before the census was taken. And you may learn something about your ancestor by what is written on a headstone. For example, one of mine "survived the Sultana." Having no idea what that meant, I did some research and learned that he had been one of the few survivors of an explosion of a riverboat bringing Northern prisoners of war from the South at the conclusion of the Civil War.

Religious institutions.
Zion Chapel, Boody, IL
I took the photo to the right of a church that my great-great grandfather had helped to found in central Illinois. Visiting it turned out to be a marvelous experience! I met older members of the church who descend from some of the families I had tracked in census data. Perhaps more importantly to me, I was able to read old church records, which early on had been kept in German. There, I found out the German origin of my surname (Schlichter had become Sleeter), something I had always wondered about. Births, baptisms, and marriages were recorded, along with the names of preachers who had presided over ceremonies. In addition, I was able to find out more about the history of the church and its community, which included learning a few details of my ancestors’ lives.

Religious institutions have their own histories. While some are histories of great continuity over time (such as Zion Chapel above), other histories involve mergers, destruction by fires or tornados, and so forth, in which case records may be lost. However, I strongly recommend finding out whether there are religious institutions your ancestors may have attended that you can visit. Your interest in the history of the institution will most likely be appreciated by those who are there today, who will likely respond to your interest with hospitality.

County courthouses.
Elsewhere, I have discussed looking through wills, deeds, and other property records. The county courthouse is the place to start. Records are open to the public. They might not be as well organized as you’d like, and there might not be a searchable database for the oldest records. However, I highly recommend spending time plowing around.

Local history centers.
Most places have local history centers and local historians. These can range from Family History Centers associated with the Mormon Church, to local museums and archives, to corners in the public library. If you talk with people, you might be directed to an informal local historian who “knows more than anyone else.” The picture to the right is the door to a local archive in Madisonville, Tennessee, that turned out to be loaded with information, only some of which has been digitized and much of which is accessible only by visiting. While I was there, I got to talking with a volunteer who directed me to an old house my ancestors had built in the 1800s, that still stands (uninhabited today). She was also able to point out where another branch of the family used to have their farm.
Some local history centers maintain files of old newspaper articles and other artifacts about assorted families. You may or may not find anything, but this is worth asking about. In addition, local history centers are useful for learning about the history of a place. For example, in a history center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, I learned a good deal about the local economy over hundred years ago when my ancestors were there (this later helped me figure out why they went.) I also Xeroxed a pamphlet written by someone who supported expulsion of the Ute Indians, giving me a window into a mindset I find repugnant, but that had been prevalent.

In another local center, I was given access to plat maps such as the one pictured to the right, which I had not seen before. 

Before you go, try to locate history centers on the web. And be sure to find out when they are open so that you don’t arrive only to find out that the center will not be open that day.

Distant relatives you didn’t know you had.
In the course of asking around for information, as people learn who you are and why you are there, you may be directed to distant relatives you didn’t know you had. For example, during an excursion to Tennessee, I was given a couple of names of people who turned out to be cousins several times removed. I was able to contact one by phone and another by email. While our conversations didn’t branch much beyond connections in the family tree, I was able to learn a few stories about people who had been only names to me. Keep in mind that you also have family information others may be curious about -- allow the sharing to go both ways.

Visualizing the context.
Before I actually visited the Appalachians of Tennessee, I had only a sketchy, stereotypic image of the area that featured mainly rocky soil in mountainous terrain, populated by families who were largely poor. While those things are there, a good deal else is there as well, including towns, local industries, farms, middle class families, railroads, and so forth. Having walked around places where my ancestors farmed, went to church, did business, and carried on their lives, I have a richer picture of what their lives might have been like.

If you plan to visit a place where your ancestors lived, use this page as a template for where to go and what to ask about. Obviously, what you find will be different from what I found. But the categories of things to look into, and the questions to ask, may well be more fruitful than you anticipate.

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