Thursday, December 8, 2011

Getting Local Before You Make the Trip

On Monday I wrote about Getting Local with Research.  And while I am a strong proponent of visiting the place of your ancestors, I am also very much in favor of good planning.  The further away you live from your ancestor's home the more you should prepare.

If your ancestors lived just five miles down the road you wouldn't need any preparation.  Just go and see what it looks like and then continue on with the process of discovery.  If your ancestors lived more than fifty miles away then a good deal of preparation will save you a lot of heartbreak.

Here are some suggestions to help you "get local" before leaving home.  Searching for these items will be nearly as fulfilling as making the trip.

1) Discover the lay of the land
Find as many maps as possible of the town you'll be visiting.  Look for historical maps as well as a good current road map.  Use the maps to get a feel for the lay of the land.  Check the historical maps for old cemeteries and old businesses such as mills or blacksmith shops. Perhaps these buildings, or remnants of them, will still be standing.

Next look at the topography of the land. Make note of the lakes, rivers, ocean or other waterways.  Are there mountains nearby or plains?  Is the town isolated or in a built up area? Topography could have greatly affected the history of the town and the movement of your ancestors.

2) Locate the cemeteries before you go

The old maps should have helped you locate the old cemeteries in town.  Don't presume that these will be easy to find using a current map.  Pull up the Bird's Eye view on Bing Maps or Google Earth and see if you can locate the cemetery today.  If you have a hard time locating it with these tools then you will likely have trouble in person too. Call ahead to the local town or regional government offices and see if you can find a cemetery supervisor who can give you exact directions.

3) Put your preservation hat on

Pretend that you are preservationist bent on saving old houses.  Where would you look to find information on the old houses that are still standing?  Most governments have some form of tracking system.  By tapping into this resource you can identify which houses in town were standing at the time your ancestors lived there.  Wouldn't it be wonderful to get a photo of yourself standing in front of a home that your ancestors would have known and seen as well?  Better yet, perhaps your ancestor's home is still standing.  In Massachusetts you can access the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS) to obtain this information. In other states the information is often found online at the state historic preservation office website.

4) Play tourist

Do play the role of tourist and search for tourism materials related to the town or region that you will be visiting.  You may be able to locate museums or historical sites that you didn't know existed.  Be sure to check for events that will happen at the time you will be visiting.  It's fun to take part in a community activity and get a chance to mingle with the locals.

5) Contact the historical society

Be sure to check the internet for the local historical society.  You might need to write a letter or call to get in touch with them.  Many local historical societies are very small.  That can translate as limited visiting hours or a small core staff of volunteers.  Don't let that deter you.  The local historical society should be a high priority if you can make arrangements in advance to meet with them.  These are the folks who typically know more about the town than anyone else and can tell you which old-timers have lived in town the longest and are worth a visit.

6) Make a Contact List

This is a critical item for every research trip or ancestral home visit.  Make a list of the local public places you will want to visit such as the library, town hall, historical society, churches, etc.  Include on your list their addresses, phone numbers and hours of operation.  Preparation such as this will mean smooth sailing during your trip and will let you quickly change gears should some place be unexpectedly closed.

Let these six suggestions help you "get local" before you leave town.  It will help enjoy the journey and the eventual in-person trip all the more!


  1. Marian, as one who spent 15 years traveling from Alaska and Washington to research in South Carolina I have two more suggestions:

    1. As much as you can, identify specific records you want to locate down to the film number and page or book number or case number and the specific repository where they should be located.

    2.I would also contact those repositories ahead of time to determine the rules and procedures, hours of operation, etc. There is nothing more frustrating than getting to a repository only to find that they are closed for some reason or don't have the information you think they do.

  2. With today's modern technology, two things that I would add are:

    1. Track down everything I can using Google Earth and get GPS coordinates for the places I want to visit. I can then plug them into my car GPS and no matter how the roads of changes, it helps me get to where I am going within a few feet. This is especially useful in rural cemeteries that are often times not visible from the road. If you really get into this, I created an Excel spreadsheet of genealogical sites and their coordinates that interest me from all over the US that I then uploaded to my car GPS so whenever I am in the area with time to kill, I can find out what is nearby and set that as my destination.

    2. I upload the folder containing all the information I have on the family I am researching onto a program like Dropbox so that it is in the "cloud." No matter how much information I think I will need and bring, I always want for more so I literally bring it all. Then it is accessible from any computer with internet access or a smart phone. Dropbox is also useful for exchanging large amounts of genealogy data quickly and free (up to 2GB at a time) with newly found cousins. On a side note with smart phones, there are also lots of genealogy apps for smart phones so if you have an ancestry account, you can access that from a smart phone as well while standing out in the middle of nowhere as long as you get a cellphone signal.

  3. You couldn't have posted this at a better time. I just started putting together a research plan for a location I hope to visit at some point in the future. My goal is to pre-plan all the places I want to visit so I'm prepared if I get an unexpected opportunity to go.

  4. For international travel (and I'll include Hawaii here) set up appointments at all repositories. That way you ensure that the person you need to speak with will be there, and that the archive will be open. I've found that in Europe there are countless unknown holidays and reasons to close archives, and the priest/archivist/librarian who is the expert might be on vacation or out of town for that one day you decided to visit. Also, when you have an appointment you can send them paperwork ahead of time, and it gives them time to mull over what materials might be pertinent to your search. When you get there, they may have already pulled everything out on a table for you, too, saving time!

  5. If you don't have success with a local historical society (there isn't one, or it isn't open), the reference librarian at the local public library often can be helpful. I posted about the help I received from reference librarians at Not Quite Tombstone Tuesday. I don't know if I would have been able to find this cemetery without help of the local reference librarian.

  6. Ask them if the WPA did anything special in the county. In King County, WA (Seattle etc) the WPA photographed every building and collected voluminous details in about 1935. They are at the Puget Sound Regional Archives at Bellevue College. Easy to access and great resource for house detectives.