Traveling to Find Your Roots: A Guide to Genealogy Research in Europe
If you’re just getting started with genealogy, it might surprise you how truly global your history is. That’s the case with most people, especially when living in modern countries to which immigrants have historically traveled.
While learning more about your local family history is fun, sometimes you just want to really dig down to your roots, and that means traveling. If you’re headed to another continent – say, Europe, which is a very common destination for those interested in genealogy – to find out more about your past, though, be aware that it may not be as easy to dig into as at home, so you should make a targeted plan and prepare for each step.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to getting started with genealogy and traveling to Europe to do research, this is it. We’ll talk about exactly what genealogy is, why you might want to get started with it, and how you go about planning travel and researching your history in other countries. So whip out your notebook and let’s get started.
What Is Genealogy?
First and foremost, it’s important to understand exactly what genealogy is. There are two ways to approach it. One way involves tracing the descendants of a specific person. This is an approach commonly used by historians, biographers, heir searchers, and people who are writing scholarly genealogy books.
The second approach is the one most general family historians use. It involves tracing your own family history, starting with you and going back through as many of your ancestors as you can locate. You can go as far back in time with your genealogy as you can find records. Some people only go back a few generations, while others go into the recesses of written human history (this is particularly easy to do if you connect with a noble or royal line).
Regardless of how far back you go, discovering and learning about your ancestors, the people who made you who you are, and discovering what their lives were like, is fascinating, and a bit addictive. Once you find one ancestor, you often find another, and another, connecting many generations to the ones that came before them. It’s no wonder genealogy is such a popular hobby, and why people often spend a lot of money to uncover their more mysterious ancestors, or to try to prove a connection to a famous family tree.
There are many reasons you might become interested in genealogy. Some people simply want to know more about their backgrounds and the histories of their deceased family members because they find it interesting. If this is you, you can either check out very basic genealogical websites – such as Ancestry.com – or you can shoot for very specific ethnically based websites, such as BlackPast or FindMyPast, which specializes in British, Irish and Australian genealogy.
You might also be looking into family records to learn more about medical conditions to which you might be predisposed (there is a surprising amount of medical evidence available on the ancestors of most people), or to deal with legal and financial matters … such as discover what the true nature of a long-lost will or deed really is.
Lastly, you might be engaging in genealogical research because you’re interested in finding family members with whom you might want to forge a connection. Believe it or not, it is getting easier and easier to find people you’re related to, especially when you bring DNA into the picture.
Get Your DNA Tested
Getting your DNA tested is a great place to start when it comes to genealogy, because it can tell you so much about where you’re from and who you’re related to … including people who are still alive and might want a real relationship with you.
If you are interested in getting your DNA tested, there are quite a few providers who can help you out. For instance, Ancestry provides a DNA test for $99 that requires only a sample of saliva. No fancy blood work, no trips to the lab … just an easy kit you receive in the mail and send back. After your sample is received and processed, tracking over 700,000 genetic markers (or different places in your DNA), they will be compared to other information in the Ancestry database and you will get your results. It may take 6-8 weeks, but you’ll likely find it worth the wait, as you will discover where you’re from ethnically, your ancestral heritage and current relatives you might not even know exist.
Another good option is 23andMe, which provides not only a breakdown of your ethnic heritage and a report on where in the world your ancestors lived, it also provides specific information about both your maternal and your paternal line. This makes it much easier to research records and find people you’re looking for, since you know which side of the family to search. If you’re specifically interested in health and wellness, this is a great option, because it tracks health information as well. It costs about double the Ancestry report, but will probably provide more complete information, and is based on the same easy saliva-sample process.
One final option is Family Tree DNA. This site claims to have “the most comprehensive ancestry database in the world” and can put you in touch with genetic matches that indicate who your family members are. Their major selling point is that they have the most effective paternal tracing system on the Internet. Because paternal lineage is easy to trace through the presence of the Y chromosome (men have an XY chromosomal set, while women have XX), you can get very specific information about your paternal lineage if you are male.
Of course, there are other resources for getting your DNA tested, including heading to a lab. However, you may find that labs don’t provide the kind of detail you’d like, especially as they frequently lack the database resources that sites like the above keep. If you’re specifically interested in genealogy, an online testing site is probably your best bet. There are a number of additional Ancestry and DNA Testing Resources available online.
Research Your Family Tree Online
Now that you have a clue about your ancestors, your current relatives and where you’re from in the world, it is easier to research your ancestral history online. All of the above sites offer resources for this, but if you don’t want to pay for testing first, or if you’re looking for additional resources, you’ll definitely find them.
One such site is FamilySearch. This organization helps you identify your family tree by plugging in the information you already have and then helping you to fill in the gaps about ancestors or relations you would like to know more about. As an added bonus, you can upload photos and documents to help illuminate your family history. Because FamilySearch has been providing this service for over a century, they’re a very trustworthy option.
Another site is AncestrySearch, which allows you to plug in your name, birthplace and birthdate to find out who you’re related to. Or, if you prefer, you can plug in the name of an ancestor along with information about where and when they were born and died. This is an especially good option if you have already traced some of your family lineage and want to find out more about a family member or ancestral location you’re trying to track down in preparation for your trip.
Once you have a clearer idea of who you’re related to and where your ancestors lived, you can make a plan for visiting those places or people.
Make a Genealogy Plan
Once you’ve figured out more about your family tree, whom you might be related to and where generally you want to go in Europe, it’s time to make a more specific plan. Most people are “from” many places, so likely you’ll need to pick a location in which to start.
Also, because both archival research and visiting various towns (and possibly spending time with relatives) are both time-intensive undertakings, you have to be careful not to over-plan. Most likely when you’re in an area like Ireland or France, you’ll want to take your time and really discover what the place is like.
It’s best to do preliminary research before you plan your trip. If you have current relatives who used to live in the area you want to visit, talk to them first. They may be able to tell you where the best places to do research are, such as a courthouse, a museum or a records office. You can also do a basic search for world archives and see if there are any in the area to which you plan to travel.
If you don’t have any relatives with whom you can discuss your plans, conduct Internet research or scroll through newspaper clippings or archives in your own area until you have enough information to plan where you’ll go. You can also talk to ethnic genealogical societies in your own country. If you live in America and are planning to travel to Poland, for instance, you might talk to the Polish Genealogical Society of America, because they’ll be able to point you toward great research sources.
Pick a Trip Approach
Now it’s time to pick an approach to your trip. According to the Wall Street Journal, taking trips to various countries in search of one’s past is becoming more and more common, and there are many different ways you can go about it. What would you like to do once you get to a place your ancestors hailed from? Do you simply want to tour a place and get a feel for it? Some people just enjoy soaking up the scenery and imagining what life might have been like way back when.
Would you like to plan a personalized itinerary to take you to all the places you want to go? Many people like to visit places of significance to them, such as a family member’s former farm, a birthplace of an ancestor or the church where grandparents got married. Having this kind of connection with the past is thrilling for some people, and bringing back photos and documents related to their ancestors makes a wonderful keepsake.
If you don’t know any of these places, you might want to budget in time to do the research that will lead you to them. Location-specific archives, museums, courthouses, libraries or universities are all great places to conduct further research about your ancestors, after which you can tour the places of greatest significance.
Here is an extensive guide on how to conduct research at courthouses, and another on how to effectively search libraries. Learn as much as you can about both approaches before you leave, so you can minimize the amount of time you spend learning how to do the research and maximize the time you spend actually learning important facts about your past.
Select Where You’ll Stay
In some cases, you may be lucky enough to be able to stay with family and friends in the places you are visiting. Other times, though, you won’t be. If you no longer have family and friends in an area, or haven’t discovered or met them yet, this isn’t an option. However, you might still be able to stay in places of significance, such as inns or farms. If you know a general area you’d like to visit and want a “local” experience, you can always try AirBnB, which is active in almost every country in the world (191 out of 196).
If you want to instead visit archives, museums or hugely popular tourist destinations like Berlin, Paris, London, or Barcelona, you might opt for big hotels instead. Just make sure you are within close distance to the areas you want to visit, as getting around in busy cities can sometimes be a pain and take up quite a bit of time.
Build in flexibility in case you might need to make spur-of-the-moment plan changes based on what or whom you find. You don’t want to pay hefty cancellation fees, for example, just so that you can stay and keep researching in a certain area.
Keeping Track of Your Trip
You don’t want to lose track of everything you discover on your trip, now do you? That’s what we thought. Instead, make sure you bring a variety of tools with you so you can record important information that will help you with later searches. A few of the most necessary tools include
- Your Family Tree: This is where you keep track of who your ancestors were, who they married, their children, etc. down to the exact combination of people that produced you. You can get many kinds of family tree online, print them out and use them. Make sure when traveling, though, that you don’t bring the only copy. Bags get lost, and it would be heartbreaking to lose a tree you had worked on for months or years. You can also build your family tree online, if that’s easier for you and you’re going somewhere you will have access to WiFi.
- Important Names, Dates and Locations: In addition to your family tree, you’ll want to keep a record of important facts about your ancestors. That way, when it comes time to research a particular family member, you’ll know the starting details and won’t have to spend a bunch of time looking for them.
- A Notebook or Log: You’ll also want a place to record new information you discover, so you can apply it to your search while abroad and once you get home. We will discuss in the next section how to use the information you find to continue your search and plan your next expedition; for now, you just need to make sure it doesn’t get lost.
- Important Records: You’ll need to keep important records on hand to help you with your search. These include birth certificates, county records, deeds, wills, medical information and so on. Keep them all in an accessible accordion file or other folder so you can access them easily. While you’re on your trip, you can add photocopied records to this file folder to make sure you keep track of them. Again, do not make the mistake of bringing original copies with you abroad; duplicate everything ahead of time.
Here is an exhaustive list of research forms you might want to take with you on your travels depending on where you’re headed and what kind of research you plan to do.
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Tracing Your Genealogy in Barcelona
The National Library of Spain should be one of your first stops when you arrive in Barcelona. It has many resources that will give you established Spanish genealogies, information in individuals and families of note, and books that direct you to other genealogical resources within the country of Spain. The librarians there are quite helpful and will assist you in finding the resources you need to continue your search.
The Administration of Justice is a good next stop in your travels. You will be able to look up and order copies of vital records there, such as birth, death, and marriage records.
Don’t forget to check with the churches in the areas where your ancestors lived. You can find baptismal and marriage records there going back to the Middle Ages. Checking church and municipal cemeteries in these areas may also show you where your ancestors are buried.
The Minister of Culture provides tax records that could reveal more about your Spanish ancestors.
Tracing Your Genealogy in London
The National Archives is a must-use resource, as it has a wealth of genealogical information, including military records, tax records, naturalization records, wills and government records dating back to the Middle Ages.
You will next want to visit the London Metropolitan Archives to get information like Church of England parish registers (a huge source of genealogical information), education, tax, civil, probate, and poorhouse records.
The Westminster Archives Center will give you the joy of finding plenty of genealogical books, pamphlets, directories, newspapers, journals, maps & plans, electoral registers, census returns, parish registers, and business archives that may pertain to your ancestors.
A visit to the East London Family History Society will tell you anything you want to know about your London ancestors, with a particular focus on families who lived in the east London villages.
Tracing Your Genealogy in Paris
The Paris Archives are the place to find vital records for anyone living in France since the French Revolution. You must go there to get started finding records regarding your ancestors. You can also find census records dating from 1926 there, as well as military records going back to the revolution.
The Administrative Library of the Town of Paris at the Hotel de Ville will provide you with bulletins, almanacs, directories, and naturalization records.
Town registrars outside of Paris may have records of your family going back into the Middle Ages. These are the places to look if you have French ancestry going way back into history. You just need to know the town to look in first, and the resources listed above may help you find it if you don’t already know it.
Tracing Your Genealogy in Berlin
You’ll want to start with the German Federal Archives. This is the main and largest archive building in Germany, and it has civil records such as vital records, court cases, government documents, military records, wills and probate records, and miscellaneous documents going back to the 1400’s. Any one of these record sources could mention your ancestors. You may receive a clue as to their town or province of birth (since Germany wasn’t always a united country), which will point you in the direction of a local archives building to search for more detailed information in individual people.
Church life was a big part of German life during most of its history, so you will want to check church records. You can start with the main offices of your ancestors’ denominations, which may direct you to the more richly detailed archives at local churches. If you know your ancestor’s town, just start with the local church, and you will usually get a lot of information there.
While the main church offices don’t have websites yet, you can find them in Berlin at these locations (bear in mind early German religion was almost always either Catholic or Protestant (called Evangelical in Germany).
Protestant Church Office:
Jebensstr 3, 10623 Berlin
Catholic Church Office:
Gotzstr 65, 12099 Berlin
Planning the Next Expedition
Now that you know more about yourself and your family history, you can make a more targeted search next time. Take your notes home and compare with people in your family or the research you already have. Usually the new information you’ve learned on your trip, combined with the old information you already had contained in your family tree or notebooks can result in a major step forward in your search.
Use it to make a more targeted plan for your next outing, so that no matter where you go next, you’ll continue to deepen your understanding of yourself, your family and your roots.
Further Genealogy and Traveling Resources
Here are a few more resources you might find helpful in your search:
- A Guide to Genealogy
- The Armchair Genealogist
- Association of Professional Genealogists
- Plan Your Genealogy Vacation
- Starting Your Genealogy Research – The Basics
- Advice on How to Research Family History, Part 1
- German Genealogy Resources
- Berlin Genealogy Resources
- London Genealogy Resources
- Paris Genealogy Resources
- Barcelona Genealogy Resources
- Castle Garden American Immigration Records, 1820-1892
- Ellis Island American Immigration Records, 1892-1954
- Fold3.com American Military Records
- Old Fulton Postcards Ancient New York and Neighboring States Newspaper Archives
- Google Maps (an excellent resource for discovering your ancestor’s homeland, or even homestead)