The Road to Discovering Your Roots

Fueled in part by TV shows such as NBC’s hit Who Do You Think You Are? in which celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Spike Lee discover their ancestral heritage, interest in roots travel has taken off in the past decade.

In an poll last year, four out of five Americans said they were interested in learning about their family trees, which can often be accomplished in a series of mouse clicks, thanks to the extensive collection of digitized records on the Web. But now more resources are becoming available to help families on the ground in the old country, whether it’s locating gravestones, retracing immigration journeys, or meeting long-lost relatives.

Here are some tips to get you started on your own roots journey:

Collect data: The genealogy trend taps into a collective yearning for connection in our transient culture, says genealogist Megan Smolenyak, whose latest book, Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing, delves into her experiences tracing the ancestry of the Obamas and other prominent Americans.

“Families have dispersed so much, [genealogy] gives us a way to feel we belong,” Smolenyak says. Before jumping online, she suggests gathering names of ancestors and dates (births, deaths, marriages) — as many as possible. Look through old memorabilia, such as military discharge papers, Bibles, and yearbooks, and chat up older relatives. “If you have a few specifics in hand, you may avoid barking up the wrong tree.”

Search the Web: Use genealogical websites to help you fill in the blanks. At, a $35 monthly subscription buys access to a trove of ten billion records. Other sites, such as, which explores African-American genealogy in the Southeast, are geared toward specific diasporas.

The granddaddy of ancestral record collections, however, is Family Search in Salt Lake City, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with the names of three million deceased people. The records are still being digitized, but armed with key dates, you can order microfilm to be shipped to one of the library’s 4,500 branches.

Make connections: Tourism offices can also be a resource.

Discover Ireland, for instance, has a section on its website devoted to helping Americans trace their heritage, as well as a toll-free number that helps connect callers with ancestral towns. A government initiative this year is capitalizing on the roots travel trend by inviting anyone in the Irish diaspora to the Gathering 2013, a series of events in the country throughout the year.

Go the extra mile: Once you’re on the ground, dig further or search for original documents at local archives or churches, depending on the country. In Ireland, some hotels even have genealogy butlers.

Or just page through the local phone book to look for residents with family names. “Call them up and start comparing names of ancestors,” suggests Michelle Ercanbrack,’s family historian. “There’s something incredible that happens when you go to these places,” she says. “It’s an absolute adventure.”

>> Where have YOU traveled to discover your family rootsSend your stories and photos to or tell us about them in the comments section below, and your response just might make it into an upcoming issue of Traveler magazine.



  1. Pat
    Eureka, California
    June 17, 2014, 3:43 am

    Having had a recent loss of my only sibling who was married: his spouse in Pennsylvania destroyed over l00 years of family photos including several of the glass negatives. Along with it were articles about my great/great grandparents ONE of a KIND. Handmade items she has sold or given to her relatives. She didn’t even know any of our family. She had nothing from hers yet retained what my family from my sibling had…it makes me ill that this could be possible-lost forever by Burgun…

  2. Christine Blythe
    Chilliwack, BC, Canada
    February 24, 2014, 9:30 pm

    My husband and I went on a camping trip with our two kids to the heritage site of my mother’s Acadian family, the Melansons. It was amazing to see all of the sites that had such historical significance and take the opportunity for first-hand research.

    We had the most fun visiting graveyards, especially this ancient one during a moonlight tour at Fort Anne, Annapolis, Nova Scotia: By the way, a travel magazine writer was among our group and these photos are ones he took of my kids for his article.

  3. Shirley Edwards Ray
    St. Peters, MO
    March 16, 2013, 2:34 pm

    I have been trying to trace my family back for about 15 years. The furtherest I’ve been is Edwardsville and Troy, Illinois. I have done a lot of research on my computer and I’m a member of I plan on going to Kentucky this spring when it gets a little warmer. My gggrandfather came from South Carolina to Virginia then to Kentucky. My great grandfather split off from the family and migrated to Illinois with his brother and settled in Madison County. The family bible was destroyed in the old homeplace fire and at this time most of my family is deceased. I am the proud mother of two daughters, four grandchildren and in a few months, the great grandchildren will number four. It has been quite an adventure to trace those that came before. Hopefully I will have several more years to find those that came from Ireland, Wales, France, England and Holland Dutch!

  4. Mark A. Larson
    Arcata, Calif.
    March 15, 2013, 10:27 pm

    I had a great time doing family roots exploration in Norway, first using family information passed down from grandparents. For those without much family material, here’s a great place to start genealogy research in Norway = start in Stavanger at: The Norwegian Emigration Center:

    Does genealogy work for all of Norway
    Gives you tips on internet – sources
    Arranges genealogy – courses
    Acts as a contact liason between families in Norway and the USA

  5. Marty S
    Princeton, NJ
    March 15, 2013, 9:30 am

    I have been researching my family roots in Poland for about 2 years now. I have used a combination of the microfilmed records from the Latter Day Saints, the Jersey City library and a company in Poland called Ancestral Attic. So far, I have traced my family name back to the late 1700s in Poland.
    Last year, I visited the village where my grandfather was born and the church where he and his mother were baptized. The parish is called Dziektarzewo. It is about 30 miles northwest of Warsaw. It was an amazing experience. I visited the tiny church at the right time and the priest gave an hour long tour. I plan to return to visit the villages of older ancestors, which are close to Dziektarzewo.
    This is the picture of the priest and my guide

  6. Joseph H. Weir
    Jacksonville, Florida
    March 14, 2013, 6:14 pm

    After my Aunt Florence passed away in 1998, she left our family with a hand-drawn, family tree showing our un-documented connection to Captain Nathaniel Pryor, First Seargent on President Jefferson’s great expedition to map our $15 million Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark “Journey of Discovery”. I flew out to Oklahoma that summer to see if I could find Grandfather Pryor’s grave-site and found it re-interred by the Osage Tribal Council and Mayes County officials in a very honorable and distinguished site just outside of Pryor, Oklahoma, no more than 10 miles from his “Three Forks” trading post site that was burned to the ground in 1817. I saw Three Forks from 15,000 feet up on that trip and it changed my outlook on life. We all need to step back ocassionally and see a different picture ..

  7. Ken B
    Howell NJ
    March 6, 2013, 9:15 pm

    Fantastic article on Sicily, but too short! I want to read a whole book by Renee on her experiences.

  8. Erin
    Forks Township, PA
    March 6, 2013, 4:47 pm

    I wanted to read more about Sicily. I felt like I was sitting at the table on the farm eating the deliciously described food with the family.