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Heritage Treks

Diane Sims retraced her grandparents’ steps at Ellis Island, discovering their names on the Wall of Honor. Photo: The New York Public Library/Ann Crawford

Americans have long sought to fill in their family trees; a growing number are willing to travel in order to do so.

by Meredith Barnett and Lance Fuller

 In this article

Discovering roots

Missing branches

The growing tree

Travel tips

Diane Sims grew up hearing the stories of her grandparents’ arduous journey to America. Leaving behind homes in Germany, Yugoslavia, and Austria-Hungary, Sims’ four forebears passed through the corridors of Ellis Island’s Great Hall to start their lives in America. In 2007, when Sims visited New York from her home in Alabama, she retraced their steps and hunted for them on the island’s somber Wall of Honor, engraved with thousands of immigrants’ names.

“It was a very emotional experience to see my grandparents’ names on the wall,” says the retired elementary school teacher. “I was proud to be able to follow their footsteps.”

Sims is among a growing number of genealogical or heritage tourists, who visit ancestral sites to see firsthand what their forebears experienced, find relatives, or conduct research. With access to records increasing, genealogy is booming and National Geographic Traveler reports that, as of 2003, American spending on genealogical travel has increased 18 percent. The Family History Center, the largest collection of records in the world, has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Salt Lake City.

Researchers estimate that half of all Americans can trace their roots to someone who passed through Ellis Island, and visitors flock to its genealogy center. Many countries have caught on to American genealogical travel fever, enticing travelers to “return to their roots” for a visit.

These trips, typically preceded by years, sometimes decades, of extensive research, can whisk travelers away to see and understand new dimensions of their homeland.

“Genealogy isn’t just a collection of old dusty records,” says Greg Brezicki, a retired fifth-grade teacher from Connecticut who now teaches courses on genealogy at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Renaissance Academy. “It’s an opportunity to meet relatives and live their stories.”

Discovering Roots


Jeanne Mackie

Whether a trip involves venturing to a great-grandfather’s farm in Albania or poring over marriage records in Alabama, genealogical tours can bring family history to life.

Like Diane Sims, Jeanne Mackie grew up hearing her grandparents’ tales about their homeland. In 1994, when she retired after 34 years of teaching in California, Mackie brushed up on her brogue and headed to Scotland.

Jeanne Mackie visited her grandparents’ beloved Scottish homeland.

“It was very emotional—my tie to my relatives,” says Mackie, tearing up. On her voyage, she sought out family headstones in cemeteries and finally met the cousins from the rocky northern town of Cercil she’d been writing for years. She visited Bee Cottage, where her grandmother had lived before her grandparents emigrated in the 1890s.

“I didn’t even have an address, but I had seen the picture so many times that I knew it immediately,” she says. She also realized why her grandfather had settled in Oregon—­it so resembled his beloved homeland.

Revelations like Mackie’s are only possible to make in person. On his whirlwind 1990s journey to Poland, Greg Brezicki discovered this, too. North of Warsaw, he spent hours taping interviews with his cousin, Maria, then in her 70’s. Awed, he heard about how her young sons had to hide, shivering, in the woods while the Nazis burned down their farm.


Lois Askew

Back in the states, at about the same time Brezicki was touring eastern Europe, another geneo-researcher, Lois Askew, published her own family history, The Lineage of the Chalker Family: 1639– 2008. Sleuthing for records, Askew trekked from her home in Georgia to Saybrook, Connecticut, where she saw the farm of her ancestor, an early American settler named Alexander. Her research shows several in her family fought in the Revolutionary War.

“You begin to feel your ancestors,” says the retired English teacher. “You get a perspective that you didn’t have before. It makes you appreciate the family around you more.”

Missing Branches


Janice Garda

But untangling the branches of a family tree is, at times, no easy matter. Travelers conducting research may stumble upon illegible records, long-shuttered libraries, or destinations that prove unreachable. Janice Garda is a retired special education teacher and social worker from Brockton, Massachusetts, who on two separate trips searched for a missing link in her father’s Russian and Jewish heritage.

While on a trip to Israel in November 2009, she scoured available synagogue records for her father’s family name, but found nothing. Eight months later, she spent several weeks voyaging along Russia’s Volga River on the MS Tolstoy, visiting cities and villages between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“I asked [one of our tour guides] about a particular settlement and she told me that unfortunately, there is no record of that village,” she says.

The settlement was likely razed during the Great Purge. Although she was crestfallen, the discovery brought Garda finality.

The Growing Tree

While genealogical tours offer some travelers, like Mackie and Garda, new knowledge or a sense of closure, others discover more offshoots on the family tree worthy of further research.

 “I found that most of my ancestors were journalists or teachers, or they created schools. Even today, my grandkids want to be teachers and journalists,” says Askew. “It flows in your blood.”

Greg Brezicki on his grandfather’s ancestral farm in Poland.

When he teaches genealogy, Brezicki highlights research nuts and bolts—but much more, he emphasizes the power of storytelling.

“You’re creating a legacy for your descendents,” says Brezicki. “You think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if my grandchildren can find this!’ You preserve your traditions.”

He’s already looking forward to sharing his family history with his four grandchildren, perhaps when his relatives gather for his annual Polish Christmas Eve celebration. Maybe his grandchildren will grow up hearing tales about his meanderings in the meadows of the Old Country—just as Mackie was warmed by her grandparents’ tales of the Scottish heath.

Travel Tips

Family historian, traveler, and genealogy teacher Greg Brezicki offers these tips.

  • Talk or write to the oldest members of your family. Try to find where your ancestors lived in their old country. “It’ll tell you where to go for the church records or the civil records. That’s your first goal,” he says.
  • Keep good records. “You’ve got to come up with an organization system,” he says. Use a different folder for each branch or section of your family tree, for instance. Professional family tree software can also help.
  • Cruise websites. Many offer a wealth of information, especially as more records are released and digitized.
  • Go over your old notes. “Someone once told me: after 5 or 6 years, go back over your old material. Something is going to come up that had no meaning to you then, but does now.”
  • Try to get in touch with someone who had traveled to the area you’re headed, to swap pointers.
  • Get professional help, if you don’t know the language.
  • Make contacts before you go, and locate the archives or records offices there. Ask if there’s anyone who can help you find records.


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