October 29, 2021
Twice in the last week I’ve heard experienced genealogists tell a group of genealogists that they should be sure to visit the lands of their ancestors. According to them, “There’s just nothing like walking where your ancestors walked and doing research in the local courthouses.”
I agree that there is a special thrill in visiting the lands of our ancestors. Over the last twenty or so years I’ve visited literally dozens of places that my ancestors called home. I’ve spent hours in the courthouses in those areas, as well. However, in retrospect, some of those trips weren’t really the best use of limited money and/or energy. Those who push folks in the direction of thinking that genealogy necessarily means trips to ancestral homelands are doing their fellow genealogists a disservice.
Some new genealogists may worry that their research won’t amount to much if they can’t visit ancestral homelands. I’ve heard genealogists at local meetings complain that their research is stalled until they can afford a trip “Back East” or to Ireland or wherever their ancestors came from. In most cases, nothing could be further from the truth.
Some of my best finds were made from the comfort of my own home – even before the widespread digitization of records. For example, some of the best U.S. records are held by the National Archives in Washington, D.C. A trip to Washington, D.C., to research ancestors’ pension records or homestead files would seem to be a no-brainer. However, it’s easy to accomplish most of the same research from home. Many of the records held by the Archives can easily be ordered from the National Archives’ website. Sure, you’ll pay for the copies, but airfare and hotels are definitely more costly than ordering the records. That doesn’t even add in the hassles of modern travel and the recent dangers from Covid.
Researching in local courthouses is also fun and sometimes it’s even necessary. But before you plan a trip to find local records, be sure you’ve checked everything that the Family Search website has to offer. In many cases, the folks at Family Search filmed entire courthouse holdings and later digitized them. Using a place search, it’s often possible to find vital records, probates and land records for various counties. Many of those records are available, for free, on the Family Search website.
A few years ago I visited the courthouse in Jay, Vermont, a small town near the Canadian border. My plan was to access family records from the area that I assumed were available nowhere else. To my surprise, when I walked in to the building (not even a quaint, old courthouse, but just a newly built office-type building) the clerk informed me that “the Mormons filmed everything we have years ago.” That turned out to be true; my long journey to the town was essentially useless in terms of getting any new information.
At the very least, it’s important to check the Family History website before you take your genealogy trip to the courthouse. It’s a waste of time and money to look at records at the courthouse when you can do it for free at home. Not to mention, it wastes the time of the local workers since in most courthouses digging out records for an eager genealogist takes time away from what the clerk should actually be doing.
Another thing to keep in mind is that counties all have websites nowadays. Some of them even have some records digitized. If not, they will give contact information. If you call or write, I have found most courthouses are happy to make copies of various records for you. You’re still making the clerks do extra work, but at least when you call or write for records, they can find and copy records when there’s a break in their workload, not with a genealogist pacing the floor impatiently while they look. And, sure, it will cost you but nothing compared to a trip.
Finally, I agree that it’s great to “walk where your ancestors walked.” That is, if the place your ancestors walked still exists. For example, several of the places where some of my ancestors lived have been turned into subdivisions – houses as far as the eye can see. In one case, the family farm is the site of a huge Walmart superstore. Somehow walking its parking lot just doesn’t help me visualize my ancestors’ lives. I certainly wouldn’t pay for a major trip to do it.
All in all, traveling to our ancestors’ lands can be fun and rewarding. It can also be a waste of time and money. Traveling is definitely not the only way to research, and the next time someone says it is, remember that looking at documents and pictures (or copies of them) is actually the way to know our ancestors. Whether you got them via mail or in person from a courthouse isn’t really the important part.
Researcher/Director at Large