After the Association of Professional Genealogists conference in Washington DC next weekend, I’m going to spend a week in Virginia researching my ancestors. I live on the West Coast and haven’t had a chance to explore that part of the country before, so I’m excited to see new places and learn more about my family. If you poke around on the web, there’s a wealth of advice about planning genealogical field trips, but I thought I’d share some things I’ve found especially valuable as I’ve prepared for this upcoming family history quest.
- Getting my family tree in order – I maintain two trees; an informal family tree with relationships that may or may not be proven yet, and a pristine file with only proved relationships that I maintain using Legacy software. I’ve spent time cleaning up both files to tag possible ancestors from Virginia – adding dates and locations from my notes to make sure the files are current.
- Establishing a research plan – The bulk of my planning so far has been creating specific research questions, and deciding what documents or information I need to answer those questions. I looked through my updated list of ancestors and asked myself what I still need to know about them. I created a table in a Word document with one column for ‘Questions’ and another for ‘Possible Source’, and followed two guidelines:
- Focused Research – Studying just a few ancestors at a time. It’s easy for me to want to find every single document or newspaper article for every single member of every branch of the family I think lived in Virginia but that’s too much. In fact, I have more than 100 possible ancestors that may have lived there! I decided to start with the first unproved generation and build from there. I have documentation showing my great-grandparents were born and married in Smyth County but my research is sketchy for their parents. I’ve decided to focus on my great-great grandparents first, and anything I learn about other ancestors will be a bonus.
- Focused Questions – I tried to focus questions so they were specific and answerable. “What did the Goff family do in Washington County, Virginia?” was too broad, and where would I even start answering that one? “Was George E. Goff the father of Samuel A. Goff?” is much better. If I find the right documents, such as George Goff’s probate records, I have a good chance of answering my question. Finding the right George E. Goff in Washington County, Virginia creates another challenge, but that’s not a bad thing. Good science leads to as many new questions as it answers!
- Contacting local history and genealogical societies, and cemetery offices – Many of these societies have volunteers who have been happy to tell me if they have records for my family, and pointers for who to contact when I visit. I haven’t run into this yet, but they can also tell you about any restrictions like cemeteries on private property, courthouses that burned, etc. Cemetery offices can confirm if and where your ancestor is buried, and cemetery records sometimes hold valuable clues like funeral homes your family used, military history, and affiliations with fraternal groups. If you’re lucky, the historical society or cemetery will have online databases you can search, too, so you’re more prepared for your in-person research (Washington County, VA, did!). Find-A-Grave is an invaluable free online resource I use to search for graves and obituaries.
- Logistics – After locating the towns, repositories, libraries, museums and cemeteries I wanted to visit, I looked for places to stay that were within driving distance of them, ideally several of them. I created a calendar showing which locations I wanted to visit each day, and made sure I gave myself enough time to do research, drive to the next place, eat relaxed meals, plus time for unexpected things (who can resist a cemetery or historical marker you didn’t think would be there?). The key is to have time to visit the places I need for my research, plus build in time for fun and unexpected learning because the best discoveries might not be at the courthouse or museum. I like to add a few non-genealogy activities to balance out long days of research, too, like hikes or visiting special restaurants.
- Making a packing list – I don’t want to forget anything critical. I’ve checked the forecast online to make sure I take the weather-appropriate clothes, including good walking shoes. I don’t want to forget my laptop, notebook with pockets for note-taking (with pens and pencils – some repositories will only let you bring pencils), empty file folders to put document photocopies, my phone and charger so I have GPS and camera. Some repositories will let you take pictures of documents, which I find much more efficient since I can take pictures of everything that looks interesting, and sort through the pictures later. I’m also bringing my ‘fancy’ camera and charger to get higher quality pictures of towns and cemeteries.
I’ve made several major genealogy field trips and each one has been an amazing, surprising experience, leading to a deeper understanding of my heritage. With every trip, I also learn more about planning trips like these, and this trip to Virginia should be no exception. If you do genealogy field work, how do you get ready for your trips?