Families tracing root and branch

Tracing your ancestry is quickly becoming one of the world’s fastest growing hobbies but for some people, genealogy involves more than just library or Internet research.

Top: Standing in front of the house where my great-grandmother was born. Census records provided the exact address of the home where she was born. Google Maps helped us discover that the house was still standing.

Top: Standing in front of the house where my great-grandmother was born. Census records provided the exact address of the home where she was born. Google Maps helped us discover that the house was still standing.

Tracing your ancestry is quickly becoming one of the world’s fastest growing hobbies but for some people, genealogy involves more than just library or Internet research.

For diehard genealogists, the journey of discovery is not complete until they actually visit their ancestral homeland. This type of pilgrimage is categorized by the tourism industry as “genealogy tourism.”

I never imagined myself as a genealogy tourist but on a recent trip to Wales, that is exactly what I became.

The night before I left Canada to attend a conference in Wales, my father casually mentioned that his grandmother had been born in Wales.

He wasn’t quite sure which town or city she hailed from but suggested that if I wanted more information, I should contact my younger brother, Justin — the designated family historian.

Researching the family tree has long been Justin’s hobby and he was able to quickly confirm that our great-grandmother had been born in Tonypandy, Wales.

He said that although the family was technically from England, they had lived in Wales for a few years prior to immigrating to Canada. It was unclear what had motivated the move to Wales, but it was during this time that my great-grandmother was born.

The fact that my ancestors had any ties to Wales came as a complete surprise to me, because I had always understood that the family emigrated from England. Suddenly my trip took on a new purpose. Finding the place where my great-grandmother was born became a grail-like quest.

After a visit to the genealogy library to view the census records, my brother was able to provide me with the exact address of the house where our great-grandmother was born. A quick search on Google Maps confirmed that the house was still standing.

Another Internet search led to more information on Tonypandy, a town located in the Rhondda Fawr Valley in the county of Glamorgan, Wales.

In the mid-19th century when my ancestors lived there, the Rhondda Valley was undergoing an industrial transformation due to the successful excavation of coal from the valley. Shortly after coal was discovered, the railway was extended and the entire area entered an economic boom. At this time, there were plenty of jobs to be had in the coal mines and it is likely that my ancestors moved to the area to find employment in the mining industry. This makes sense, because they continued to work in the mining industry after immigrating to Canada.

Further research revealed that Tonypandy was located just 20 minutes by car from the city of Cardiff, the site of the conference I was attending. The problem was — I didn’t have a car and even if I rented one for an afternoon, I had no idea how I would manage to find the house on my own.

It was time to call in an expert.

Genealogy tourism is an emerging market and some tourism operators are moving in to fill the needs created by this new kind of travel. A local guide tipped me off that Pegasus Tours (www.travelpegasus.co.uk), a company from Cardiff, had experience in this area. I contacted them and they agreed to assist me in finding the house where my great-grandmother had been born.

The great thing about having a local show you around is that they actually know where they are going. We drove almost straight to the house and I got out for a closer look. I even knocked on the door and met the home owners, who seemed happy to learn a little bit more about the history of their home and who had lived there in the mid-19th century.

On the way back to Cardiff, my guide John suggested we stop at the nearby Rhondda Heritage Park (www.rhonddaheritagepark.com) to learn a little more about what life had been like for miners and their families during the industrial revolution. Located at the site of Lewis Merthyr Colliery, a former coal mine, the Visitor’s Centre opened my eyes to the domestic and commercial aspects of the valley life my ancestors would have experienced.

You can even go underground with an ex-miner and get a small taste of what a shift in a coal mine was like.

I never imagined that I would be a genealogy tourist but walking in the footsteps of my ancestors — if only for a day — proved to be one of the most satisfying journeys I have undertaken.

Perhaps in time I will manage to discover the origins of my mother’s side of the family tree.

More about genealogy tourism and tracing your family tree

Since the development of online genealogical websites and search tools, the thrill of discovering the past and tracing one’s ancestry has become a passion for many people.

Genealogical tourism is a new and growing branch of the tourism market, catering to those who hope to sleuth out unusual stories, unlikely connections and answers to questions — all in an effort to understand a little bit more about where they came from.

Before you can become a genealogy tourist, you have to do a little research on your family tree. Here are six tips to get you started:

• Look for family documents: Gather together papers, photos, documents and family heirlooms. Clues to your family history might be found in the family Bible, on the backs of old photos or even in old letters.

• Interview relatives: Start with your parents and grandparents. Be sure to ask for names, dates and places, but also ask for family stories. Even though your relative’s memories might not be totally accurate, it will give you valuable information that can later be confirmed on census records.

• Write everything down: Record all of the information you obtain on a pedigree chart and organize a special place for the stories and research you gather.

• Focus your research: Focusing on a single family line can help make a big task easier to manage.

• Explore the Internet: The Internet is largely responsible for the boom in genealogy as a hobby. Online search engines and pedigree databases can provide much of the information you need to sleuth out your ancestry. For Internet search tips, visit http://genealogy.about.com/od/basics/a/online.htm.

• Find an expert: Sometimes you just need a little help to get started. A visit to the local genealogical society or family history centre can connect you with resources and people who have experience researching genealogy. The Red Deer Branch of the Alberta Genealogical Society (http://rdgensoc.ab.ca/) and the Red Deer Archives are located at 4525 47A Ave. and are open Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Red Deer Family History Centre (403-358-5473) is located in the LDS Church at 3002 47th Ave. and is open on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. More information on LDS Family History Centres is available at www.familysearch.org.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.