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Getting the Most Out of a Genealogy Field Trip

Your genealogy detective work has led you to your state's archives, vital records, registry of deeds, probate court, national archives branch or family history center. Before you set out to explore, you'll want to do a little planning.


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I thought I was prepared for my first genealogy road trip. I had found several ancestors who had their beginnings in New Hampshire and made plans to visit that state's Bureau of Vital Records in Concord, a healthy two-hour drive from home. I made a list of the people I was looking for, packed a lunch and headed off.

It was exciting looking through the old cards stored there, handwritten over one hundred years ago, listing the particulars of significant events in people's lives. It was even more exciting when I started finding cards for some of the names on my list. But as I flipped through the cards, I saw other names that could have been related to people on my list. I had set out to find birth records, but found some marriage and death records that might have helped me find new connections in my family tree. I found more information than I was looking for, and it became overwhelming because I didn't know what to make of it all. When I got home, I found out I already had some of the information I'd re-discovered in Concord.

I was smarter on my next trip. I went armed with not only a list of people I considered my quarry, but also genealogy reports, descendant charts and ancestor charts. I found the charts to be the most useful, since they gave a visual account of who was related to whom, and how. When I stumbled across unexpected information, I was able to make an educated guess as to where the new pieces might fit in my family puzzle. Over time I came to learn that the most successful field trip was the best-planned.

Start with a Plan

Unless you're retired, you might not have a lot of time available for a genealogy field trip. This calls for planning early on. You need to ask yourself: How many road trips can I take this year? If it's only one, which destination is likely to yield the best results? How far am I willing to travel? How many days at a time can I devote to a road trip? Is there any way I could combine it with a vacation? How much money am I willing to spend?

Once you've settled on a destination, it helps to write a formal plan. I do this, and I bring the plan with me on my trips, to help me stay focused. Writing a plan ahead of time helps me determine if the trip will even be worth it. My plan helps me answer the questions:

  • What is my objective for this particular trip?
  • What particular piece of information do I want to find, and why?
  • Is it a primary record, or ancillary? Is it a collateral record? (i.e., a record of brothers or sisters of the primary subject.) These answers might help me determine whether or not the information is likely to provide me with more leads about my main target.
  • What other information might be useful?
  • Are there other ancestors I could research at this destination?
  • Are there other places near this destination I should visit, and why? (e.g., is there a library near city hall?)
  • How much time will I be able to devote to the trip? How much of that will be travel time, and how much will be research time?
  • Will I have time to visit more than one place?

I have found that, once I've answered all these questions, it is helpful to set up the information I'm looking for on a spreadsheet. It not only helps me identify the information I need to find — at a glance — but also keeps me from looking for information I already have.

Column titles on my spreadsheet are, from left to right:

  • Surname
  • Given name
  • Birth date
  • Birth place
  • Marriage date
  • Spouse
  • Marriage place
  • Death date
  • Death place
  • Comments
  • Status

I might bring several copies of my spreadsheet, each sorted a little differently. I always bring a sort by surname, but it's sometimes helpful to have all this information sorted by birth place, death place, etc. as well. (Of course, I'm talking about a computer-based spreadsheet. But the principle works just as well with paper and pen; you just can't do the sorts.) I write notes on the spreadsheet during my research, and save them afterward in a file. If, months or years later I have occasion to visit that destination again, I'll know what records were NOT there, and won't waste time looking for them again.

Be Prepared

If you've never been to your destination before, it pays to do some homework before you go. First, confirm the address, phone number, and operating hours of the place you intend to visit. If you're thinking of doing grave stone rubbings at a cemetery, call ahead to see if it is permitted.

Map out your route, using a tool such as Mapquest (, a road atlas, or Triple A trip ticket. You might want to call the place you're going for directions as well, even if you use Mapquest, as I've found Mapquest is sometimes inaccurate, or sometimes maps out the long way, when there is a shorter route available. Find out if you will need to go through any tolls. Find out about the parking situation where you're going: Is it free? Is it metered? Is it in a parking garage? How far is it from the place where you'll be doing your research? If this will be an all-day trip, is there anywhere to eat nearby? Should you pack a lunch?

What to Bring

Before embarking on one of my genealogy adventures, I always prepare a checklist, to make sure I don't forget anything. Here are some useful things to put on your list:

  • Address and telephone number of the place(s) you're going
  • Directions and a map
  • Cell phone, in case you get lost
  • Research plan and spreadsheet
  • Descendant/ancestor charts
  • Genealogy reports (of the main surnames being researched)
  • A notebook and pen
  • A magnifying glass, to help decipher old handwriting on antique records
  • A calculator to help quickly calculate ancestors' ages based on dates found in records you uncover
  • A file folder for each surname you'll be researching, so you can keep notes and photocopied records organized
  • A camera (You never know where your trail will lead. Maybe your research in the library will yield the former address of your ancestor, nearby. You might want a picture. You might end up searching a cemetery for headstones. You'll surely want those on film.)
  • Lots of change, not only for parking meters, but also for the coin-operated copiers you're likely to find at your destination
  • Lunch and a bottle of water (for day trips)

When You Get Home

When I get home from a genealogy field trip, my head is usually spinning with all the information I found, or wondering about what I didn't find. Instead of rushing home to add all the new data into my family file, I find it's best to wait a couple of days, give my weary brain a rest, then go back and look at it with fresh eyes. I sometimes discover connections or develop insights that weren't apparent at first. At that point, I do enter every scrap of information into my database, and file copies of the documents I got. And what about those files? That's an article for another day.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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