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Tracing Your Family Roots

Martha Stewart Living, June 2002

Visits to the places where your ancestors lived turn vacations into lessons in heritage -- the country's as well as your own

Not everyone is blessed with a close relative who is a family-history buff. But just about anyone can figure out where their people come from and use that knowledge to enjoy family-roots travel, whether that means simply taking the kids to see the hometown where your parents or grandparents lived, or going a bit further down the branches of the family tree.

Such experiences can be greatly enhanced by visiting storied districts or ports of immigration (like New York City or San Francisco) and using local genealogical and historical resources to try to forge personal connections to the lives of forebears. Besides satisfying your own curiosity, you're recording history for future descendants who may not be able to visit the same places.

Here is a roundup of the prime repositories of family history in the United States.

New England
For family research, start at Boston's New England Historic Genealogical Society (888-296-3447). Then let the city's streets take you along the Freedom Trail's landmarks and other historic sites.

New York City
For genealogy, start at the New York Public Library's Humanities and Social Sciences Library. The Gotham Center for New York City History's website provides links to the New York Historical Society, Ellis Island, The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and other history-related institutions. The Center for Jewish History sponsors a genealogy institute, and the Jewish Museum fills in the cultural context.

Philadelphia
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania recently merged with the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies to form one of the largest multiethnic and genealogical collections in the country (215-732-6200). Before your trip, take a virtual tour of the Historic District, and then visit the Independence Visitor Center (800-537-7676), located in the heart of the district.

Washington, D.C.
The capital houses a trove of national resources. The Library of Congress Local History and Genealogy Reading Room (202-707-2905) is so large that tours are conducted to orient visitors; the majority of the National Archives and Records Administration's genealogical resources are here (866-325-7208); the Daughters of the American Revolution Library (202-628-1776) preserves an outstanding collection of documents and Americana. The Smithsonian Institution has museums of folklife and cultural heritage (202-357-2700); plan the rest of your visit with the help of the DC Heritage Coalition's website, which has links to cultural centers and guided neighborhood tours throughout the area.

New Orleans
New Orleans reflects a vibrant mix of European and African influences. Its research facilities -- like the Amistad Research Center, specializing in African-American history -- are listed on neworleansgenealogy.com. Go to Louisiana Purchase 2003 for information on history and tourism here and in the heartland states rooted in the Louisiana Purchase.

Fort Wayne, Indiana
Situated about three hours from Chicago and two hours from Indianapolis, Fort Wayne's Allen County Public Library (260-421-1200) holds the world's second-largest family-research collection. The Lincoln Museum and other attractions are described at the Visitor and Convention Bureau (800-767-7752).

Salt Lake City
For Mormons, conducting genealogical research is a religious obligation. In 1894 the church established the Family History Library (801-240-2331), now the largest collection of genealogical information in the world. Venture outside the city to view replicas of pioneer life at Old Desert Village (801-582-1847) and the American West Heritage Center (800-225-3378).

San Francisco
The Gold Rush of 1848 created a boomtown, bursting with an influx of fortune seekers, many of them from China. The San Francisco Historical Society (415-775-1111) links to genealogical sources and includes a thorough list of historical and ethnic societies and attractions.