We’ve been saying it for many years: the Internet has forever changed family history. We all like to talk about finding digitized records in the comfort of our homes, in the wee hours of the night, wearing our pajamas.
Basically, we’ve been spoiled.
But, amazing as all these digitized family history sources are, you can’t find EVERYTHING online. When we conduct the research for Who Do You Think You Are? we find all kinds of records to help us tell the story. Some are online. Some are at local archives, courthouses, or libraries. But even then, these organized repositories house only a small portion of a person’s story. We often need someone “on the ground” in the ancestral hometown to discover the unexpected. This is why we send the celebrities all over the world, because, at its heart, Who Do You Think You Are? is just as much about walking where your ancestors walked as it is about finding evidence of them in official records they left behind.
When Julie Chen visited her ancestral hometown in Anxi, China, she was awed by what she found. Sure, there were family stories and newspaper articles that pointed her in the right direction, but until she visited the ancestral home, now belonging to her distant cousin, and saw the picture of her grandfather, Lou Gaw Tong, hanging on the wall, she couldn’t have imagined the impact. And that wasn’t the only artifact that occupied a place of honor. Along with the portrait of her grandfather was the mounted appointment of her great-grandfather, Lou Rulin, as an Administrator of the Imperial Examination. This decree from the Emperor put Lou Rulin in charge of an examination for students hoping to attend top schools. This family heirloom painted a fuller picture about Julie’s great-grandfather, and it couldn’t have been found any other way.
Julie’s cousin then invited her to visit Lou Rulin’s final resting place. He wasn’t buried in a neatly laid-out cemetery with a map of the plots or a sexton who could point her in the right direction. Lou Rulin’s tomb was off the beaten path and, without the knowledge of the older local residents and someone to clear away the overgrown brush, we might not have found it at all. To visit her great-grandfather’s grave, Julie and her companions travelled up a mountain along a steep and narrow path, but the view at the top was breathtaking. Julie’s vantage point from the gravesite overlooked a valley that hasn’t changed much since Lou Rulin was alive. That real-world journey provided an experience that turned out to be both fulfilling and spiritual.
As the researchers for Who Do You Think You Are?, we have used hundreds of different sources to put together the stories for each episode. We are constantly amazed at the information we find online, in major archives, in local repositories, and in the homes of cousins. But every now and then, to get the real story, you need to go and walk in the footsteps of those who came before us.
Sometimes you just have to go and walk up the mountain yourself.
Tips from Ancestry ProGenealogists
Summer is right around the corner and you might be thinking about planning a trip to your own ancestral hometown. Before you do, here are some tips:
- Learn as much about the area as you can.
- Mine everything you can from and about family members who lived in the area before you go.
- Check out the holdings of local libraries, courthouses and other repositories online.
- Make a list of what you hope to find. Be specific.
- Contact a local historical or genealogical organization. Local members will have unique knowledge about the area and where to find local records.
- When you get there, talk to the locals. We have had success many times sitting at the local watering hole and starting up a conversation.
- Be prepared to share! Take printouts or your tablet to show others your ancestry. It helps them understand your connections by providing context for people, time periods, and places.
Learn more about Julie's journey or watch episode recaps from previous seasons on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 10|9c on TLC.