ICYMI: Planning an ancestral trip

[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 7 October 2014.]

Penny at podium_croppedLast week, I was happily recalling my 2012 trip to Finland, specifically a visit to my ancestral village, Teuva. I had the great good luck to meet cousins there and see the land that my ancestors farmed – and even the foundation of the tiny house where my grandmother grew up.

When first planning that trip, I had no idea how to proceed. I could look at a map and find Teuva – and the nearest train station with a rental car facility – but I had no idea how to go about identifying living relatives.

Juho cropped
My great-grandfather, Juho Matalamäki, at home in Finland.

Even though my grandparents were the immigrants, none of my living relatives had any connections with Finland. With the help of some colleagues, I came up with some strategies:

  1. Find out where your ancestors are buried. If a churchyard, contact the church office to see who’s tending their graves – those grave tenders might be relatives. In my case, this strategy didn’t pay off. The Lutheran church in Teuva burned down in 1950, and the gravestones are generally more recent.
  2. Find a local family historian to help. When I corresponded with the church, I asked if the administrator knew of anyone in town with an interest in family history. If nothing else, I figured, that person could drive with me around town and point out land my ancestors might have farmed. Luckily, the church connected me with an amateur genealogist. I sent him names of my ancestors, and when I arrived in Teuva he had not only prepared a family tree but identified living cousins and sites of ancestral homes. Together with these cousins, I visited my grandmother’s birthplace and drove past farms where I now knew my ancestors had worked.
  3. Use Facebook. I was already a member of a Finnish genealogy group on Facebook. On that page I posted a list of ancestors and asked if anyone was related or knew of relatives. Someone was indeed a cousin, though not in Teuva – and with no current connections there. Although we weren’t able to arrange to meet in Finland, we will definitely do so in the future. The Facebook group also helped translate letters into Finnish. And, through Facebook, I’ve kept in touch with a Finnish cousin I met in Teuva as well as with the family historian/chauffeur – and with a distant cousin in the United States, whom I hope to meet next summer at a reunion of her branch of the family in Pennsylvania.
  4. Make connections through genealogical websites. Since my Finland trip, I’ve “met” yet another cousin online, via MyHeritage.com. She lives outside Helsinki. I will definitely visit her on my next trip to Finland – though she might also go to that Pennsylvania reunion next year!

I’ve got more connections now for my next trip to Finland. But now I’m thinking about a trip to find Rohrbachs in Switzerland, once I determine where Johann Rohrbach was born around 1848. A consultation with Rhonda McClure is in order!

About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.

3 thoughts on “ICYMI: Planning an ancestral trip

  1. I was in a similar situation with my Polish ancestors. I knew the three villages where three of my great grandparents were born and raised and I knew the names of their parents, but not too much else. I certainly didn’t know whether any cousins could be identified, etc.

    Luckily I hooked up with an outfit called PolishOrigins.com and they were very helpful. I hired a guide who acted as my interpreter, guide, driver, researcher and I got more done in a day than I would have in a week. My first full day in Poland I researched my paternal line back to the 1700s in the same little village (Zarzecze) near Jaslo. It was truly amazing.

    I even found a first cousin twice removed still living on the property where my great grandfather lived (my gg was the oldest sibling in his family, and this cousin was the youngest child of my gg’s youngest sibling). This cousin even had a picture of my great grandfather hanging in her house!

    This same experience was repeated in the my other gg’s ancestral village – Rozdziele in Bochia county (this time the cousin was male rather than female but otherwise exactly the same. I learned that my great grandfather was very fondly remembered as he worked hard to send back enough money so they could buy the land they needed to survive the famine the afflicted the area in the early 1900s. They also had picture of this great grandfather who had kept in touch with them until the 1970s (although I had no idea).

    All in all it was a wonderful experience and I would recommend looking for such a service in the country anyone was researching, particularly if you don’t speak the language. I’m sure some are better than others so do your research and make such an investment pay off.


  2. All wonderful ideas and suggestions — the polish origins.com will help me with my husband’s family. I would like to add — don’t reinvent the wheel. The first thing you might want to do is confirm no one has gone before you. I had the good fortune of locating a distant cousin on my husband’s Irish side through Ireland Reaching Out. Turns out all the research had been done and they had documents for where the family lived along with specific directions. We were lucky, but you may be, too.

  3. I loved reading this blog! I have Finnish ancestors, Murtovaara and Jutenen. I would love to visit one day and I will definitely use your tips to find my relatives. Thank you!

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