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A Genealogy Road Trip: Florida to Canada by Anne Sponholtz

A road trip in search of your ancestors can mean traveling back to places once familiar, or often discovering the unfamiliar. Come along on a road trip from Florida to Canada as Anne Sponholtz visits some popular tourist destinations, finds some ancestors she didn't know she had, and offers some advice for others searching for family roots on the road.

If you have a notion to check out places where you or your ancestors once lived, or you want to discover your ancestral roots, you can sit in an easy chair with a laptop on your lap, travel the Information Superhighway, and discover almost anything you want to know. But I've never been keen about sitting in an easy chair for too long a stretch, especially when there's an excuse for a road trip.

When my husband and I decided to embark on a road trip to discover more about our family trees, the itinerary included some "just for fun" stops along the way. Traveling from Florida to Canada, those stops included Washington, D.C.; New York City; Lake George, N.Y.; and Cornwall and Montreal, in Canada. These stops were like flipping through a deck of cards and turning up aces every time. They were terrific places, each unique in what it brought to the road trip.

But the real fun was visiting the little towns and villages where family members once lived and worked. Our ancestors had the same love affair with small towns as my husband and I do, so when we pulled out of the driveway in north Florida, we were anxious to see what small-town America had in store for us. We were not disappointed.

After my husband stumbled across notes on his ancestors gathered by a family member, I entered the information into a genealogy software database, where I have kept records on my own family for years. Such software is a great way to organize your family history even if, like me, you are more of a hobbyist than a full-fledged genealogist.


Genealogy Road Trip!

While discovering the wonderful little town of Homerville, Ga., the courthouse there proved to be a valuable place to find out information about my husband's family.

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Photo by Anne Sponholtz

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This scant information led us to Homerville, in Clinch County, Georgia, where my husband made a discovery about the ancestors he had learned about only a few weeks earlier. Homerville is a down-home kind of place where Southern accents are thick and okra is the vegetable of choice. Southern hospitality abounds here, as we found at our first stop -- at the courthouse. A historical marker outside the courthouse listed my husband's great-, great-, great-grandfather, Benjamin Cornelius, as the county's first tax receiver. It was time to snap a picture. But the real treasure of that stop turned out to be the folks inside the courthouse, who shared a book with us that had more information about my husband's ancestors and helped us find some local cemeteries.

One of those cemeteries, once on the family's homestead, was located in the middle of a vast stretch of woods now owned by Rayonier, a timber company. We figured we would never find it, so we scratched it off our list. But on our way to another cemetery, we passed a Rayonier office and stopped in. The rangers there not only got out maps but also led us to the cemetery - a trip down narrow dirt roads, through soft sand and around dozens of twists and turns. Now you can't beat that for Southern hospitality! Walking through the woods with our escorts, we soon discovered, beneath a giant oak tree, the grave site of my husband's great-, great-, great-grandmother, Sarah Cornelius, wife of the tax receiver. We learned she was born in 1808 and died in 1845, at the age of 37, leaving behind five young children for Benjamin, who never remarried, to raise - more information to add to our family history database.

On the next leg of our trip, our son joined us. We headed north, stopping at our "just for fun" destinations, along with other stops in Trenton, N.J., and in New York state at Albany, Ballston Spa, Glens Falls, Hudson Falls, Malone, Brushton and Massena - mostly small towns, where my side of the family once lived and some are buried. I often visited these towns and villages as a youngster, and claim Ballston Spa as my birthplace. But I was a youngster a long time ago, so it was a treat to go back to these places.

We visited the city where my parents met and the cathedral where they were married in 1944. I took pictures of houses my ancestors built and where generations of my family lived. I walked down the hilly sidewalk where as a child I roller skated into the arms of my grandfather. I stood in the yard of my first home where I once romped and played with my pet rabbit. We visited cemeteries, lots of cemeteries, where I gathered information to add to the family tree, and even learned the names of my paternal great-grandparents. It was a priceless road trip.

On a sad note, shortly after returning home, the house built nearly 150 years ago by my great-, great-grandfather in Brushton, N.Y., where four generations of my family had lived, burned to the ground, claiming the lives of its present-day owners.

Tips for genealogy road trips

1. Pack your camera and take pictures of family grave markers and other important finds. Don't rely on your memory.

2. Take along a notebook to record directions to cemeteries and family landmarks, to mark locations of family plots and markers, and to keep other notes.

3. Bring a good pair of walking shoes, as you never know when you might be tromping through places difficult to maneuver.

4. Stop at courthouses, churches, historical markers, libraries, museums and historical societies - all can yield unexpected discoveries.

5. Plan ahead. If you are taking a long trip, a timetable for each stop is vital. Before you go, gather as much information as possible. You don't want to get lost in a cemetery searching for an ancestor's marker when you have another hundred miles to drive before dinner.

My best advice: Don't put off taking such a trip. You will never regret going in search of your family.

Anne Sponholtz
October 3, 2008


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