Category Archives: Travel

A Visit to an Alsatian Village

I can never forget the moment when I knocked at the door of a home in a small French village, a copy of my family tree chart in my hands as I stammered the phrase, “Bonjour. L’histoire de ma famille! to the startled teenage girl who answered. Thankfully, before long, with our fathers by our side—her father just so happened to be the mayor of Sondersdorf, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France—we managed to reach a mutual understanding of the fact that my father and I had ancestral roots in this village and would love to take a peek at the old records.

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Sondersdorf, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France photograph, 2006; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2016.

This was ten years ago, when I first traveled to Europe. Along with a few days spent in Paris and the ancestral village of my mother’s German grandfather, we also paid a visit to the charming Alsace region of northeastern France where my father’s great-great-grandfather had lived and served in the Franco-Prussian War.

Joseph Lutz, the son of Francois Joseph Lutz and Switzerland-native Marguerite Meister, was born 31 May 1844 in Sondersdorf, Haut Rhin, Alsace, France.1 In his mid-twenties when the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 broke out, family lore states that Joseph served and was injured.2 Following the war and its German victory, the residents of the newly annexed region of Alsace were informed that they could remain French citizens by removing to France by the fall of 1872, or they could stay in their homes and default to German citizenship.3 Joseph’s parents, who were over seventy by this time, apparently opted to stay in Sondersdorf; a move to French territory may well have proven to have been a great hardship, no matter if they would have preferred to remain French.4 In any case, it was said that Joseph did not wish to live under German rule.5 Thus, at the age of twenty-eight, he left Sondersdorf for America, where he settled in Faribault County, Minnesota, near other relatives.6

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Sondersdorf, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France photograph, 2006; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2016.

It was a treat to see Sondersdorf, although it was not quite the rugged and rocky village that my father had long envisioned. Although in a mountainous area with the snow-capped Alps within view, Sondersdorf boasted a tidy village situated among rolling green fields. We enjoyed exploring a beautiful old cemetery, where the Lutz surname was prominent, and paid a visit to the village church. If I recall correctly, it was a local who called down an inquisitive greeting from a shutter-framed window who directed us to the mayor’s home for our genealogical questions. After becoming acquainted with the mayor and his daughter in a mix of broken English, French, and German, we made plans to meet the next day to see the old vital records held in the local school building.

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Ferrette, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France photograph, 2006; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2016.

We were treated equally well by the people of Ferrette, a larger village nearby, where we stayed the night. Hearty Alsatian meals and investigating the crumbling castle ruins on its picturesque hillside kept us well entertained until it was time to return to Sondersdorf. There, we met again with the mayor, who allowed us to page through the centuries-old record books, brown ink faded on the pages. Although we didn’t conduct in-depth research, not wanting to take advantage of the mayor’s time, it was incredible to see so many family names recorded in their original form. Upon our departure, the mayor kindly presented me with a book about the history of the churches of the region, in which he inscribed the date and the place—much as Joseph Lutz had inscribed his prayerbook upon his departure from Sondersdorf, long ago.

Copyright © 2016 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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2015 NGS Family History Conference

Last week was spent at the National Genealogical Society’s 2015 Family History Conference in St. Charles, Missouri. This was my third NGS conference in as many years, and as always, it was a fantastic time of education, inspiration, and connecting with colleagues and friends.

IMG_0792Despite missing the first morning and final afternoon of the conference, I managed to pack in fourteen sessions in addition to the NGS luncheon and a lovely breakfast hosted by Findmypast. (No, I didn’t get much sleep.) From legal lingo with Judy Russell to tracing kinships through indirect evidence with Elizabeth Shown Mills, I came away with plenty of new ideas for tracking down some of my more elusive ancestors. Other sessions ranged from Federal Military Pensions to Scandinavians in the Midwest, and I also enjoyed learning about Illinois resources, pre-statehood and beyond, as a number of my ancestors entered Illinois Territory more than two hundred years ago.

One standout session was Baerbel Johnson’s “So You Think You Want to Get Married: German Marriage Records, Laws, and Customs.” Let’s just say that all of the obstacles in the way of marriage during different points in German history – including age restrictions (brides had to be twenty-two and grooms had to be twenty-five!), parental permission, proof of means of support, and taxes galore – go a long way in explaining just why so many German children may have been born out of wedlock.

My favorite discovery from a session? That would have to be HistoryGeo.com, a resource that maps “First Landowners” and can pinpoint the exact site of your ancestor’s land on Google Maps in just a few clicks. This eliminates the need to painstakingly cross-reference historic plat maps with modern road maps as I did last summer when identifying the location of the homestead of one of my ancestors. If you have any first landowners in your family tree, this is a resource you won’t want to miss.

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At this year’s conference, I especially enjoyed getting to spend time with two fellow members of the Leadership Team of the NextGen Genealogy Network. We hosted an informal meetup event for other young genealogists in their twenties, thirties, and forties – and those who lend their support, including a friend of mine from graduate school. A handful of us stuck around to swap our best family stories into the night, and from black sheep to DNA discoveries, we covered it all. It was the perfect way to pause and unwind halfway into the conference!

All in all, I was impressed with the stellar organization of this year’s conference by the National Genealogical Society, the St. Louis Genealogical Society, and conference center staff, as well as the tireless speakers, volunteers, and exhibit hall vendors. The conference center was a short walk from my hotel, and there was a Cracker Barrel in between – what more could one want? Oh, food trucks, of course. Lots of fun details of the conference were captured on Twitter under #NGS2015GEN.

I didn’t have the chance on this trip to explore what historic St. Charles and St. Louis have to offer, but I will definitely need to return at some point for a research venture – after all, my southern Illinois ancestors settled just a couple of hours away. Now I know how to find their land!

Read about the 2014 NGS Family History Conference (Richmond) here.
Read Ten Tips for NGS Family History Conference Attendees here.

Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

A Glimpse of Hyde County

Three years ago, my husband and I were in our final year of graduate school and in search of something to do over spring break. We lived in Northern Virginia at the time, so my husband suggested exploring the Outer Banks – about a five hour drive south. As soon as I determined that the Outer Banks were only a stone’s throw from mainland Hyde County, North Carolina, I was on board.

Why the fuss about Hyde County? I knew that this was the place from which my Stilley ancestors – who settled on the Illinois frontier in the early nineteenth century – had likely hailed. And for me, the ideal vacation includes at least some genealogical or historical element, paired, of course, with beautiful scenery, good local food, plenty of photo ops, and a travel companion willing to humor me.

P1050418My direct ancestor Nancy Stilley, born in 1819 in Franklin County, Illinois, can almost certainly be linked to the other Stilleys scattered throughout southern Illinois who had roots in Hyde County, North Carolina. Nancy is believed to have been a granddaughter of the Hezekiah Stilley who was a resident of Hyde County as late as 1800 and whose numerous children – later residents of southern Illinois – are named in a family Bible.1 In the interests of full disclosure (I’m looking at you, Ben Affleck), I will add that Hezekiah Stilley likely married the daughter of Hyde County landowner and slaveholder William Davis, who died there circa 1803.2 His will named eight slaves, Jemima, Gabrel, Joseph, Moses, Kesiah, Cate, Judith, and Silard, all of who were to remain with his wife and selected children after his death.3

P1050417We had only a couple of hours to spend driving through the Inner Banks of Hyde County, but while this was not an in-depth research venture, it was still incredible to get a feel for the landscape that would have been familiar to my ancestors. I was glad to find that the county is still very rural; according to the 2010 census, the population is under six thousand people, comparable to its size two centuries ago. I believe we drove for an hour through the swamps and marshes without seeing another human being, and the only signs of civilization for much of our drive were an untended boat and an abandoned but well-kept ghost town.

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Hyde County, North Carolina also encompasses Ocracoke Island, a popular tourist destination on the Outer Banks that we visited via ferry. The island boasts quaint shops, stunning herds of wild horses, and locals who speak a distinct Ocracoke brogue that traces back to the dialect of the early colonists. It’s a must-see along the Outer Banks. The Inner Banks, in sharp contrast, are on the road less traveled – but one I would most definitely like to travel again.

Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

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To Acadie: A Family History Inspired Vacation

I’m all about incorporating family history with family vacations (my husband, surely, is grateful). This month marks ten years since I embarked on one such vacation. After becoming fascinated with our ancestors who settled in what is now Nova Scotia, my dad and I spent several memorable days exploring what was once Acadie on a quest to learn more about their experiences prior to the Acadian Deportation of 1755-1763.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Nova Scotia was a French colony called Acadia, or, in French, Acadie. The residents were peasants who farmed land reclaimed from the sea and developed peaceful relationships with the natives. After the colony was transferred to British control, the Acadians proclaimed their neutrality. However, during the French and Indian War, the British colonial officers became suspicious that the Acadians might be providing aid to the French. With the support of New England legislators and militia, approximately 11,500 Acadians were forcibly deported from Nova Scotia and the surrounding maritime provinces. As the Acadian men, women and children were ordered aboard ships, their lands were confiscated and their homes were burned to discourage their return.

IMG_2167After reaching Nova Scotia, my dad and I made our way from Halifax to the Grand-Pré National Historic Site. Here, a church stands to commemorate the site where Colonel John Winslow rounded up the local men and boys to declare the terms of the deportation. A statue of Evangeline, Longfellow’s fictional Acadian heroine who became separated from her lover, stands here as well. We were fortunate to visit Nova Scotia in 2004, the 400th anniversary of French settlement in North America, as we were able to see a musical performance of Evangeline in Pointe-de-l’Église.

IMG_2193We also paid a visit to the Port-Royal National Historic Site, located at the site of the original 1605 habitation that was France’s first successful settlement on North American soil. Port Royal held a wealth of information about this hardy settlement, and it was interesting to explore. We were particularly amused to find an artist’s rendition of one of our more illustrious ancestors, Louis Hebert, within the habitation; he served as an apothecary there before venturing on to New France.

IMG_2249We spent another afternoon strolling through the beautiful Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens, where we were able to explore a reconstruction of a typical 1671 Acadian home. The comfortable cottage featured a thatched roof and beds that each had their own cozy cupboard doors. It was fun to see how the Acadians lived as well as what they ate, as we did when we stopped by the charming farmhouse restaurant Chez Christophe for some excellent seafood and rappie pie, an Acadian specialty.

IMG_2236The Fort Anne National Historic Site overlooks the Annapolis Basin, which is from where at least one of our ancestors, Joseph Michel, was deported. Fort Anne saw conflict in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812, and it was another well-kept and informative site. We were a bit thrown off when we thought we recognized the historical interpreter as having also been at Port Royal, but as it turned out, the two men were twin brothers, and apparently used to double takes!

IMG_2272Last but not least, we made a point of walking on some of the land where our ancestors had farmed centuries before. Nova Scotia, as it turns out, is well prepared for this type of tourism, with maps at the ready – both paper and of the trail side marker variety – indicating where the properties affiliated with different Acadian surnames were once located. Nova Scotia remains quite rural, and it was wonderful to be able to picture our ancestors’ lives so clearly with much of the land still undeveloped.

After seeing a few more sites in Nova Scotia, my dad and I returned home laden with pictures, maps, brochures, books, recipes, and Acadian and Cajun music, as well as an Acadian flag and the occasional unintentional burst of an Acadian accent. Of course, it was also all too easy to see why our ancestors would not have wanted to leave their homeland, and why some Acadians underwent great hardship in order to return.

Although our direct ancestors, who were deported to Massachusetts, ultimately settled in Quebec, it is certainly telling that they named their new home l’Acadie.

2014 NGS Family History Conference

IMG_3043My lack of recent updates can be explained by the fact that the 2014 NGS Family History Conference was held last week in Richmond, Virginia. This was my second time attending a conference sponsored by the National Genealogical Society, and it was just as much fun as the first! I stayed at the historic Linden Row Inn in downtown Richmond, within walking distance of the conference center, the Library of Virginia, and the Richmond Public Library, and I made it to more than a dozen lectures, spent some quality time in the exhibit hall, attended a celebration of fifty years of genealogical credentialing, and met with old friends and new. I even Tweeted a bit!

IMG_3031Some highlights included lectures by Elizabeth Shown Mills, who always provides inspiration for creative ways to look at records in order to break through perceived “brick walls,” and Tom Jones, who had everyone in the audience laughing at his anecdote about tracking down county court records in a small Midwestern town. I also attended several helpful sessions on specific research topics, including tax records, slave claims, and German genealogy. Warren Bittner did the impossible by making the Meyers Gazetteer seem (almost) easy to decipher, which instigated a mad dash to the exhibit hall to purchase the guidebook that he recommended. The exhibit hall is also where I was able to peruse a sample application portfolio to the Board for Certification of Genealogists, following a helpful lecture about the intensive, but worthwhile, application process.

IMG_3027I made sure to catch a lecture by Maureen Taylor, “The Photo Detective.” Anyone who follows my blog will know how much I love analyzing antique photographs, so it was interesting to hear her speak about “Photo Identification 101” and to see some of the more outlandish fashions of the mid-nineteenth century. Maureen authored the book The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation, and she and contributor David Allen Lambert were kind enough to autograph my copy.

NGGN_Richmond_2014Good times were also had with the other conference attendees, whether making new friends at mealtimes and in the lecture halls, catching up with a former grad school classmate, or meeting with several of my fellow board members and supporters of the NextGen Genealogy Network. All in all, it was a jam-packed week of genealogy fun, learning, and connecting – well worth the jet lag!

2014 APG Professional Management Conference

Greetings from snowy Salt Lake City! I’ve had an exciting few days here at the Family History Library and the APG Professional Management Conference, hosted by the Association of Professional Genealogists.

IMG_1980The conference opened yesterday after lunch with an introduction from Kimberly Powell, APG President, and a lecture from D. Joshua Taylor, who recently appeared in Genealogy Roadshow, “New Industries, New Worlds: Working for Entertainment and Corporate Clients.” As an audience member pointed out, much of his advice would also be applicable to everyday client research. For the remainder of the afternoon, I enjoyed Harold Henderson’s workshop, “The Story of Jethro’s Story: The Making of a NGSQ Article.” Writing for the National Genealogical Society Quarterly is definitely one of my long-term goals, and it was extremely helpful to have the process of crafting a research article broken down in a frank discussion.

Today, I was able to fit in a few more worthwhile lectures. Judy G. Russell, The Legal Genealogist, opened with “‘Good Name in Man or Woman’ – Protecting a Professional Reputation.” Judy is a delightful speaker and she raised valid points for genealogy business owners. I also knew that I would learn a lot from CeCe Moore at “Advanced DNA for Professionals – How Professionals Conduct a DNA Study,” and I certainly did. The number of DNA tests I would like family members to take is always growing! I rounded out the day with “The Pursuit from Genealogy Hobbyist to Professional,” by Claire V. Brisson-Banks, a thoughtful lecture on “Discovering and Communicating Your Unique Value: Personal Branding for Professional Genealogists” by Melissa A. Johnson, and “Gaining Recognition in the Genealogical Community: Climbing the Professional Ladder” by Jean Wilcox Hibben.

One of the greatest benefits of this conference was the opportunity to meet so many of the genealogists who inspire me in person! Both the dessert reception on Friday night and the Saturday luncheon were lots of fun, and it was convenient having all of the conference events take place at the hotel. (The Family History Library, by the way, was only a five minute walk away – the location couldn’t have been better!)

Would I recommend the APG Professional Management Conference? Absolutely! It’s smaller than other conferences I’ve attended, which makes networking and quality discussion come easily, and the lecture topics are highly relevant to genealogy professionals. I hope to return next year!