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How genealogy tourism is helping people connect with their ancestors

SALT LAKE CITY — It's one of the most remarkable scenes Kyle Betit has ever witnessed in his 30-year genealogy career.

While guiding a family on an extended visit to Switzerland, they found records going back to the 1400s and discovered the first person with their family's surname. They organized a reunion in the town where this ancestor had lived. Not only did the visiting family meet and greet many distant cousins, but upon further examination of the charts and family trees, some of the longtime neighbors and residents realized they were also related.

It was incredible to see all those people come together, said Betit, who oversees many of the travel tours for Ancestry's ProGenealogists.

"Getting all those people in one place, with everyone taking our their papers and family trees, and figuring out how they are related, and reconnecting a family that we can completely chart over 600 years, was pretty amazing," Betit said. "It's one of the highlights of my career as a genealogist."

The family's trip to Switzerland is an example of genealogy tourism — traveling to see where one's ancestors lived and experience aspects of their lives firsthand.

"The hands-on, physical experience is what's most appealing," Betit said. "It takes it to another level when you can go and physically experience and be in the space where those things that we're talking about in your family book or documents actually happened or where your ancestors actually lived."

It's a form of time travel, Dallen Timothy, a professor at Arizona State University and the editor of the Journal of Heritage Tourism, told

"This form of tourism is growing rapidly and is increasingly popular as western societies age," Timothy said in the article. "People want to get back to their roots, the simpler ways of life they tend to associate with their ancestors. It’s a way of stepping back in time."

'Time warp'

Betit describes genealogy tourism as a "time warp."

"It's hard to describe, but once you've done it, it's this quite amazing sort of time warp experience to be in a place and think OK, 250 years ago, this is where my ancestor John Murphy lived. This is what the landscape was like. This was his exact house. This is who his neighbors were. This is the church he went to and the cemetery where he is buried," Betit said. "It's just this very immersive experience that connects you to a place and to people in a way that is a level beyond what a report or documents can take you."

In years past, Betit said he and other Ancestry genealogists went to Europe to gather documents, photos and other records, doing their best to give clients this time warp experience on paper. Eventually customers, sometimes with a few family members, began making the trip with the genealogist.

Only in the last year has Ancestry's ProGenealogists started organizing 10- to 12-day tours for groups of 20-25 in Ireland, Germany and Italy with its partner, Go Ahead Tours.

"There has been a large increase in the last two or three years," Betit said. "It’s become a more frequent question and interest. People often say we are going to take the research you have done for us and now go and visit these places."

Betit believes interest in family history travel has grown in recent years because of popular genealogy television shows like "Who Do you Think You Are?" and DNA tests. Betit expects the trend to continue.

"The TV shows make people yearn for the stories of their ancestors, rather than just names and dates on a pedigree chart. ... It's given people exposure to what is possible," Betit said.

Seeing people connect with cousins is perhaps the most moving part of guiding the tours, Betit said.

"Our ancestors left 200 years ago and now we’re reconnecting," Betit said. "That’s interesting to me because I think that’s a lot of why people do genealogy in the first place."

People who go on trips often go home and dig deeper into their past.

"It really does inspire them to dig further into their genealogy in general," Betit said. "Once you’ve had that physical experience with your life and stories, it causes you often to want to learn more about those people in your family tree. A lot of good outcomes."

Cousin connection

In taking his family to Norway, Sweden and Denmark last May, Kevin Anderson anticipated the breathtaking views of Scandinavian fjords and learning more about his ancestors.

What he didn't expect was the warm and meaningful bond his family would forge with their distant Norwegian cousins.

"It was just a remarkable experience. I think everyone else shared this, but I felt an immediate bond of family, a bond that extended beyond the oceans and through the generations. ... It was a sweet experience to make that connection."

Anderson said the most memorable part of the trip was meeting some Norwegian third cousins who invited them to an ancestral home for a feast of traditional food and festivities. Their hosts also invited other extended family members to the event and delivered a genealogical presentation.

"It was as if we were coming home to our roots," Anderson said.

The Andersons will return the favor by hosting one of their Norwegian cousins in Utah this month.

In 2017, the Anderson family traveled to Switzerland, where they visited several small Swiss alpine villages and towns, including a home that once belonged to an ancestor. That trip ended in the Bern Switzerland Temple where the family performed a number of sealings for Swiss relatives.

The Andersons continued that tradition with this year's trip to Scandinavia by taking names to the Copenhagen Denmark Temple.

"That was a great experience," Anderson said.

Mystery solved

California resident Eric Eggett only had to go to Idaho to solve a century-old mystery surrounding an ancestor's death.

"I discovered more about the family in one day than I had learned in a lifetime," Eggett said.

Before going, all Eggett knew was that his great-grandfather, James Lynch, had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound near Soda Springs, Idaho, in 1916. But what really happened — was it an accident or a suicide?

When Lynch died, his wife was pregnant but mother and baby both died within two years. The couple's youngest child, Eggett's grandmother, was only a toddler at the time. Other family members raised her and the other Lynch children.

A few years ago, the Eggetts, who live in San Diego, decided to visit the southeastern Idaho town and learn what they could. The answers started to come when they went to a small Daughters of the Utah Pioneers museum in Soda Springs. A patron helped them search a digital archive of the local newspaper and they found an article reporting Lynch's death.

Lynch, a "sheep helper" who lived about 10 miles out of town, was "ejecting loaded shells" from his gun when the weapon accidently discharged, the article reported. A doctor was summoned but Lynch died before the doctor arrived, Eggett said.

The news didn't stop there. Eggett received directions to a small family cemetery in the middle of a wheat field.

"If you didn't know it was there, you wouldn't find it," Eggett said.

Wearing his Brigham Young University Family History Program T-shirt with the words "I seek dead people," Eggett drove the rural, unpaved roads and hiked through the wheat field before finally kneeling at his ancestor's grave. He's grateful he made the effort.

"Now I have answers to questions. I still have more questions," Eggett said. "But the best part was that all three of us connected with another part of our family on that adventure."

'Sacred work'

Jennifer Stevens and family members recently spent their Memorial Day holiday traveling to towns and villages in Hungary and Slovakia where their ancestors once lived. In addition to pre-trip research, their experience was enhanced by hiring a local genealogist who could serve as a translator and tour guide.

"It was so worth the money," Stevens said.

Their genealogist/translator/guide assisted the Stevens in touring villages, searching cemeteries and visiting old churches. He helped with introductions to distant cousins, who then shared a wealth of new genealogical information. The experience thrilled the Stevens family.

"For me, Hungary has always been kind of a mystery," Stevens said. "But much of what I had heard from my parents, aunts and grandparents became clearer. It really struck a chord with us. We fell in love with the people and the land."

The Latter-day Saint woman from Alabama said they also experienced a "miracle" in finding the names and information of three children — siblings of her grandfather — who died as babies. The family looks forward to sealing these deceased children to their parents and siblings in a future temple trip, she said.

"We were inspired on how to find them. Now we can do the temple work for them," Stevens said. "I can’t explain the feeling you have when you know they are there, you know that you are doing a very sacred work for them and they are grateful for it."

Ancestral 'view'

Also in May, Ryan Shosted accompanied his parents on a drive to Plain City, Weber County, where he took a photo of his father, Keith Shosted, standing in front of property that once belonged to his great-great-grandfather, Edward Jonathan Palmer. The 80-acre parcel now transects with 2600 North in Plain City.

In the photo, Keith Shosted is holding the original deed, issued in 1881 under the Homestead Act of 1862 and signed by U.S. President Chester A. Arthur.

"We stood on the property and looked up at the mountains and out at the lake. It was meaningful to see the views our ancestors saw when they stood on the same location over 130 years ago," Ryan Shosted told the Deseret News in an email. "For my parents, visiting the location with their son meant that the information about the property and the people who lived there could be preserved and passed on."

The Shosteds have made similar trips to properties once belonging to ancestors in western Illinois, the Salt Lake area, and the Uintah Basin.

"We honor their memories by trying to protect and preserve the land they loved so much," wrote Ryan Shosted, who is an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.