Roots Travel: Exploring America’s Parks and Communities

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Exploring America’s National Park Service, State and Local Historic Parks, and Their Gateway Communities
By Holly T. Hansen

This Big Blend Radio episode focuses on genealogy and roots travel from Arizona to California, Louisiana to Kentucky, and beyond.

You may not have thought that the National Park Service and family history research are related. I see family history everywhere. And our national and state parks are no different. The National Park Service cares for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage. Gateway communities are feeders to the park system and help us gain a greater understanding of the history and value of preserving our past in local museums, historical societies, visitor bureaus, and information centers.

You may notice when you enter a national park, museum or some other historical place, a distinct feeling of stepping back in time. You certainly get a small glimpse of the past. The past is really a foreign place, and it takes effort to gain understanding of distant times. Actually, hiking on an historic trail will give you an idea of what it was like to travel by foot like our ancestors did. Spending time in a museum, especially living history museums, gives you the opportunity to engage in activities just as they were performed a hundred years or more ago.

Learn the history of explorers, adventurers, women, political leaders, battle fields, aviation, rail travel, the common man, and so much more. Think about the following examples:

Example One: The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail.

In 1775-76, Juan Bautista de Anza led 240 men, women, and children on an ambitious expedition to establish a new migrant or non-native settlement in to the San Francisco Bay area. This journey wound across more than 1,200 miles of deserts, rivers, oak woodlands, shorelines, grasslands, and chaparral. The trail stretches across 20 counties of Arizona and California. It connects history, culture, and outdoor recreation from Nogales, Arizona, to the San Francisco Bay area.

Could your family have been involved in this epic adventure? Who were the 30 migrant families that scratched their way across the New Spain frontier? What was life like for them in that time period? There are many answers to these questions awaiting your discovery; all you have to do is ask.

Example Two: The Kentucky Holy Land Trail.
Catholics began settling in the rich Bluegrass farmland of what became Washington, Marion, and Nelson counties as early as 1775. The first inland diocese in the United States was designated in Bardstown. It is a mega-diocese at that, stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast, and from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River. A religious trail blazed through central Kentucky as other religious establishments took root as well.

The bulk of the early settlers to this territory migrated from Virginia and Maryland. You will notice they often moved in small colonies. Group migrations are much easier to track as you may well know. There is always a migration pattern to look for. These colonies would generally assemble at Pittsburgh. They would purchase or construct flat boats, barges, or maybe a raft if that is all they could afford. Then they secured transportation down the Ohio River. The hardships and suffering that our ancestors endured during these migrations are quite difficult to imagine. They were many and quite severe.

Men would be traveling with their families and carrying along all their household goods, farming utensils, and stock. When they arrived at some pre-determined point on the river, they would land and unload their commodities and stock to prepare for the arduous journey across land and through the wilderness. There would be a frontiersman to guide them.

They would travel with all their effects on pack horses or on their own backs. The women and children were also walking the entire journey from the river landing to their destined homes. Think about it—they had a plan to follow, and follow it they must at the peril of their lives. These trips were not just mere Sunday drives. They were well planned and executed, with help along the way. But nevertheless, individuals were still lost in the river, some became sick and died on the crude boats, and many were killed and captured by the roving bands who were also traveling in the area.

Was your family selling the travel plan? Were they part of a group following the plan? Or was your ancestor the leader who led the colony through the wilderness to their newly planned home? There are records of all these peoples, though sometimes hard to find. But once you have the history and culture in your knowledge base, you will find it much easier to research these families.

Example Three: Cane River Creole National Historical Park.
This national park unit is surrounded by an historic atmosphere in the gateway communities of the Natchitoches area. One spot you don’t want to miss is the Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. It was built in 1796, and shares the story of slave Marie Thérèse Coincoin and her 10 Franco-African children with Thomas Pierre Metoyer, as well as the Isle Brevelle Creole community, the Civil War, plantation history, and Louisiana folk art.

The Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches owns and is further restoring this plantation that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Located just 15 miles south of Natchitoches, the oldest city in the state of Louisiana, the plantation is near the Cane River Creole National Historical Park, is part of the Cane River National Heritage Area, and is on the Cane River National Heritage Trail, a Louisiana scenic byway. The property features nine historic structures dating back to the early 1800s. African House, which was totally rehabilitated in 2016, has received the honor of being named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Example Four: Donner Memorial State Park.
While I was yet a young girl, my grandmother would tell me stories of her mother sailing from Scotland to America, walking across the plains and the great prairies of America, to settle in the West. I would imagine it was me walking and picking up scraps of wood and buffalo chips, holding them in my apron, so we could make a fire for dinner each night.

As I grew older, our family took many trips to see the trail that crossed near our home.  When I learned that the Donner party had crossed the mountains near my home—before the Utah Pioneers came, I began to search in earnest for details on these people. I learned they spent many days blazing the trail near my home and how it delayed them in getting to California. I collected books and news articles and became acquainted with them by name.

When I visited Donner Memorial State Park I was overcome with sadness at the hardships they had endured crossing my homeland, and then getting stuck here, so close to their destination. I often wondered why I was so drawn to this story of sadness in American history. A friend once told me, “You are probably related to one of the party.” Surely, I was not! I knew my family history and did not have any family members who could be candidates for that group.

Fast forward to 2018. After additional research, I discovered my fifth great-grandmother, Elizabeth Gilpin, had some half-siblings. Her mother, my sixth great-grandmother, had married a second time and had more children. One of those children, a daughter Lavina, was the very same Mrs. Murphy who traveled with the Donner Party. She was my aunt. Because of the Donner Memorial State Park and the preservation of history, we have a larger understanding of life in the 1840s and the great migration frenzy that enveloped the country at that time.

As we begin to collect ancestral information, we discover that some of our ancestors disappear from the records. But remember, there are records that may not mention your ancestors which can be valuable in reconstructing event that affected your ancestors’ lives. These records assist in pointing you to new or different areas where records about your family may be found.

Learning about and beginning to understand the cultural and historical context of your ancestors can help resolve end-of-line or “brick wall” problems in your research. With a background in identifying and understanding migration patterns, a genealogical researcher increases their perspective and makes it possible to locate additional records for research. Ignoring history and culture is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. I encourage you to use the resources available through our many parks and their feeder communities. You will be amazed at what you learn!

Holly T. Hansen aka “Miss Holly GenTeacher,” is the President and Founder of Family History Expos, Inc, and as an author, lecturer, editor, and publisher, has been instrumental in helping thousands understand the principles, strategies, and sources they can use to trace their roots in today’s ever-changing technological environment. She is the mastermind behind more than 50 Family History Expos held across the United States, and is dedicated to helping individuals and families, one-on-one, with their personal research needs. Currently, she is involved creating podcasts, webinars, and video presentations to help people move forward in their family history endeavors from the comforts of home.


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