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Travel to Discover Your Family Heritage

Dave Bernard

Earlier this month, Census Bureau data from the post-depression period was made publicly available for the first time in 72 years. Personal records of 132 million Americans who participated in the 1940 census can now be accessed online.

You can now peruse records for every home in the country and find out who lived where, what they did, and where they came from. For those documenting family history, there is a glorious amount of information. And the online archive is also a great starting point for people curious about the lives lived by parents and grandparents.

To give you an idea of how much things have changed, back in 1940, the most populous state was New York, which had more than 13 million residents. In 2010, California has taken the lead with over 37 million people filling its borders, and pushing New York down to number three.

With all of this newly released information at our fingertips, it is an ideal time to do some digging. And what we find could be the impetus for a bit of travel to locations previously not considered.

Suppose you find where your grandparents lived in 1940. Wouldn't it be interesting to explore the spot 72 years later? Additional research can provide you with photographs and drawings of what the area looked like back then, and help you pinpoint the churches, post offices, libraries, schools, and local markets they used. Armed with a trusty map, a journey to the old homestead can be a history lesson for younger family members and perhaps even a nostalgic moment.

Expect big changes along the way. Many sites probably look nothing like they did when your ancestors stood in the same spots decades ago. My father took my mother back to North Dakota in an attempt to locate the farm he was raised on back in the 30s and 40s. It took a while to find the area because 70 years of change altered many places my dad remembered. But the journey was half the fun. Eventually they found that the familiar fields were replaced by highways. But, along the way, they also got a chance to relive some fond memories at his old high school.

Maybe in your searches into your family history you will discover where your parents first met, went on their first date, or planned their wedding. Searching for the locations of proposals, weddings, first dates, and special events of all kinds can add to the fun of your trip.

We have a family tree on my father's side that goes back to 1640 and places our ancestors as fur trappers in Quebec, Canada. My father has traveled there to investigate graveyards in various areas in search of more ancient relatives and to take in the countryside that was once home to his great-great-great grandfather. As is the case with most locations, the many quaint towns and shops and their friendly inhabitants add to the ambiance and enhance the experience. Your retirement travels can feel more meaningful when the destination holds personal significance far beyond just a spot on the map.

Dave Bernard is not yet retired but has begun his due diligence to plan for a fulfilling retirement. With a focus on the non-financial aspects of retiring, he shares his discoveries and insights on his blog Retirement-Only the Beginning.

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