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Travel to Your Past
by Edith Wagner

Normally my reunion articles focus on how to plan or what to do at your reunion. In this column, however, I'll take a look at an area of the world rich in genealogical resources. If some of your reunion group can travel overseas, you'll have opportunities to do some research and also to visit the streets and lanes where your ancestors walked.

Tracing Your Overseas Roots

Many millions of North Americans are exploring the genealogy of their families. And at some point, most research points abroad. From which port did they begin their journey to North America? Much immigration information is available and how you access it is up to you, but visiting the actual archives overseas to see for yourself adds a whole new dimension to how your family, as you know it, began their journey. Did they debark from Southampton in England? or from Le Havre in France? These are two port cities with growing exhibits and information that helps reconstruct the travels of your ancestors.

Looking for ancestors is great fun and can lead to a diversity of activities. You will meet fascinating people, visit historic places and may even make lasting friends. There are national collections in vast record offices in capital cities, but you may also find treasures in small libraries or individual church record books and archives. The contents of these repositories range from parchment rolls, large charters with wax seals, books, paper files and computer data to microfilms. There's often help at hand from qualified staff.

April 28, 1999

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Reunion Locations Worth Dreaming About

I've made a wonderful discovery for families who dream of following in the footsteps and trails of ancestors. Project ECHO (Exporting Cultural Heritage Overseas), supported by the European Union, is a new European initiative aimed at promoting tourism to parts of England, France and Holland that have strong, distinctive historical ties with North America.

For the millions of North Americans descended from ancestors who lived in coastal England and France, for those millions whose ancestors set sail for the New World from Southampton, Cherbourg, or Le Havre, much awaits your curiosity in Southern England, Northern France and Flevoland (Holland). If one of these areas was important to your family's history, make the most of it!

Hope for a bright future drew millions of Europeans from poverty or persecution to a fresh start in the New World starting with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620. Your imagination comes alive when you walk the same paths and breath air from the same space as ancestors who debarked for their New World lives. The sacrifice and challenges are not forgotten.

The lives of your ancestors are easier to understand in the wonderful museums in these areas of England, France, and Holland. These museums are full of life — the lives of those who lived it. Activities and exhibits are engaging. High-tech plays an important role in telling history; computer enhancements and interactive displays abound. Hands-on involvement clearly engages younger generations and helps build an interest in history.

If you travel off-season, you'll have the pleasure of being surrounded everywhere you go by school children who are enormously fascinated at the many examples of living history. Children climbing about the planes at the Hall of Aviation in Southampton, exploring history in a Victorian kitchen at the Poole Museum or eager to look at exquisite ship models at the Vauban Docks in Le Havre Perhaps most notable are the hundreds of students of all ages who blanketed the wonderfully interactive and stirring Memorial to Peace in Caen, France. These are wonderful places for your children to visit, too.


Searching for ancestors from these areas?

The Portsmouth Records Office maintains city archives back to the 14th century while Southampton's City Archives and Central Library, Poole Central Library and Bournemouth Reference Library all offer public access to records. The EnglandGenWeb offers a guide to local reference centers, listings for Parish and Census Records and links to other English Genealogy Web sites.

Le Havre and Cherbourg offer research facilities with English-speaking staff at their municipal archives and libraries. The French National Archives are in Paris. Francêtres is a bilingual (French/English) Web site that accesses archive records and links to regional genealogical societies.

What to Do When You Get There

Southern England

Portsmouth offers an extensive maritime history museum with a rich collection of historic ships you can explore. Of particular note is the recently raised Mary Rose, a four-masted flagship built in 1509 and sunk in 1545. At Portsmouth's D-day museum you'll see the breathtaking Overlord Embroidery which commemorates the city's role as the main assembly point for the D-day invasion, Operation Overlord. This hand-stitched masterpiece took 20 embroiderers and five apprentices over five years to complete.

Southampton enjoys a strategic maritime location and was the departure point the Pilgrim fathers took in 1620 on the Mayflower. Southampton also bid farewell at the maiden voyages of the Titanic and Queen Mary and on D-Day saw five million individuals passing through beginning June 6, 1944. Southampton's Titanic Trail, a timely touch, helps add to the fabric of understanding the true personal tragedy of hundreds of families. Visit the Grapes Inn where some of the Titanic crew drank before their journey. The trail starts in Southampton and continues in Cherbourg before its fateful final departure.


Visiting museums and walking streets where your ancestors have been can be a rewarding experience — and that much better if you can bring a whole family group along!

Nearby Bournemouth is a special seaside resort town, popular with tourists from around the world. Entertainment, shopping and recreational activities abound. During World War II, Bournemouth was a popular military furlough destination. The building that housed Red Cross headquarters during the war is now the lovely Marsham Court Hotel with a priceless view of the strand.

Poole is an ancient seaport whose circumference makes it the second largest harbor in the world. It was also the second largest embarkation point for U.S. troops in 1944. The Waterfront Museum tells a fascinating tale of the town's and port's history, and has a touch of high-technology to its exhibits. A pleasant four-hour ferry trip connects Poole, England, to Cherbourg, France.

Northern France

The Normandy Web site links to all of the French cities listed below.

Cherbourg is dominated by the Liberation Museum (Musée de la Liberation) high atop this city, which also features a bustling working and pleasure boat harbor. Cherbourg is a departure point for tours of Normandy, and particularly to Utah, Omaha, Sword, Juno and Gold beaches. Along the way, a visit to the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer is a moving experience for any patriotic American.

In Caen, The Memorial to Peace is an absolute must-see in an area that both understands the horror of war and the pursuit of peace with Americans (proudly) often pictured as at the forefront of making peace a reality.

Le Havre, located on the Northern bank of the Seine River, has a long history as a military and commercial port founded in 1517. Its Port Centre Vauban Docks offers a fascinating panorama of 150 years of maritime history and trading out of Le Havre, including restored traders' houses. The city is also home to an exciting new art museum with an impressive collection of Impressionist art.

Additional Tourism Information

To get a copy of Europe's Best Kept Secret, a brochure about this area, call the British Tourism Authority, 800-462-2748 or the Western France Tourist Board, 202-659-7779.

On the web at Echo Cultural project; you will find links to all areas mentioned in this article. Also try these web sites: Southern England, British Tourist Authority, and Official Holland Site.


Millennium reunions are exploding! To find help and special offers to aid your organizing, visit

I would also like to recommend some excellent guides whom, if you can retain them, will make your tour extra-special. In England, David Parker, 1 The Armoury, Clock Tower Dr., Southsea PO4 9XT, England; phone and fax 011441705-737612. In France, Marie Leone Brecy, Grainville, 50310 Fresville, France; phone 01133 233411049; e-mail or

Also, if you're lucky, you'll encounter the "angel" of The Airborne Museum in Ste. Mère Eglise, Monsieur L. Ph. Jutras, an American who returned to France and reunited with a wartime love after both were widowed.

About the Author

Edith Wagner is the editor of Reunions magazine, author of Reunions Workbook and Catalog and The Family Reunion Sourcebook (Lowell House, Los Angeles) in bookstores now. She collects material for this column and Reunions magazine from family reunions and invites you to share your reunion ideas, concerns or questions. You can e-mail Wagner at or visit the Reunions magazine Web site.
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