Our next stop, the National Archives, is located a few blocks away and has also been rejiggered in recent years to accommodate an increasing number of amateur genealogists. "Before, people were coming in and floundering in their research," says Paul Gorry, one of the experts on staff. So they created a room where researchers can consult with an expert like Paul for free. (The National Library offers the same service, which functions a bit like a meat counter: If it's crowded, you take a number and wait in line.) We find some Youngs in early tax records and in the Muster Rolls, a handwritten roster of able-bodied men and their weapons dating from 1630.
The next morning, after a lavish complimentary breakfast that includes a small bottle of Jameson meant to give the oatmeal a kick, we set off for Donegal. In addition to a rental car, our package includes nightly vouchers for a network of 1,000 B&Bs, which can be booked in advance or by showing up and winging it, for those unsure of where their investigations will lead.
I ride white-knuckled for the two-hour trip from Dublin to Galway as my mother gets the hang of our eco-friendly stop-start car, but eventually we start to relax and take in the fuzzy brown cows, riotous stands of hot-pink flowers, and signs for romantic real estate opportunities, including "4 acres and a derelict cottage." We redeem our first voucher in Donegal, where we meet Oliver and Tasma, then head out in the morning for some field work.
Along with searching for our own family, I wanted to know what it feels like to push off from a homeland into the unknown, so I reserved spots on a two-hour, $25 cruise out to Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe. Out on the water, the sun is shining, the boat is bumping along the top of the current, and the whole thing's feeling very sporting, like a Kennedy's Cape Cod afternoon—except for one detail that pegs us to the motherland. The white dots scattered across the sides of the precipitous peaks like cupcake toppers are, in fact, sheep grazing at an 80-degree angle. "We breed our sheep with Velcro," says Paddy Byrne, the boat's skipper, "and to have their right legs shorter than their left."
Just across the border in Omagh, Northern Ireland, the Ulster American Folk Park offers a less carefree perspective: a first-hand experience of rural life in Ireland and what it felt like to cross the Atlantic and arrive in the U.S. without cash, connections-or the faintest idea of how to cook corn, beans, and squash. A living history museum dedicated entirely to the topic of Irish-American immigration, the park is tailor-made for genealogists, with its lively historical interpreters, a life-size passenger ship where whole families would cram into a single wooden bunk for the 10-to-12-week voyage, and the specialized library at the on-site Centre for Migration Studies.
We spend the better part of an afternoon on the park's wooded paths and touring cozy 18th- and 19th-century cottages. It's one thing to study records and gravestones, but it's much more transporting to sit in front of a turf fire in a thatched roof hut from the 1700s. After the instant gratification of the Folk Park, traipsing around graveyards in County Donegal for the next few days is almost a letdown. My mom and I visit the parish listed on the gravestone, but neither of us feels chills. We do make friends along the way with a Presbyterian church clerk—himself a distant relative of our 15th president, James Buchanan—who welcomes us into his home and lets us page through the beautifully bound marriage registers with marbled endpapers that he's been entrusted with. (As pub-hopping tourists, we never would have crossed paths.) Over Irish coffees to raise our spirits (so to speak), my mom suggests we swing by another parish we came across in our research. Less than a quarter-mile from our destination, she stops to ask a farmer for directions and comes back to the car beaming. We've reached an area called Five Roads Ends. My mother grew up near a five-corner intersection in South Williamstown, Mass., that locals called Five Corners. Coincidence or synchronicity—my mother swears the farmer called this place Five Corners as well—we've found our connection across 300 years.
My mother looks around, giddy, and when we arrive at the church she peers into the windows like Nancy Drew. "This is it—they re-created what they had here in the New World," she says. In fact, this area really does look like the Berkshires, with purple mountains, rolling fields, and big, old trees—whereas most of the Irish countryside we've seen has been cleared for pasture. We may not have found any living relatives, but we've found what we were looking for—a bridge to our past. "I'm really glad we came here," she says, hugging me, "because there were moments when I thought this might be a bunch of crap." I laugh. Sure, finding a patch of earth that we feel connected to has strengthened our ties to Ireland—but also to each other.
Your ancestors' journey to America was likely long and difficult. The trip back to the homeland doesn't have to be.
African genealogy research carries a unique challenge: Slaves were often poorly documented in their homeland. Palace Travel's Discover Senegal package helps families explore their heritage in Senegal and visit sights such as Goree Island, a point of departure for American-bound slaves. palacetravel.com; seven days with hotels, some meals, entrance fees to major sights, and guide from $1,690/person; separate airfare from New York to Dakar from $1,130.
A vast landscape, documents written in Chinese characters, villages renamed after land reassignments-ancestral research in China isn't for the faint of heart. Try Siyi Genealogy (siyigenealogy.proboards.com), which arranges transportation with English-speaking guides from local tour agencies. Explore China Tours also offers customizable trips. explorechinatours.com, five days with hotels, meals, and transport from $556 per person; separate airfare from New York to Guangzhou from $1,000.
The Pallante Center for Italian Research is one of many companies offering professional genealogical research (pallantecenter.wordpress.com), while regional companies like The Italian Side arrange package trips. italianside.com, seven nights with all transfers, activities, hotels, tastings, three lunches and five dinners, from $1,300 per person; separate airfare from New York to Naples from $940.
Compared to countries with foreign languages, England sounds like an easy place to do research. But tracking down family information in county records offices can be daunting. Genealogical researcher Jenny Potter will do it for you, then spend a day driving you to your ancestors' birthplace. expertgenealogy.com, $30/hour for research, $235/day for an all-day excursion; separate airfare from New York to London from $785.
JewishGen (jewishgen.org), an affiliate of New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage, is a great resource. In particular, for those descended from Russian Jews, the Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus offers packages that include research and take you to homes, cemeteries, and synagogues. jhrgbelarus.org, transportation and guide from $350 per day for four people; separate airfare from New York to Minsk from $800.
We can pretty much guarantee that at least one of these beautiful, inviting cities is just a drive away. America's surprising state capitals are a truly varied bunch of burghs, but they have a few awesome things in common, including great cuisine, art, history, and four seasons of outdoor activities.