Business Culture Opinion

Explore Heritage Travel: The Ancestor Pester

In about 1840, Colonel Sanford Faulkner supposedly got lost in rural Arkansas and had to ask for directions to a log house. Once there, a squatter was playing the tune the “Arkansas Traveler” on the fiddle. Variations of the Traveler legend became part of the state’s treasured lore.

Today, the Gen-X and Baby Boomer Arkansan is often traveling and “getting lost” as well. We now can pursue heritage tourism and genealogy travel with the family combined in a way the Traveler could not.

Among other differences, technology: we have videos to show us where we’re going. Jonesboro native and longtime Arkansas filmmaker Gary Jones understands. As a heritage studies graduate from Arkansas State who’s a Little Rock resident, he describes the phenomenon from a travel/videography/heritage perspective:

“For decades, I have had the privilege and opportunity of photographing Arkansas’ scenic areas and historic sites,” Jones says.  “Tourism is the second-largest industry in the state, and heritage/genealogy tourism is one of the fastest-growing segments of that business. We Baby-Boomers like to explore history and learn about our family’s past.” Jones’ videos covering places statewide (and elsewhere) are here.

Exploring heritage and family is better if we understand the ways to undertake such travel in the state – and beyond – in pursuit of our rich past while also having fun. It allows us to engage younger family members earlier, too.  It’s part of the “ancestor pester” brought on by the explosion in DNA research and interest in ancestry sites online.

As author Ariel Dorfman wrote in Darwin’s Ghosts, “Each human contains within himself, within herself, all their ancestors, a trove of what was seen and heard and smelled and touched, residues of certain experiences that drastically impress them, pressed into them, expressed who they were.”

The Triangle Process

Think of the genealogy travel process as like a triangle. Visiting the rural and urban locations of ancestors first, their nearby heritage tourism sites second, and libraries and archives that contain undiscovered information third produces an excellent customized vacation.

The “triangle surprises” also are worthy: unexpectedly meeting “new” cousins and other relatives face-to-face enables us to share critical human connections. Will you and your family organize an authentic journey to see ancestor places and context as summer continues? Here’s how, whether in Arkansas or outside it.

Preparation Tips

Pre-trip planning pays off. To streamline your time, investigate the family’s personal history in the desired travel areas. Get a tech-savvy teenager to plot the family sites (homes, schools, churches, businesses, cemeteries) using Google Maps before leaving: that helps save valuable time once locations are reached if your “boots on the ground” schedule is limited. (TIP: Build in time for mistakes. Misdirections often happen, and addresses change; experiences can take longer than planned.)

Add to your family history contextual information by visiting heritage tourism sites in ancestor locations. (If you have Fort Smith family history, you’d want to visit places such as the Fort Smith Museum of History as well as the more “communal” restored Miss Laura’s Social Club, where female companionship was, well, historically easy to come by.)  Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and the Department of Arkansas Heritage websites provide good information about Arkansas places.

A research must if you’re serious about ancestors: explore online the resources available at local libraries, historical societies, churches, cemeteries, and archives ahead of time; don’t arrive when facilities are closed or waste time seeking information that is unavailable. Contact facilities before travel begins to make inquiries; many historical societies, churches, and libraries have limited hours and are staffed by volunteers. 

Putting It All Together: An Example

Family history buff Gwen Green of Little Rock works at UALR. She’s visited Historic Washington State Park, Civil War battlefields in southwest Arkansas, and state parks, cemeteries, and research facilities in Lawrence County and northeast Arkansas.

Like Gwen, your family may have history to explore in the Arkansas Delta. Luckily for families investigating the state’s history and culture, Arkansas State has taken the lead in heritage studies in Arkansas. The University’s Heritage Sites office administers Arkansas Delta Byways, a promotion association serving 15 counties in eastern Arkansas.

At its web site, you can learn about the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, the Piggott site where Ernest Hemingway wrote “A Farewell to Arms,” The Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center, The Lakeport Museum and others.

Filmmaker Gary Jones notes that “the Delta Cultural Center in Helena gives visitors the background for multiple reasons to feel the history that was made on the streets and at the river front in this town steeped in Arkansas history.”

In eastern Arkansas, tourists-turned-researchers can also visit the Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives (NEARA) in Powhatan State Park in Lawrence County, as Gwen did. The research branch serves a 16-county region.

Post-Travel Synthesis

When returning from heritage travel, remember to arrange critical information/artifacts. We simply want to savor them, share our photos, and reflect on ancestors’ journeys. But taking the time soon after travel to organize/identify our photos, new information and memories that are part of our own life experiences greatly enhance family research. They also should be catalogued fully in behalf of others who may explore them 50-100 years hence.

As Gwen Green says, “Even when no structures remain, visiting the places of my ancestors, including their final resting places, inspires me to continue digging into my family history.”

No film can bring most of our individual immigrants’ and other early ancestors’ images back to us. Through Arkansas travel adventures and research, though, we reclaim our forebears’ passion for living. We immerse ourselves in details of their environments as a filmmaker might. As Jared Anderson wrote in a hymn, we thus “breathe life into these dry and thirsty souls” once again.


Jeanne Rollberg is a genealogist with American Dream Genealogy and Research who is
also on the boards of the Friends of the Arkansas State Archives and the Arkansas Genealogical Society. She teaches genealogy classes at LifeQuest of Arkansas.

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