Virtuoso Traveler 2019 April Real Traveler Stories: Finding Your Roots

Real Traveler Stories: Finding Your Roots

A family dinner in Italy. 
A family dinner in Italy. 
Photo by Simon Pilolla
Get back to your roots on genealogical trips that trace your family tree or heritage-themed journeys that cultivate cultural ties.

Finding a Father in Ukraine 

Andie Pope was only 22 when her father, a U.S. immigrant from Ukraine, died.  He had, as far as she knew, no living relatives. But she did have his stories about his homeland and how he fled his country during World War II in the dead of night.

“My father was a great storyteller and loved to tell stories about his life and his history,” says Pope, who lives in Prescott, Arizona. “Turns out, they were true.”

Proof came in the form of research by genealogist Megan Smolenyak, of the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?, and a trip Pope took in 2017 with her sister and husband to Ukraine, arranged by Marion Hager, her Scottsdale- based Virtuoso advisor.

Through Smolenyak, Pope and her sister learned that their father, who lived on the family farm with his mother before 1942, had likely been active in the Ukrainian national liberation movement, seeking independence for his country, and that the Soviets considered him a criminal. Before they could arrest him, he escaped. Fearing she would slow her son down, his mother refused to accompany him and was later imprisoned, dying in a Soviet labor camp.

Based on this research, Hager recommended a small group tour visiting
the countries of Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. She then arranged a side trip to the sisters’ ancestral village of Kupichiv, where they connected with the local mayor- cum-genealogist.

With the mayor’s help, the sisters met a neighbor of their father, along with distant cousins who had known of him and even had pictures of him as a young man. Though his farmhouse didn’t survive the war, they saw where it had stood. They visited a cemetery where many in Pope’s family were buried, and the church where her father was baptized, all before rejoining their group tour.

“I previously saw my father as kind of a solitary figure,” says Pope, who gained a sense of him as part of an extended family and community. “I got to know him better through this trip and felt more of a connection to him too.”

Claiming a Clan in Scotland

More than 20 years ago, Mike Campbell of Carrollton, Georgia, set out to trace his forebears, starting with his great-grandfather, Thomas Porter Campbell, who, at the time of the 1840 U.S. census, was living in Paulding County, Georgia. His search led him to kin on two continents and a family history that reaches back to 1066.  

He worked with relatives – affectionately known as the “Campbell Cousins Research Group” – backtracking from his great-grandfather to a Scottish ancestor who emigrated to colonial Maryland in 1750. In 2009, he engaged Atlanta-based Virtuoso advisor Claire Schoeder to design a roots-research trip to fill in the blanks.

“Claire had been to Scotland. She was also a realist, and I didn’t know what I was looking for,” Campbell says. “She had so much insight about the country,” he adds, and equally important, she was able to ask key questions about how Campbell wanted to travel. For example, he says, “Did I want to see it from the road or go out and walk among the people?”

“It’s not only what you know, but who you know,” says Schoeder, who has also assisted travelers tracing family roots in France, Germany, Italy, England, and Ireland. “One of the benefits of being a Virtuoso travel advisor is that we have so many local connections across the globe,” she notes. “I’ve been able to work with them to help clients locate places or people they’ve learned about in their research.”

On his trip to Scotland, she based Campbell in seaside Oban and pointed him to ancestral sites that included the Kilmun Parish Church and its Argyll Mausoleum, burial place for Clan Campbell of Argyll since the fifteenth century. She also encouraged him to chat with residents, and, as luck would have it, one conversation in a bookstore led to more family information.

Now Campbell can trace his roots to the 1066 Norman Invasion: His family name may have come from a French word for “crooked smile.” He’s presently working on creating his own family flag.

“When you achieve a certain stature of having your own arms or heraldry, you can put that feather in your cap,” he says. “I want a feather in my cap.”

Ireland is a popular choice for genealogy trips. 
Ireland is a popular choice for genealogy trips. 
Photo by Mammuth/Getty Images 

Seeing Japan through a Family Lens 

"It’s important to know where you come from to know where you’re going," says James MacPherson Ferguson, a Virtuoso advisor from Dana Point, California, who enjoys helping clients learn about their ethnic backgrounds.

Ferguson comes by his interest in genealogy naturally. His Scotland-born father helped build the original Queen Mary before the family emigrated to Canada, and Ferguson can trace a connection to the famed conservationist John Muir.

He recently created a trip for a Japanese American family who wanted to explore their heritage in the Land of the Rising Sun. The grandparents in the multigenerational clan of six wanted to ensure that they all understood the cultural traditions of where they came from. In Tokyo, Ferguson worked with
the Aman Tokyo hotel to arrange a private lesson in iaido, a sixteenth-century martial art and etiquette practice of Japanese samurai warriors. In Kyoto, he organized a meeting with a local samurai sword maker, who crafted a family blade that now hangs in the grandparents’ home.

“Part of the excitement of discovery is reliving the past,” says Ferguson. “It’s kind of like time travel.”

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