Ready to trace your family roots? Keep your passport handy

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CHRIS HALEY THOUGHT he had nothing left to learn about his family tree. “Genealogy has always been my first love,” says Haley, an archivist with the state of Maryland.

Besides, his uncle Alex — that would be the late Alex Haley — traced the family back to African slave Kunta Kinte and recounted the tale in his best-selling novel, Roots. The saga became a hit 1977 television miniseries that produced an explosion of interest in genealogy.

So when a friend convinced him to take a DNA test through Ancestry.com, Haley shrugged and swabbed his cheek, expecting no surprises. Months later, he learned his genetic profile closely matched someone named Baff in Wales. “I always knew I had a European ancestor,” says Haley. In his novel Queen, Alex Haley mentioned an ancestor descended from William Baugh (a variation of Baff ), a Scottish overseer on an Alabama plantation who fathered a child by a female slave. “Still, I never expected that genetic proof would substantiate the oral history,” Chris Haley adds.

Haley started e-mailing his new cousin, June Baff-Black, who had submitted her father’s DNA sample to Ancestry.com. After a couple of e-mail exchanges discussing their shared interests in theater, the arts and genealogy, Haley announced that he was Alex Haley’s nephew — “you know, the guy who wrote Roots and got millions of people interested in family history,” he says. From their first phone call, the pair shared a warm rapport, and a few days later, Haley flew to London to meet his new cousin and her family. “If I walked past June, I never would have thought I was related to this lady and her redheaded son,” says Haley. “But we all got along like long-lost sisters and brothers. Meeting her is one of the highlights of my life.”

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Roots fever has gotten a big boost from the prime-time NBC show Who Do You Think You Are? that follows celebrities as they travel the globe researching their family trees. The first season featured Sarah Jessica Parker, Brooke Shields, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Broderick, Susan Sarandon, Spike Lee and football star Emmitt Smith. (In a similar vein, a PBS series, Faces of America, explores the ancestry of 12 famous Americans, including actors Meryl Streep, Stephen Colbert, Eva Longoria Parker, cellist expert genealogist who wrote Who Do You Think You Are?, the companion guide to the show. “If you want to know your ancestors as human beings, not just names and dates, you’ll need to look at courthouse records, wills, deeds and old newspaper obits.” Since not all documents have been scanned and digitized, family historians often travel or hire a local researcher.

A trip abroad to an ancestor’s homeland can help uncover a whole new branch of the family tree, clarify connections and eliminate erroneous names, says Ginger Aarons-Garrison, director of Time Travel tours. “I’m traveling with one woman who is looking for proof that she’s related to Grace Kelly, the actress who was of Irish descent,” says Aarons-Garrison, who specializes in Ireland and Britain. “I lay the groundwork ahead of time, contacting the churches, locating cemeteries and local experts. That saves people time and money.”

Preparation for an overseas research trip is critical, particularly for those unfamiliar with language and customs, adds James Derheim, owner of European Focus, who organizes tours in Germany and other countries. The American trait of friendly spontaneity — dropping by churches and municipal off ices unannounced to see records — doesn’t win much respect in Germany, says Derheim, who scouts clients’ trips up to a year in advance. “If you write in advance, doors are flung open, the red carpet is rolled out, and people are waiting to see you,” he says. “In some cases, local historians may have already done some research for you.”

A few years ago, Derheim arranged for his client, Lisa Fox and family, to meet with two historians and a church minister in a small German village in northern Hesse. “One of the historians started to speak excitedly because he suspected we were related,” says Macedon, N.Y.–based Fox. “I was in a tizzy, I was so excited.” When the connection was confirmed, Fox was invited to the local historian’s home for coffee and cake. Since then she has hosted members of the new branch of the family in the United States.

Haley’s newly discovered Scottish cousins have already visited him in Annapolis, Md., where he is director of the Study of the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland. “This is also where Kunta Kinte landed after he was captured and then sold to a Southern plantation owner,” says Haley. “My uncle Alex would have loved the fact that the family story has come full circle.”



ELIZABETH POPE, who is based in Portland, Maine, writes for The New York Times, AARP and other publications. A longtime genealogy addict, she has traveled many miles in search of her elusive ancestors.