Traveling to Ancestral Homelands: Destination Belgium

Traveling to Ancestral Homelands

Nothing compares to the experience of visiting ancestral homelands. Whether to a small town in Pennsylvania or a village in the British Isles, the trip will change you forever. Standing in the places in which your ancestors lived, breathing the same air, seeing the views they awoke to every day, connects you to your forebears in a way that nothing else can. If you are fortunate enough to also get a taste of the culture and the history of the place, they suddenly come alive. You can almost see them plowing the field as you look out across the checkered landscape, or emerging from a coal mine at the end of the day covered in soot, or preparing the family meal over the home fire. You will be deeply moved.

Some people travel to do original source research. But not everyone. There is value in visiting the places your ancestors lived, even if you don’t visit a courthouse, a library, or an archive while you are there. More and more people across the globe cite historical, cultural, or genealogical reasons for travel. One of the common themes of this blog will be to highlight the experiences of different people with different motivations for visiting ancestral homelands.

Research Trip

This article discusses a trip made by my mother- and father-in-law which had research as the primary motivation. But in the end the experience was worth at least as much as the records they found and the photocopies they came back with.

It is written in the first person from the perspective of my mother-in-law, Ruthanne Thompson. The images have all come from Google Maps and Google Street View. These images have enhanced the story for those of us that did not or could not travel with them. They are a kind of Virtual Tour to be shared by all.

Ruthanne (Day) Thompson was born in Indiana as were her parents, grandparents, and all but one of her great-grandparents. She has been doing genealogy for over 40 years.

In Search of Elizabeth Jacques

The family story was that Elizabeth Jacques (my 2nd great-grandmother) was French. No one knew where she was born or where she had lived in France. Using census records, I located her as a 9-year-old daughter in 1850 in Harrison County, Indiana. I also learned that her parents were Pierre and Marie Jacques. Like so many discoveries, it led to more questions.

I continued my research and after much effort, I located Pierre’s tombstone in that county. I knew I had to go see it. Fortunately it was only a few hours drive from my home. And there – on the tombstone – it said- “nee Sommethonne.” I now had a birthplace! However, I did not know where Sommethonne was. This was before the Internet and I had to use atlases and gazetteers from the library to locate the town.

Believing that they were from France delayed things a bit. Then, after much searching and a few miracles, I found Sommethonne in southern Belgium – French Belgium. Oh, how I wanted to go there!!

Sommethonne, Belgium, near the French border

Sommethonne, Belgium, near the border with France and Luxembourg

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Satellite view of modern day Sommethonne.

Travel to Sommethonne, Belgium

Quite a few years later, in 1988, I did get to go there.  Sommethonne is a very small village about ½ mile from the French border. As you drive to it, the road gets smaller and smaller, until you are finally on a dirt road driving through a small village of row houses. [Editor’s Note: Based on the photos it appears that it has since been paved.]

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Entering Belgium from France. Less than a kilometer to Sommethonne.

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The tiny village of Sommethonne, Belgium was merged with Meix-devant-Virton in 1977 as part of a general consolidation of municipalities in Belgium. CLICK TO EXPLORE STREET VIEW.

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Row houses entering Sommethonne

We had only 24 hours to spend in Sommethonne and we did not speak French. After a while we finally located someone who could speak English. We communicated that we were from America and had come searching records about the Jacques family that had emigrated to America.

She took us to her home – where her father had all the records of the village!! We could not believe it. She then agreed to go with us to the nearest copy machine – 30 miles away – and we made copies of the village records. I never expected to be able to bring copies of all the records home with us! What a MIRACLE!!

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Village Church

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Back of the village Church

They took us to the cemetery on the hill, where many Jacques and their relatives were buried.  We also visited the Catholic Church where there were more records of the Jacques.

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Entrance to the cemetery on the top of the hill

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View of Sommethonne from the north. Notice the John Deere tractor.

Family Connections

In the 24 hours that we were there, we met many Jacques families. As they told their stories – of the Jacques relatives who had gone to America – we knew we were COUSINS! They fed us rabbit and the national food of Belgium – french fries. They were so proud of their Mickey Mouse shirts and John Deere tractor! And they were proud to be my cousins!

It was so fabulous to be in that village. I fell in love with the people; they are my people! Someday I want to return to the very special village of Sommethonne!

Lasting Impact

Traveling to ancestral homelands can be a profound experience. In this experience Ruthanne and her husband found the records they were seeking, but they also found a part of themselves. I believe this is why many people engage in genealogy research in the first place – to better understand themselves.

Despite a language barrier, they found things in common that bound them together. This cultural awareness and discovery is often listed as a reason for international travel. It is also something that motivates family historians. The more we learn about others, the better we understand ourselves. Pack your bags and plan your next trip!

Please share your experience traveling to ancestral homelands in a comment below.

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2 Comments

  1. Sharon Saviane

    Reply

    Earlier this year I travelled with my 83 year old mother to her ancestral home, it was the first time she had been back since she left at the age of 21. She instigated the trip but not to see the places where she and her ancestors lived but to do the sightseeing thing and see a side of the country she was never allowed to see. The place we visited, India.
    Mum was about the fourth generation born in India and as her family where of British heritage they lived a very cosseted live. She truly enjoyed the experience of our trip and I was glad I was there to witness it. Although we did not to any ancestory research while in India I better understand the up bringing my mother and her ancestors had and will continue researching my family with the memories of my trip and the places my mother grew up fresh in my mind. I hope to one day return to a country that has stolen my heart ❤️

    • Reply

      Sharon, thanks so much for sharing! I just watched an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are” in which they traveled back to India. The subject of the episode is Scottish and always heard that his mother’s side was Irish. Turned out they mostly were but they had served in the British Army in India during the uprising in the 1850s. He later found out that his 4th-great-grandmother was Indian.

      What a beautiful country, and what an incredible opportunity you had to visit! I also love that the trip was meaningful even though you didn’t do any research while you were there.

      Thanks again for sharing with us.

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