January 9, 2015

Why Do Old Places Matter? Ancestors

Old places connect us to our ancestors.

Old places connect us to our ancestors and our ancestors connect us to old places, giving us a sense of belonging and identity. Whether our ancestors came through Ellis Island and lived on the Lower-East Side, traveled through the middle passage of the slave trade to a cabin in eastern North Carolina, lived here all along in pueblos and villages throughout America, or arrived on the Mayflower and lived in 18th-century mansions in Salem, Massachusetts, the old places where our ancestors lived tell us about ourselves.

There is an enormous interest in genealogy in the United States today, as we can see with the popularity of Ancestry.com, Finding Your Roots, Who Do You Think You Are, and other television and online programs and applications. People of all backgrounds are devoted to finding out who—and where—they came from, and discovering, recovering, or forging new ties between themselves and their ancestors. Ancestry.com states that, based on a poll in 2005 by Market Strategies, Inc., 73 percent of all Americans are interested in their family history.1 In searching for their family’s past, the where is important to people, and being able to experience the where is often deeply moving.

Here’s the way people describe the experience of visiting the old places where their ancestors lived, worked, worshiped, fought, died, and were buried:

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a National Trust historic site, which fosters relationships with the descendants of the people who lived there | Travis Roozee

The musician Trace Adkins, in the Civil War Trust magazine, said: “I was able to look across the battlefield and see it the way it looked when my great-great-grandfather was there. Words cannot describe what a spiritual moment that was for me, and it was only possible because of the preservation of that hallowed ground.”2

Dorothy Spruill Redford, who wrote Somerset Homecoming about her path through genealogy to Somerset Plantation, in North Carolina, wrote, “People need that, they need tangibility. They need something they can touch, that they can hold, look at, point to. Why that’s so important I don’t know, but it’s honest-to-god necessary for people to feel something with their fingers, not just with their minds. The past is that way—the house you used to live in, the tree you used to climb, the doll you used to take to bed. These are all tactile triggers that fire the emotions in a way mere memories can never do. The day I first stepped onto the ground of Somerset, I felt a tangibility more intense than all the documents and records I’d collected.”3

There has always been a strong tie between interest in genealogy and interest in historic preservation. Many people involved in early preservation efforts were motivated by the desire to preserve the places where their ancestors lived. 4 This motivation honored the achievements of those ancestors, and reinforced the strong sense of identification between people and those achievements. For example, membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution is based on a genealogical tie to someone who fought in the American Revolution, and part of the DAR’s mission is to preserve sites of American history. The DAR continues to preserve and support historic sites throughout the United States.5

Today, genealogy is appealing to people of all backgrounds, yet I don’t think the field was always as welcoming as it is today. Many may still feel that genealogy is tainted by the reality that people have used it to establish a sense of superiority over other people. For example, a descendant of someone who came over on the Mayflower might distinguish himself from someone whose ancestors came to America later, like the Germans, Irish or Eastern Europeans who came in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Like certain aspects of our preservation history, genealogy was used to distinguish and exclude people, and therefore told only a selective part of the American story. I think that’s why preservationists haven’t always felt very comfortable in recent years fostering the connections between family history and the preservation of old places. Yet the field of genealogy has changed dramatically in the years since Roots aired in 1977 and is now embraced by people of all backgrounds. It seems to me that it may be time for people who care about old places to welcome and foster the connections that family history can forge between people and old places.

A room at Ellis Island, which was the port of entry for the ancestors of many Americans | Clara Daly

I asked Brock Bierman, senior director at Ancestry.com, about the connections between people’s search for their ancestors and old places. Brock is an enthusiastic proponent of the power that genealogical research and knowledge can unlock. Here’s his take on the connection between finding your ancestors and old places: “It’s very important for you to not only know who your ancestors were, but also where your ancestors were from. Where did they come from? How did they end up where they did? People want to know the journey—the journey is as important as the family history. It gives you roots, it gives you an association with where you’re from, how you’re connected not only to your local community, but to the very country you live in, and to the society you belong to. It makes you feel very appreciative of the sacrifices they made, but also a sense of pride—that your ancestors helped build this country.” 6

Others also have noted that many of our ancestors may not have been the building owners, or the people written up in the history books, but nonetheless were the actual builders of America. The Somerset Plantation website tells the story of an elderly black gentleman visiting this plantation site, “What had been unnamed before was pride in the craftsmanship and skill his ancestors brought to the place and left there. What had been unrecognized was his tangible connection or place in the history of America: his inherent and historic value. Regardless of the circumstances under which they labored, the existence of the plantation house symbolized all that his ancestors created and at that moment in time, instantly connected him, in a culturally affirming way, to his past.”7

If people listen to what the genealogical record actually has to say, and follow that to the places of their ancestors, they can learn a far more interesting, deeper and nuanced story of their own past, and the past of America as a whole. As I’ve written about why old places matter, I’ve written about my own family’s connections to place—a log cabin in South Carolina, a frame farmhouse in North Carolina, a country Presbyterian church. These were places I knew well throughout my life. But through genealogical research, I discovered to my surprise that an early ancestor, Bartholomew Thompson, was not only a farmer, as I had assumed, but was an ironworker at a place called Vesuvius Furnace. The site of Vesuvius Furnace, and the house of the owners, still survives in Lincoln County, North Carolina. The original owners are well documented, but the workers, like my ancestor, are not. Yet this place remains as a tangible link to Bartholomew Thompson’s life—a physical, tangible, textured, 3-D document. I now feel a tie not only to that place and to Bartholomew Thompson, but to iron workers and iron furnaces everywhere.

My great-grandparents' house, now lost | Courtesy of Michael Mayes

Brock pointed me to recent studies that talk about the impact of knowing where your family is from. A study released just this September draws a correlation between interest in family history—a group defined as “family history enthusiasts”—and community involvement. The study concludes that people who explore family history—including travelling to a cemetery or church, or to a particular area specifically for the purpose of learning about their ancestors—perform more volunteer work, are more active in voting and/or public affairs, belong to more civic or veterans organizations (including preservation organizations), and contribute more to charitable causes than other people.8

But more strikingly to me, a study by Emory University in 2010 found that “[c]hildren who know stories about relatives who came before them show higher levels of emotional well-being” and "[f]amily stories provide a sense of identity through time, and help children understand who they are in the world."9 While I haven’t seen studies that specifically examine the role that old places play in these family stories, I’m struck by the similarity to the sense of identity, continuity and memory that old places play more generally in our lives. Those values show up in the way people talk about being in places where their ancestors lived, worked and died.

Earlier, when I wrote about what we learn from old places, I described a visit with Loretta Hee-McCoard, at the Kwan Tai Temple, which her ancestors built in Mendocino, California, in 1854, and that its continuing presence is testament to the fact that the Chinese were here—that Loretta Hee-McCoard’s people have been here all along. Dorothy Redford from Somerset emphasizes the same idea. “The need to belong. That’s what this was all about. Not just my need, but the need of our entire people, whose destiny was out of our hands for so long, and who are still struggling to shape our identity, our sense of place in a society that was not of our making.”10

Old places that connect us to our ancestors provide an exceptional experience for people—an experience that is deeply beneficial. The Petersburg Battlefield National Park website says, “The most important aspect of a National Park Service site is the ‘power of place.’ This manifests itself at Petersburg National Battlefield in visitors asking about where their ancestor may have stood, fought, and/or died. There is no substitute for the emotions of a connection made across 150 years while walking over the same hallowed ground.”11

I hope everyone has the experience of journeying to places where their ancestors lived, worked, built, and died. Think about the power that might be unleashed by reconnecting old places with people searching for their ancestors, and if you have stories you’d like to share about this experience, I’d love to hear them.


  1. Americans' Fascination with Family History is Rapidly Growing. Accessed December 22, 2014.
  2. Trace Adkins Forges Links to the Past,” Hallowed Ground Magazine, Summer 2013. Accessed July 12, 2023.
  3. Redford, Dorothy Spruill, Somerset Homecoming, Recovering a Lost Heritage, New York: Doubleday, 1988, 209-210.
  4. Weyeneth, Robert R., “Ancestral Architecture,” Giving Preservation a History, ed. Max Page and Randall Mason. Routledge New York and London: 2004, 275.
  5. DAR website Accessed July 12, 2023.
  6. Interview with author, Dec. 19, 2014.
  7. Somerset Homecomings. Accessed December 6, 2014.
  8. Odum Institute for Research in Social Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Family History Research and Community Involvement” September 26, 2014. [add link]
  9. "Do You Know? The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being." Accessed December 21, 2014.
  10. Redford, 236.
  11. Personal Connections. National Park Service. Accessed July 12, 2023.

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Tom Mayes, chief legal officer and general counsel, has worked on the full range of National Trust legal issues since he joined the National Trust in 1986. He received the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize in Historic Preservation in 2013 and is the author of the book Why Old Places Matter.

tmayes@savingplaces.org @thompsonmayes

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