Following a storybook adventure to connect with the past
Ever since we were asked to participate in Expedia’s “Find Your Storybook” campaign, we’ve been intrigued with the possibility of creating our very own storybook adventure. Despite all of our brainstorming, however, we never could decide on the right plot or setting for our journey.
Then it hit us! We’re professional travelers! Why does our story have to be confined to one destination? Our story should be about the journey itself, and our respective quests to discover our individual stories—from the beginning.
So we began exploring the theme of ancestry travel. Our journeys are now taking us to all of the places that were significant in the histories of our respective families. Best of all, as we are able to explore more branches of our family trees, our journeys will continue well beyond the life of this campaign.
Here are peeks at the first chapters of our stories.
Researching my ancestors has taken me on an incredible journey. So far, I only have traced a few branches of my family tree, but by learning who they were and visiting the places where they lived, worked, played, and died, I have a greater connection to their lives and a broader sense of their contributions to my story.
As any good story has memorable characters—both good and bad—my family story is no exception. I discovered that I’m a descendant of preachers, soldiers, farmers, teachers, doctors, athletes, moonshiners, Klansmen (seriously), and even Welsh royalty.
The first stop in my ancestry travels was Smithfield, Virginia, in Isle of Wight County, where my ninth great grandfather, Owen Griffin, first came to America from Wales in 1666 under commission of the King Charles II to protect the king’s legal interest and land grants in the Virginia Colonies.
Smithfield sits on the banks of the Pagan River and is reminiscent of colonial Williamsburg. Today it is famous for the curing and production of Smithfield ham; homage for the hog can be seen throughout town. The historic district has quaint shops, restaurants, antique stores, art galleries, a museum, and several beautiful Victorian homes.
When I stopped in the Visitor Center for a walking-tour map. I was hoping to find some stop on the tour that I could connect to Owen—something labeled, “Homestead of Rick Griffin’s ninth great grandfather, Owen,” “the Owen Griffin Memorial Park,” or “Owen Griffin Gravesite.” No such luck.
After I finished the tour, I drove around to several older cemeteries searching for Owen’s grave. I founds lots of old tombstones with illegible inscriptions. Could one of these have been his? I did find old graves of people who lived and died around the same time as Owen and couldn’t help but wonder if he knew them. I found myself asking all sorts of questions about the people in the graves. Was this somebody with whom Owen worshipped on Sundays? Was it the blacksmith from whom he purchased horseshoes? Was it one of his drinking buddies?
I stopped by the Isle of Wight County Museum and told the curator what I had learned about Owen. I mentioned that records I found on Ancestry.com documented that Owen died in Isle of Wight County in 1698. She told me that as a land owner, he most likely was buried somewhere on the land he was granted by the King. Unfortunately, in my haste to get to Smithfield, I failed to research where that specific tract of land might be located. So my quest to find the grave of my first relative to cross the pond will have to wait for a return trip.
The next leg of my ancestry journey takes me south as I follow Owen’s descendants’ migration to North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. I’ll be sure to bring a fly swatter! And I’ll check back with you here when I learn more.
Viewfinder Tip: Before you sign up for a service to search your ancestry, be sure to ask your oldest relatives for their recollections of the past.
I look back and wonder how much of my love of travel and thirst for learning about the world is congenital. When I was growing up in New York, my dad would take us to John F. Kennedy International Airport, where we would park along the road, under the runway and watch planes land. We would do this for what seemed like hours, all the while talking about where the aircraft were coming from, where we would take them someday and what we would see when we went. This was way before the Internet. My parents were very creative in finding ways to get us to use our imagination.
As I get older it’s important to me to know and understand who my forbearers were. Researching my ancestors has opened an entirely new set of possibilities and places to visit.
My modern history begins with my great-grandfather, P.J. (Pack) McKenna, who was born on January 23, 1858 in New York City. He was the first generation of the McKenna family born in the United States. I never met him, but throughout my childhood I heard stories about him from my grandfather, father, aunts, and uncles. By all accounts he was a dynamic and colorful man. Great-grandpa was known as an original handicapper, a very successful veteran horse race handicapper who was well known at tracks around the United States, Canada, Cuba, and Mexico. As my dad’s Aunt Kitty put it, “He made money hand over fist.”
My grandfather (Pack’s son) always talked about one of his favorite childhood memories: Traveling with his dad, mom, and sister every August to Saratoga Springs, (in upstate New York) for opening day at the track. They would take the Albany night boat, a 2,000-passenger steamer with staterooms, ballrooms, and dining rooms that rivaled a 5-star hotel. Upon arrival in Albany, they would travel the remaining 39 miles to Saratoga Springs by train. They would stay at a country hotel and spa not far from the track. What an amazing trip this must have been.
I have decided to recreate this journey and take it this summer. The night boat no longer exists, but as luck would have it, Amtrak does. From Penn Station in New York City, the Ethan Allen Express travels through the scenic Hudson River Valley to Saratoga Springs in just 3 hours and 28 minutes. As I head north, I’ll sit on the left side of the train for the best views of the river. In researching hotels as to where they might have stayed, I found the Inn at Saratoga. It was established in 1843 and is the oldest operating hotel in historic Saratoga Springs, fitting perfectly into grandpa’s timeline.
Of course the trip will not be complete without heading to the Saratoga Race Course. This iconic track has been around for 150 years. While I’m not good at figures like my great-grandpa was, I am excited to carry on the family tradition. Summer hats and sundresses of yesteryear are still very much in vogue at the famed racetrack and I shall honor this century old tradition by sporting a chapeau that would have made great-grandpa proud. Like Rick, I’ll report back here once I’ve done the trip. Stay tuned.
If you traveled to track down your ancestors, where would your trip take you?
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