Trace your family roots at Heritage Library


In the past few years, genealogy research has become incredibly popular, thanks in part to television shows like TLC's “Who Do You Think You Are” and PBS' “Finding Your Roots” and “Genealogy Roadshow.” Even comedians like George Lopez on “Lopez Tonight” have made tracing celebrity DNA a hot topic. Suddenly, knowing your family history is considered cool, and now the information has become more accessible and user-friendly.

Learning about family stories of royalty, romance and revolutionaries has become a new type of reality show that is relatable to everyone — because most of the stories can be anybody’s story. Years ago, genealogy was just a hobby that a few people did in their basement and shared when a question came up about the family tree. Now that our world is shrinking and information can be found in the blink of an eye, knowing and sharing your ancestral tree is almost like the new coffee table book. It’s a conversation starter that identifies connections between us that creates smaller degrees of separation.

This new genealogy obsession has not only left the basement, it has become a common element in vacation planning. Travel destinations tend to be coupled with areas that can uncover family records or enable people to combine history, research, culture, learning and relaxation. Research has shown that more and more, people are planning their vacations around family tree research. Jennifer Utley, head of research at, one of the largest online genealogical search engines, says that “travelers are planning trips around researching their family tree,” according to an article in USA Today. Utley lists the Heritage Library on Hilton Head Island as one of the 10 best places to research family genealogy because “the center focuses on local history and culture, including African-American research materials that date from before the Civil War.”

The Heritage Library contains an array of unexpected resources, such as plantation information and smugglers' records. "It's really a different picture of America," Utley told USA Today. It’s an incredible compliment to the Heritage Library, considering that the other research facilities on the USA Today list include the National Archives, the Family History Library, the New England Historic Genealogical Society and Ellis Island.

Each of these locations provides specific information based on its focus. Utley said the National Archives in Washington, D.C., provides access to “the federal government's extensive files, providing a mother lode of information for family research. From military to maritime, to land and pension documents, they all can help piece together a family tree. It's also one of the best places for Native American family information.”

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, which also includes a “Mormon Church-sponsored research facility that is the world's largest, with records from 110 countries,” Utley said. Genealogy researchers can find amazing family immigration details and information from Ellis Island as well. “Many families trace their history to Ellis Island, the first stop in the country for more than 20 million Americans,” Utley said. "You can look for people and passenger lists, and it's also about understanding the experience that your immigrant ancestors experienced." And then there’s the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. “The nation's first family history society dates to 1845 and contains more than 12 million documents, manuscripts, records, books, microfilms, photographs and other artifacts dating to the 14th century,” Utley said. "If you have roots that have been in America for a long time, you're going to have come through New England."

Lou Benfante, president of the board of the Heritage Library, supports Utley’s assessment. “The Heritage Library is an important cultural asset for our community. We have a place in the culture of our community right along with the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, the Coastal Discovery Museum, the Beaufort County Library, and the Art League of Hilton Head.”

Founded in 1997 as a genealogy research center, the library merged with the Hilton Head Historical Society in 2005, combining assets into one large genealogy collection.

“The Heritage Library is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization. We depend on membership dues, donations and grants for our operating funds,” Benfante said.

As the Lowcountry’s unofficial genealogy research and history center, it owns and maintains two historic sites on Hilton Head: Fort Mitchel, which was a Civil War coastal defense battery, and the cemetery of the Zion Chapel of Ease, the island’s first church, which contains the graves and memorials of four Revolutionary War patriots.

The library is in the middle of a capital campaign to raise money to restore the Baynard Mausoleum at Zion Cemetery. Considered an architectural gem, the mausoleum was built around 1845 and is the oldest building on the island.

In addition to the historical research that the library does, it also offers classes on genealogy research, as well as lectures on local history and tours of Fort Mitchel.

If you don’t know how to begin your search on your family tree, there are a number of genealogy websites online:, Family Search, American Ancestors, Heritage Quest, Fold 3, and Find-a-Grave. However, the library offers a free hour of research assistance and how-to classes on the best genealogy search engines, how to organize your information and materials, and how to navigate them. Getting started is as simple as contacting the library for an appointment, and one of the trained volunteers will help you.

Currently, the Heritage Library has several initiatives to help improve the island’s cultural and historic legacy. The initiatives have a variety of cultural aspects that will benefit the community in several ways. Through understanding the value of the Gullah community, the library has established a relationship with Clemson University’s Pan-African Studies department and to trace the roots of current native islander families. This information, when shared with the families, was not only well-received, but also helped expand their family trees. In an effort to ensure future generations have access to the history and culture of the Gullah, the library is also working to have a Gullah curriculum that it created made a part of state school curriculum.

Another important initiative has been having representation within the Gullah-Geechee Consortium of Beaufort County. The consortium’s goal is to make Beaufort County the heart of the Gullah-Geechee Corridor, complete with a Gullah-Geechee Cultural and Historic Trail throughout the county, which would offer interactive kiosks at all the historic sites that would provide information about and direction to additional stops on the trail.

You can also find your connection to the past through weekly lectures on the island’s history, as well as bike tours, all of which are excellent ways to learn about the rich heritage that surrounds us.

The library is always looking for volunteers. For more information about the Heritage Library and its programs, go to