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I was born in my grandmother’s house in a small town in Spain, and I can trace my lineage fairly easily -- our family tree was practically tattooed on us from birth. But for many people, their ancestry remains a mystery.
So we turned to this week’s Interesting Expert, Megan Smolenyak, to find out more about genealogy, the study of family ancestries and histories.
Smolenyak is a genealogical adventurer who loves solving mysteries, making unexpected discoveries and pushing the boundaries of conventional genealogy. She is the author of five genealogy books, including "Who Do You Think You Are?" – the companion to the TV series of the same name.
Smolenyak is the founder of Unclaimed Persons, in which volunteer genealogists help medical examiners, coroners and investigators locate next of kin of deceased individuals. She is also a researcher for the U.S. Army, and works with the FBI and NCIS on cold cases.
Smolenyak has appeared on the “Today” show, “Good Morning America,” “The Early Show,” CNN, BBC, PBS, NPR and more. She blogs for the Huffington Post and is an international speaker.
Megan, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for us. This is such a fascinating field. How did you get started? What interested you about it?
It was a sixth-grade homework assignment that got me started, so this is all Mrs. Berkowitz’s fault!
It’s your own personal history mystery, so many become addicted quickly -- and I was no exception. I loved uncovering clues to unravel my family’s past because so little had been passed on to me, so it didn’t take long before I was saving up my allowance to buy death certificates.
Your book is the companion piece to the TV show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” How did that come about?
“Who Do You Think You Are?” is actually a British import. In the UK, the show created national roots-mania, so I was asked to write a book to help all the freshly minted genealogists anticipated from the American series. It’s a how-to book to help folks peek into their past, and my latest, “Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing,” is about my adventures as a real-life history detective. I try my best to perch the reader on my shoulder to see how it’s done – and, with a bit of luck, spark some ideas for tackling their own mysteries.
What are some of the challenges in tracing someone’s roots?
I always tell those who are new to genealogy that they were so smart to wait because it’s much easier now to get a running start. What would have taken me months back when I started might take a day now.
Having said that, the same tools that are designed to help new genealogists jump in quickly can also make it easier to take a misstep -- and that means you run the risk of researching someone else’s family tree! But if you take a little time upfront to do a bit of homework -- just chat with some older relatives and look around for all the clues in your own house (e.g., photos, diplomas, old letters, newspaper clippings, yearbooks, etc.) -- you can avoid that pitfall. If you’re equipped with a few details about your granddad, Jim Smith, you’ll be able to pluck out the correct Jim Smith when you start digging.
What type of challenge do orphans/adopted children present?
It depends on timeframe, location and the institution (if any) involved. For example, record access for adoptees is legislated at the state level, so the state of birth is a major factor for adoptees searching today. If you’re dealing with an orphaned or adopted ancestor from, say, 100 years ago, your odds are best if there was an institution involved, as there’s a better chance of a paper trail. Fortunately, regardless of the specifics, DNA testing is offering new possibilities, whether you’re dealing with a situation today or generations ago.
What do you think of services like Ancestry, or the National Geographic's genome project?
I can’t pretend to be unbiased when it comes to genetic genealogy, as I’ve been at it for about a dozen years now (thanks largely to my work with the Army locating families of servicemen still unaccounted for from past conflicts to help with their identification), and co-authored “Trace Your Roots with DNA.” So, yes, I’m a big fan of companies and initiatives such as Family Tree DNA, 23andMe, and National Geographic’s Genographic Project.
DNA testing is not a substitute for conventional genealogy, but it’s a terrific addition to our repertoire, and it can sometimes reveal answers that the paper trail would never give up. We are so lucky to live at the first time in the history of mankind that it’s possible to look into your past just by swabbing your cheek!
You also founded Unclaimed Persons, in which volunteer genealogists help medical examiners, coroners and investigators locate next of kin of deceased individuals. What led you to found the organization, and what has that been like?
It was almost an accident. I learned about this quiet epidemic of unclaimed persons -- like Lost and Found, but for people, rather than scarves and umbrellas -- when I tripped across an article about a particular coroner’s office. I realized that the kind of research I do for the Army could be helpful for this situation, so I contacted them and volunteered my services. Then I started assisting other counties and, a few years later, made a video about a few of my cases. It was the video that provoked an outpouring of interest from the genealogical world. I was inundated with emails from others saying, “I want to do this, too.” And that’s how Unclaimed Persons was born.
Since then, thanks to the generosity of volunteer genealogists, hundreds of families are no longer wondering what happened to their loved ones. I love traditional genealogy, but it’s wonderful to see the results of such a practical application, as well.
What's the most amazing story you've discovered?
That’s the genealogist’s version of Sophie’s Choice! How can I choose? I’ve had the good fortune to be involved in so many stories, and some of them -- like tracing President Obama’s roots to Moneygall, Ireland, where he went to raise a pint in the pub, and uncovering Michelle Obama’s dramatic family history -- have attracted a fair bit of attention. And it’s fun to see my handiwork on TV shows ranging from “Top Chef” to “Finding Your Roots.”
But I also love the beneath-the-radar experiences, like going to the funerals of soldiers who sacrificed their lives before I was born, reuniting adoptees with their birth families, returning long-lost family treasures out of the blue, and so forth. These are the ones you never hear about, but I love having a front-row seat to so many emotional reunions and revelations.
Genealogy is ultimately about connecting -- across oceans and centuries -- and I’m incredibly lucky to be a part of that every day.