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Honoring Our Ancestors
April 15, 2015


Greetings Fellow Family History Sleuths,

I'm about to head off on a journey that will take me through the lands of many of our ancestors, so next month's issue will be quite light. In the meantime, though, there's plenty to peruse here - and you can always poke around past issues. While you're there, why not explore the rest of my newly revised website? Lots there already and lots more coming!

Until next time!



Hillary Clinton Family Tree a Wake-Up Call for Genealogy

When Irish America requested that I research and write a piece on Hillary Rodham Clinton's heritage (pages 50-52), I was concerned. Why? Because delving into the ancestral past of celebrities has become something of a sub-hobby in the world of genealogy, so I knew that countless others would have climbed the branches of her family tree. What would I possibly be able to add that wasn't already known?

Fortunately for me, but regrettably for genealogy in general, there was plenty of fresh terrain because I soon realized that everyone had a quarter of her family tree wrong. And when I say "everyone," I mean dozens of people on at least eight family history websites.

One of Rodham Clinton's grandmothers was a woman named Hannah Jones who was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania around 1882. If you've been doing genealogy for even a short time, you know to be cautious whenever you encounter a name like Jones, which happens to be the most common surname in Wales, the birth place of Hannah's parents. Names like Jones, Smith, Johnson, Brown, Miller and Williams are a punch-line in the family history world – guaranteed to provoke a reaction from a seasoned audience – because we all know how much effort it can take to sift through the abundance of records featuring these names to find the ones we're looking for.

So it's astonishing that no one had taken the time to make sure that they had identified the correct Hannah Jones. As it happens, there were two baby girls born with this name in Scranton around the same time, and the other one left a more conspicuous paper trail. It's not surprising that some researchers fell into the trap of picking the wrong one, but it's mind-blowing that everyone did.

The wonderful online tools that make it faster to trace our family trees also make it easier to make a mistake, and the constant merging of Internet-based trees creates an unfortunate echo effect where wrong information starts to look true simply because so many are claiming it. I've seen this lemming phenomenon many times before, but the fact that it happened to someone whose family history has been scrutinized by so many is a serious wake-up call.

If everyone got a quarter of Hillary Clinton's tree wrong, what about yours? Are the names adorning your family tree really your ancestors or just crowd-sourced fiction?

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The Gift of #ThrowbackThursday

As a genealogist, I'm so focused on the dearly departed that I often neglect the living, but I recently got a serious reminder that those of us above ground matter, too.

Like so many, I occasionally post a photo from the past for #ThrowbackThursday on Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest. Not long ago, inspired by some videos of naturalization ceremonies shared by The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation on Twitter, I blew the dust off a photo of my own naturalization and popped it up for #tbt.

My first surprise came when my sister, Stacy — who was naturalized at the same time and features in the same image — responded to my Facebook post with astonishment. As the family historian, I had known of this black and white picture for years and foolishly assumed that Stacy did, too, but I was wrong. Shame on me for even unintentionally preventing my own sister from seeing our naturalization ceremony. But thanks to #tbt, this faux pas has been remedied.

Better yet, a woman who had known the two of us as babies and toddlers in France posted a few remarks sharing vignettes about our now-deceased mother. The early-20s version of our mom had apparently resolved the mystery of the bidet for the freshly arrived American, but also "helpfully" equipped her with her first French phrase — "Voulez-vous couchez avec moi?" — long before Christina Aguilera or Lady Marmalade were around to enlighten her. Yup, that sounded like Mom.

So one random #tbt post revealed a milestone moment to my sister, triggered a trip down memory lane and gave us anecdotes we had never heard about our mother. Lesson learned — for me and my fellow genealogists. More photos of the living from now on!

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Who Do You Think You Are? Exclusive Videos

In this season of Who Do You Think You Are?, the popular celebrity roots show, Angie Harmon — who always thought she was Greek, Irish and Native American — made some surprising discoveries about the Harmon branch of her family tree.

Her 5th great-grandfather, Michael Harmon, emigrated from Germany as an indentured servant and wound up serving as a soldier in George Washington's regiment at Valley Forge. After a bleak season in hell, he and others mutinied against the Continental Congress in protest for basic rights of food, clothing and shelter ... and won! Michael went on to become a well to do land owner in Kentucky where Angie pays her respects at land that remains in the Harmon family today.

Check out this sneak peek of Angie's reaction to walking in her ancestor's footsteps at Valley Forge:

Have you ever noticed that everyone's favorite episode of Who Do You Think You Are? is not necessarily the one featuring their favorite celebrity, but the one that's closest to their own family history? That's why I'm especially excited about the episode featuring Sean Hayes, whose story is similar to my own.

Sean explores his paternal ancestry focusing on his Hayes line, and that leads him via Chicago and Dublin back to Ballylongford in County Kerry. What will he learn there? Check out this exclusive video provided by TLC to get a taste:

With my nearby Duagh roots and some criminal heritage as well, I was already primed for this episode, but adding Seán Hayes to the mix lifted it from must-watch to multiple-viewings-required territory. I know my 40 million fellow Irish Americans will agree, not to speak of the legions of Sean Hayes fans!

Note to Genealogists: There are archives and white gloves involved, so be prepared to get giddy.

Other celebrities still to be featured this season include:

  • April 19: Bill Paxton
  • April 26: Melissa Etheridge

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Genealogy Round Up, April 8

‘Gertie’s Babies,’ Sold at Birth, Use DNA to Unlock Secret Past

11 Little-Known Words for Specific Family Members – Some great words here - let's start using them!

10 Things You Didn't Know About Jon Hamm's Roots – Since Mad Men just started its final half-season this past Sunday, it seems a good time to share this.

For those curious about the Hillary Clinton research behind my think-before-you-merge-online-trees warning, you'll find it on pages 50-52 of Irish America Magazine. Can't recommend this magazine highly enough, especially for those of Irish heritage!

Army corporal, captured in Korean War, to be buried in hometown – RIP, CPL Higgins. One of my Korean War soldiers was buried this past weekend.

Illinois Ancestors: Genealogist offers grants for worthy projects – Article by Joan Griffis about my grants program and a recent interview re: genealogy I did with National Geographic.

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Genealogy Round Up, April 1

War Numbers: Counting the Irish-Born Dead in WWI – I did some number-crunching on the Irish-born soldiers from America who died in WWI. (See pages 58-60) Companion article (pages 54-57) profiles individual soldiers who served from NJ.

Genealogy was on Hot In Cleveland recently! If you'd like to find out more about Betty White's real Greek-Danish-Canadian-Welsh-English roots, have a look here.

Lou Szucs: Genealogical Hero

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Genealogy Round Up, March 25

Bruce Springsteen accepts Ellis Island award with his mother & aunts – My video of Bruce Springsteen at Ellis Island with his mother and aunts has crossed 10,000 views! Thanks, y'all! If you haven't watched it, you might want to because it's charming. Sweet family.

Boy finds 45-year-old love letter in bottle addressed to his grandpa – Serendipity strikes again!

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Genealogy Round Up, March 18

AT&T employee uncovers lost pictures more than a century old

Irish Famine Summer School will be the first of its kind

VIDEO: Surging interest in Irish genealogy from abroad

Exclusive Video: Josh Groban Discovering Remarkable and Controversial Ancestor

Following her dream--- American moving to Ireland at 53 – Love this! I could be tempted!

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Upcoming Events

After traveling around and speaking in 40 states and half a dozen countries since 2000, I decided to take a breather from the road to tend to some projects. That said, I'm sharing exceptions here. And by the way, you can see if I’ll be in your area any time by checking my Events Calendar.

  • July 20, 2015 - Kramer Levin - "Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing" - Private Event

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