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Honoring Our Ancestors
June 18, 2015


Greetings Fellow Family History Sleuths,

Well, it's been another fun month in genealogy-land! As you'll see in this issue, one of the WWI soldiers I had the privilege of researching for the Army received his long overdue Medal of Honor! My Seton Shields Genealogy Grants program (named after my mom) celebrated its 15th anniversary(!), and then an article I wrote (Genealogy or Preen-ealogy) stirred up quite a lot of interest. I guess I should also mention that my main website (www.megansmolenyak.com) has been overhauled to make it more visually pleasing and content-rich, as well as easier to search, so please take a browse when you get a chance. And oh yeah, it won't be long until "Who Do You Think You Are?" is back. Hope you're a fan of Tom Bergeron!

Until next time,



WWI Hero Sgt. Henry Johnson Receives Long Overdue Medal of Honor

Almost a century after their service, Sgt. Henry Johnson* and Sgt. William Shemin were finally awarded the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony for their heroics in World War I. Both had been overlooked previously, though Johnson, an African American, was one of the first Americans to receive the Croix de Guerre avec Palme from the French government.

A fair bit of information about both soldiers can be found online, and while their bravery is beyond dispute, personal details about Sgt. Shemin are mostly accurate, while Sgt. Johnson's are frequently distorted. As the genealogist who had the privilege of researching both of these Medal of Honor cases for the Army, I had the opportunity to seek out and steep myself in more than 1,300 pages of Sgt. Johnson's paper trail, so I'd like to clarify some misconceptions.

  • His full name was William Henry Johnson, but Sgt. Johnson preferred to go by his middle name of Henry and only occasionally used his full name for formal purposes, such as when he married. This is why, for instance, newspaper reports of his death can be found under both the names of Henry Johnson and William Henry Johnson.

(Evening Star, GenealogyBank)

(Pittsburgh Courier, FultonHistory)

(New York Age, Newspapers)

  • As seen here in his death certificate, Sgt. Johnson died on July 1, 1929 in Washington, D.C. and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Assertions that he died elsewhere (such as New York or Illinois) or on other dates are probably due to confusion with records of other soldiers with similar names.


  • He was born in West Salem, a district of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The notion that he was born in Alexandria, Virginia likely stems from his profile in the book Rank and File: True Stories of the Great War by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., but is mistaken. Documents such as his World War I draft registration card demonstrate that Sgt. Johnson himself consistently reported West(ern) Salem/Winston-Salem as his place of birth.

(WWI Draft Registration, FamilySearch)

(New York Abstract of WWI Military Service, Ancestry)

  • Sgt. Johnson was born between 1887 and 1897. Such a range may sound strange to 21st century ears, but accuracy and consistency in dates is a relatively recent development, as is our emphasis on birthdays. In all likelihood, the soldier did not know his own date of birth, and his lack of certainty is reflected in his paper trail, though he mostly claimed March 15th or May 15th of various years.
  • A close examination of his death certificate (above) will also reveal that Sgt. Johnson did not die from alcoholism as some claim. He suffered a number of conditions that worsened through the 1920s, but ultimately died from myocarditis.
  • Nor is it true that he was neglected by the government. The article below, published on May 22, 1920, reveals that he was hospitalized at Walter Reed, and additional records show him receiving disability compensation and care at home and several medical facilities over the last decade of his life.

(Washington Bee, GenealogyBank)

  • Though he regrettably has no known living relatives, Sgt. Johnson's courageous service was not entirely forgotten until now. In addition to the many who have campaigned vigorously on his behalf for the Medal of Honor since the 1990s, his admirers included Langston Hughes and fellow Medal of Honor recipient Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who aptly described him as "one of the five bravest Americans" to serve in the war.

* While it is customary in award situations to use the rank of the soldier at the time of the relevant incident, I have opted to refer to Henry Johnson by his highest attained rank.

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15 Years of Genealogy Grants

Waaaay back in the dark ages of May 2000, I launched the Honoring Our Ancestors Genealogical Grants Program. Because family history projects are notoriously underfunded, the idea was to give a grant every month to support one such effort, and the intention was to keep the application process simple – and that’s what I’ve done. In fact, all that’s changed is the name of the program – now the Seton Shields Genealogy Grant Program in honor of my remarkable mother.

For a flavor of the types of cool projects I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to over the years, check out the retrospective posts on my blog featuring a number of them (or just go to megansmolenyak.com and search “grants”).

So now – 186 grants later – we’ve reached the 15 year milestone, and after much pondering, I’ve decided on one more change. I will continue to award grants, but on a quarterly, rather than monthly, basis. That said, I will continue to donate as much as I have in the past. So once a quarter, one person or organization will receive three times as much as they would have previously. And the first to receive an award of this nature is the anniversary May 2015 grantee.

What makes this one especially fun is that the recipient doesn’t even know he’s getting a check because a fellow genealogist named Barbara Munson submitted on his behalf. She explained that for the past several years, Earl Sundmaker has been going to Protestant churches in the greater New Orleans area to ask if he can copy their records. He has discovered records in fire-damaged and mildew-laden storage areas, and even found some in file cabinets stored outside. At his own expense, he scans each page of the books and prints out three copies. The copies go into binders, and one set of binders is given back to the church for their use.

He has also set up a research room at the German-American Cultural Center in Gretna, Louisiana where a set of his church books (see above) is a major draw. Barbara is just one of countless genealogists who have benefited from Earl’s efforts. Thanks to his generosity and hard work, hundreds of years of records are now available, for free, to anyone who ventures into the GACC research room, and a local genealogical society is now working to index these books to make them available online. And Earl is still on a mission to digitize as many records as possible, presently tackling two more churches. This grant will pay for an estimated seven to ten new church binders.

To apply for a Seton Shields grant, fill out and submit the form here. You can see examples of past grant awards here.

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Genealogy Round Up, June 10

A Diamond Ring Missing for 30 Years Was Found Inside This Dismantled Log Cabin – Love stories like this!

2015 Gala in the Great Hall – So grateful I got to experience this wonderful evening arranged by The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.

Video: Zendaya Gets to the Heart of Her Family Tree for Immigrant Heritage Month – The video is a little confusing, but it's always cool to see a teenager interested in her roots!

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Genealogy Round Up, June 3

'Please give me a book that dramatizes bedbugs': Cache of NY public library requests reveals what people would have been asking Google in the 1940s

I Didn’t Like My Son’s Name. So I changed it.

Nicole and DNA co-star? They've got chemistry – So happy to hear about this play about Rosalind Franklin, but how about a movie?

Shania Twain – Family Roots in Québec Found

World's Largest Family Reunion: Genealogy or Preen-ealogy? – I went out on a limb with this one and suspected it might provoke a bit of a reaction.

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Genealogy Round Up, May 27

The Irish Heritage of the Remarkable Anne Meara – "she’s familiar to us. So many of us were raised by tall, whip-smart, no-nonsense (but soft inside), Irish American moms that Anne Meara always felt like home."

Army of family historians go online to identify unknown soldiers

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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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