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Honoring Our Ancestors
May 19, 2021


Greetings Fellow Family History Sleuths,

Well, this month it turns out that everything old is new again. Like many, I've used the time at home during the pandemic to de-clutter, and an unanticipated side effect has been the excavation of my past – some of which I decided to share. For instance, I re-published a 19-year-old article on genetic genealogy – and much to my surprise, attracted a lot of attention. Same thing happened when I unearthed and posted a video from 2007 when I was asked to trace Al Sharpton's roots. I also wrote about the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Ellis Island database. And then, through a series of unexpected events, one of my books from 2011 jumped to #1 at Amazon in a number of categories. So if you've been at genealogy for a while, this month's issue has plenty for you! But for those who are more future-oriented, be sure to check out the news about the 1950 US census and 1921 England/Wales census! Finally, if you've got time – and I mean TODAY since it's the deadline – please speak up about USCIS records to help ensure future access at reasonable prices for all of us.

Happy sleuthing!



DNA Testing Dispels a Genealogical Myth

Many are not aware that genetic genealogy has been around for slightly more than two decades. I was introduced to using DNA for forensic purposes back in the dark ages of 1999 when I began my work with the U.S. Army assisting with the identification of soldiers still unaccounted for from conflicts ranging from WWI to Vietnam. As a result, I was an early adopter when the first commercial testing companies launched in 2000, but as often happens with new technology, there was a lot of resistance in the early days.

In spite of already being an established writer and speaker, as the first professional genealogist to be a proponent for genetic genealogy, it took me two full years to get anyone to accept an article or talk on the topic. This article, the first one I managed to get published, had been turned down by all the other genealogical magazines. “Everton’s Genealogical Helper” ran it in their May/June 2002 issue. I share it today to provide some insight into how much has changed — and how much hasn’t.

Our History Mystery

Smolenyak is a genealogically convenient name. There aren’t all that many of us, and although we are now scattered from Ukraine to Antarctica, years of research have revealed that we all trace our roots to the same geographically isolated village of Osturňa, Slovakia. As if that weren’t tidy enough, the records of St. Michael’s Greek Catholic Church, the only church in the village, show that the Smolenyaks lived decade after decade in the same four households: numbers 88, 96, 103, and 135.

Following the paper trail of church, land, and census records, we were able to track these households as far back as the 1740s. As we worked our way back from generation to generation, we kept looking for hints of the four households converging. Surely such a secluded cluster living in such close proximity to each other must have common roots, we reasoned. When 1715 military conscription records contained only a single draft-eligible Smolenyak, we became even more convinced that we had a common ancestor, though not necessarily this particular fellow.

But now the trail was cold. While we still hope for the discovery of new Osturňa records, we knew not to be overly optimistic since the church was burned in 1796. Keeping our genealogically convenient pattern intact, members of each of the four Smolenyak households had emigrated to the United States between 1890 and 1909, and their descendants were all very curious to know if we were, in fact, distant cousins. How were we ever going to solve this personal history mystery?

Click here to continue reading.

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Genealogy Roundup, May 12

Photo Credit: danna § curious tangles

How to Use Tech to Capture Your Family History: Our elders have rich stories to share. There’s no better time than now to sit down and hit Record. – Some useful and timely tips here!

1950 Census on Track for 2022 Release, Despite Pandemic – 👏👏👏

Findmypast says ‘timelines will be met’ on 1921 census despite covid impact – 👏👏👏

The Keepsake Kitchen Diary – Sharing in case this might be of interest to my fellow genies looking for ways to preserve family recipes. There are several variations available.

As I continue excavating (aka decluttering), I keep stumbling upon pieces of my past I was either unaware of or had forgotten. This video is one of them. To be clear, I remember this experience well, but had forgotten about this ad hoc video made at the time.

Filmed in 2007, it's the story of my gut-wrenching genealogical discovery that Coleman Sharpton, great-grandfather of Rev. Al Sharpton, was enslaved by members of Strom Thurmond's family - and that he was bought and sold several times while still a youngster. The jarring title is a direct quote from one of the documents pertaining to Coleman Sharpton.

The Golden Apple: A Story From Osturňa – My fellow Osturnites (and really, Rusyns, those with roots in Slovakia, and Slavs in general) will want to read this! There's a good chance you'll recognize your surname in this re-telling of a classic saga. It's a labor of love by Thom Kolton. 🙏

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Genealogy Roundup, May 5

Photo Credit: Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News

Sean Kirst: In old Statler, window discovery ignites son's drugstore memories of his dad – A little while back, I helped Sean Kirst with a little sleuthing and he - as he always does - wrote an article that preserves history and gives some wonderful people a moment – as well as appreciation for those who came before. Well, the article was so popular that he was inundated with others who had memories, and this follow-on is the outcome of all the other stories that spilled out. ❤️

Don't Let USCIS Hold Our History Hostage: Deadline is May 19, 2021 – Hey, y'all, a chance to offer input to USCIS! Please do so if you're able! 🙏

Have y'all read Nathan Dylan Goodwin's "Chester Creek Murders" yet? It's a great read for those who want to understand the mechanics of how forensic/genetic genealogy is used to solve cold cases, and the characters all feel like people we know. If you haven't yet, I recommend snagging a copy. Bonus points if it's from your favorite indie bookseller, but also, fair game if you go the digital route!

Hey, y'all, last week I was startled to see how popular a 19-year-old article I wrote on genetic genealogy was (thanks to the nearly 9,000 of you who have checked it out so far!). I saw in a couple of Facebook discussions on it that a few people knew of the story's companion video. Others seemed to enjoy it when they shared it, so I thought I'd do so as well. Bonus points: You get to see my dad gently mock me. 😆

Note: This video was produced before autosomal testing was even available, so please bear that in mind when listening to my comments up-front. Genetic genealogy was far more innocent then! That said, it's remarkable how well this tale has held up.

Y'all are gonna make me cry. You went and made "Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing" the #1 genealogy book on Amazon! And just for good measure, you popped my "Who Do You Think You Are?" book into 10th place. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! 🙏☺️

This 22-year-old film student built an authentic WWI trench in his backyard as part of a project that honors his great-grandfather – Now that's dedication.

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Genealogy Roundup, April 28

8 Things You Didn’t Know about Jon Stewart’s Roots – I love seeing how much we resemble our ancestors. Jon Stewart is no exception.

As seen over on Twitter! 😅😅😅 – And no worries, he filmed the same page without his head in the next shot.

Proud to have co-authored the first book on genetic genealogy. Published in 2004, it's still in print today! – Thanks to all who have consulted it over the years. 🙏🧬 P.S. Ann Turner was too modest to say it anywhere in the book, but she's an M.D. out of Stanford. Brilliant!

DNA Links President Biden to Galway

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Genealogy Roundup, April 21

Photo Credit: AP

New technology could identify thousands of unknown soldiers who died in World War II – Chatted with Marco Werman of The World (NPR) about my work with the Army.

Happy 20th Anniversary, Ellis Island Immigrant Database! – There's some weirdness going on with Medium lately, so for anyone who had problems gaining access to my article about Ellis Island last week, you'll be happy to know that Irish America magazine has published it! Please check it out. If you watch the video in this article, you might see someone you recognize. Just sayin'. 😉 And BTW, if you have Irish roots, check out the magazine as well. You'll love it!

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