Honoring Our Ancestors Newsletter

June 15, 2007

By Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

Megan Smolenyak SmolenyakGreetings Fellow Family History Sleuths,

Yet another busy month! There's so much going on in the genealogical world, it's hard to keep up! This month's issue is the usual, random collection of stuff that's going on, but I wanted to add one update to what you'll find below -- and that's that you'll be able to find lots of videos of the Who Do You Think You Are LIVE! event in London on Roots Television (www.rootstelevision.com). Since Dick Eastman conducted most of the interviews, an easy way to find them is to simply search on "Eastman." Searching on "London" will surface a few more. As you'll see, these folks really know how to put on a roots conference! Enjoy!


In this newsletter. . .

Finding Barack Obama's Irish Roots

Well, it took a couple of months and lots of sleuthing, but we finally found out where Barack Obama's Irish roots are from in the old country: Moneygall.

It was a combination of U.S. census records and tombstones that led me to zero in on Moneygall in then-Kings County, now County Offaly. I conducted the research in my capacity as Chief Family Historian for Ancestry.com, and enlisted the help of Irish expert Kyle Betit of ProGenealogists.com once I had a location. Then it was a matter of finding out exactly where the records we needed to solve the mystery resided today. That's where Canon Neill came in, as the records turned out to be in the possession of one of his parishioners.

I'll leave you with this vital (though admittedly hard to read) clue from the research!

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I'm going to be brief here because Dick Eastman has written everything you'll want to know about the Who Do You Think You Are LIVE! conference in London, but suffice it to say, I'm having a bad case of genealogical envy! Would love to see events like this in the U.S.

To get a peek, check out Dick's photo gallery! And if you'd like to see Dick in action, look no further than below. Here he's seen interviewing Josh Hanna of Ancestry.co.uk. Keep an eye on Roots Television in the coming weeks for this and other interviews, as well as a tour of this incredible event!

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Jamestown 400

Oh, it was toasty, but the folks at Ancestry.com had a lot of fun helping all sorts of people get a jump-start on their roots. We had 4 computers and were going at it almost non-stop. It's a real kick to see people's reactions the first time they learn their great-grandparents' names or see granddad's signature on his WWI draft registration!

I did a few interviews while I was there, including this one with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Of course, I was intrigued by the fact that the journalist was a woman named Douglas. I figured it was a family name, but she said that wasn't the case. I didn't want to be nosy, so the mystery remains!

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Coming to a Town Near You: The Elaborate Genealogy Chart

I love seeing signs that genealogy is crossing over to the mainstream, and this is one. I don't know about proving that Hillary Clinton is related to George Clinton, but anyone who wants to start a band called The Elaborate Genealogy Chart is alright by me!

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Presidential Voyeurism

Well, this is a new one on me. As you may or may not know, when serving as President of the U.S., both George Washington and John Adams actually lived in Philadelphia in a mansion that was then the biggest in town. It was the precursor to Washington, D.C.'s White House -- and though it no longer stands -- its location has been identified.

What's really cool -- in this geek's mind, at any rate -- is that there's a 24/7 camera aimed at the excavation of the site. Check out archaeologists at work here. Just one word of advice -- I discovered this site (thanks to a tip from John Logan) in the wee hours of the morning, and there's not much action then. Daytime hours are slightly more interesting for the presidentially curious.

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Happy Cemetery News

Last month, I had occasion to sit with my sister one afternoon in an old Philadelphia cemetery. In spite of being several centuries old, it was well maintained and still very much a part of the community. Youngsters were playing in an adjacent school yard and walked home through the cemetery as their parents came to retrieve them.

I remarked to Stacy how exceptional that was these days -- that while cemeteries used to be "living" places in the sense that we used to stroll through them, hold ceremonies of remembrance, and even picnic in them, this no longer seemed to be the case. I wistfully pined for the days when cemeteries were more integrated into the lives of the still-living.

Well, it turns out I may have reason for hope. After hearing, reading about, and dealing with so many cemeteries that are being neglected, destroyed for development, or otherwise threatened, how refreshing it is to read this pair of articles from the New York Times! I'm full of admiration for all involved and cautiously optimistic!

Cemeteries Seek Breathing Clientele

Rows of New Markers, and Untold Sacrifice by Civil War Soldiers

P.S. You'll want to be sure to check out the multimedia associated with the articles -- a slide show in one case and a video in the other.

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Golden Door

I'm an easy target for all things Ellis Island-related, so I read with interest about this movie when it first came out as Nuovomondo. After garnering a bunch of awards, Golden Door is now in the U.S. in selected cities. Unfortunately for me, not in my area at this time, but I'll be keeping an eye out. If you'd like to learn more, take a read of this NYT review and check out the video that accompanies it:

Those Tired, Those Poor: A Journey as Important as Its Destination

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Haley Family Part of StoryCorps Griot Initiative

This year is the 30th anniversary of the release of Roots, Alex Haley's masterpiece that pulled so many of us into our own roots quests. So it seems especially appropriate that his family would participate in the StoryCorps Griot Initiative, an effort to record the stories of at least 1,750 African Americans this year. You can read more about the Haley family's experience here:

Haley family contributes to trove of archived legacy (note: you may have to register to read the article)

I've always been a big fan of StoryCorps and blogged about it recently when I ran into one of their trailers in Hartford, CT. I would encourage everyone to check out their schedule and see if StoryCorps will be in your area. If so, why not take a break from researching the lives of your ancestors to record some of your own stories for posterity?

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Post-Memorial Day

Technically, Memorial Day was last month, but I thought that it was time to share this piece again. It's from my book Honoring Our Ancestors and I wrote it about half a dozen years ago shortly after I started working on the U.S. Army's Repatriation Project. I continue to work on that project, and I suppose it's only appropriate that I received a fresh batch of cases yesterday.

I think this story came to mind because we had my mother interred at Arlington National Cemetery two weeks ago. There's some comfort in knowing that the resting place of your loved one will always be well maintained, and I like to think there's some comfort in this piece, too. To all those vets out there, a million thanks!

Arlington National Cemetery is a blustery place in November. Hundreds of rows of neatly aligned, memorial markers sprinkle the landscape as far as one can see, but there is little to prevent the wind from having its way with the living who venture among this ocean of white stones. Forewarned, I had donned long underwear under my black suit and winter coat, but I still found myself shivering as I attended the funeral of a man I had never known.

He wasn't my ancestor. In fact, I'm not related to him in any way. But as a so-called "Army brat," I felt privileged to have the unexpected honor of accepting the flag on behalf of his family. The head of the honor guard, usually so stoic, allowed a trace of emotion to pass across his face as he handed me the flag, and I knew that he was relieved someone was there to receive it.

How did I find myself in this peculiar situation? I'm a researcher for the U.S. Army's Korean Repatriation project. In the years 1950-1953, thousands of American men died or went missing in Korea. Now, half a century later, U.S.-Korean relations are warming up. One consequence has been the return or "repatriation" of the remains of some of our anonymous soldiers.

Over the last five decades the Army has lost track of the families of many of these soldiers. In most instances, the next of kin were parents who have since passed away. In other cases, they were siblings or wives who have moved, changed names, or are now deceased. Two generations have intervened and little has remained stagnant in our mobile, churning world. It is my job to find these families again.

When I succeed, the Army contacts the family and conducts mitochondrial DNA tests to positively identify the remains of the soldiers. When a match is made, the soldier can be laid to rest and his family can release itself from a fifty-year limbo of not knowing. Siblings, wives, children, cousins, and ever-so-rarely, an aged parent finally have a place to go to pay their respects to the loved one who gave his life for his country.

When I make the first contact with a soldier's family, the initial reaction is generally one of quiet disbelief. This is almost always followed by questions, cooperation and even gratitude. It gives me tremendous pleasure to have some small role in bringing these soldiers home to their families. My father served in Vietnam and I had a dear cousin who was killed there. I can't say that I can put myself in the shoes of these startled family members when I cold call my way into their lives, but I'm familiar enough with their world to know that most of them are pleased to be found.

So I was rather surprised when I learned that the family of one of "my" soldiers was not coming to his funeral. The ceremony was scheduled, but only the priest and the honor guard would be there. Today's sophisticated technology was rendering the "unknown soldier" an antiquated concept, but in so doing, was revealing the almost sadder notion of the occasional "forgotten soldier."

It is understandable to some extent. In many cases, these soldiers have already been grieved twice -- first, when they were listed as missing in action and again, when they were officially declared deceased. Perhaps it is just too painful to enter the mourning process a third time, half a century later. Preserved in their survivors' memories as heroic, young men, the very mention of these soldiers' names may well return people to a time of young widows and untapped potential. Maybe this explained the absence of this particular soldier's family on that gusty November day.

I suppose it was easier for me, a stranger who knew him only through documents and the voices of his relatives on the telephone, to attend his funeral. I only knew that his sacrifice needed to be acknowledged by someone, and so it was in that strange way that life has, that I found myself receiving the flag from the coffin of a man who had died ten years before I was born.

He is no longer unknown, and at least as long as I live, this soldier will not be forgotten.

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Upcoming Events

If you plan to be near any of the events where I'll be speaking, I would love to meet you. It's always a kick for me when folks mention that they read this newsletter, my blog, Ancestry Daily News or whatever, so don't be shy about introducing yourself!

For more information on these events, please see my Events Calendar. And if you're interested in scheduling me, just click here.

  • August 4, 2007 - Newport News, VA - Tidewater Genealogical Society - "Trace Your Roots with DNA"
  • August 15-18, 2007 - Fort Wayne, IN - FGS/ACPL Conference: Meeting at the Crossroads of America - "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options," "Find That Obituary! Online Newspaper Research," "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones," "Trace Your Roots with DNA" and "The Quest for Ellis Island Annie"
  • September 29, 2007 - Manassas, VA - Ruth E. Lloyd Information Center (RELIC) for Genealogy and Local History - "Trace Your Roots with DNA"
  • September 30, 2007 - Purcellville, VA - Loudoun County Public Library - "Trace Your Roots with DNA"
  • October 4-6, 2007 - Marshalltown, IA - Iowa Genealogical Society Annual Fall Conference - "The Quest for Annie Moore," "Find That Obituary! Online Newspaper Research," "Remembering Our Ancestors," "Trace Your Roots with DNA," "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options" and "Cases That Made My Brain Hurt"
  • October 21, 2007 - Wilmington, DE - Delaware Genealogical Society - "Remembering Our Ancestors"
  • October 28-November 4, 2007 - 2007 Genealogy Conference and Cruise - hosted by Wholly Genes Software - "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones" and "Cases That Made My Brain Hurt"
  • January 26, 2008 - Boerne, TX - Genealogical Society of Kendall County - "Trace Your Roots with DNA," "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options," "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones," "Find That Obituary! Online Newspaper Research" and "Remembering Our Ancestors"
  • March 1, 2008 - Tallahassee, FL - Tallahassee Genealogical Society - "Trace Your Roots with DNA," "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options," "Cases That Made My Brain Hurt," "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones" and "Remembering Our Ancestors"
  • April 12, 2008 - Pittsburgh, PA - Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society - Details TBD.
  • April 26, 2008 - Topeka, KS - Topeka Genealogical Society - "Trace Your Roots with DNA," "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options," "Building a Village-Based Community" and "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones"
  • May 2-3, 2008 - Lincoln, NE - Nebraska State Genealogical Society - Details TBD.
  • September 20, 2008 - Bangor, ME - Maine Genealogical Society - "Trace Your Roots with DNA," "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options," "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones," "Cases That Made My Brain Hurt' and "Remembering Our Ancestors"
  • April 22-26, 2009 - Manchester, NH - The New England Regional Genealogical Conference 2009 - Topics TBD

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Please forward this newsletter to your family and friends who are interested in genealogy -- thank you!

Wishing you an abundance of genealogical serendipity!
Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak


Note: You are receiving this because you have demonstrated an interest (e.g., you have a story in one of my books, applied for a grant, attended previous events, etc.) or subscribed via my website, but please let me know if you do not want to receive any further emails, and I will promptly remove you from my list. And rest assured, this is my personal list and not shared with anyone else! Thanks, Megan

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