Honoring Our Ancestors Newsletter

July 5, 2006

By Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

Greetings Fellow Family History Sleuths,

Yes, I know. It's been about four and a half months since my last newsletter. Bad Megan, BAD Megan!

I'm going to be honest with you and explain why. Early this year, my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness. In late May, she passed away. So in the first few months of this year, my attention was elsewhere -- and for a while afterward, my heart just wasn't in it.

I finally started dipping my toe in the water again with a blog (see the first article) and am trying now to wade a little further in with a fresh issue of this newsletter. That means we're playing catch-up, so this issue is longer than usual. Just pick and choose whatever catches your eye. I'll do my best to be more timely in the future so these missives don't turn into novels and choke your email box. Thanks very much for your patience and for continuing to read my little newsletter . . . Megan

In this newsletter. . .

New Megan's Roots World Blog

I finally entered the 21st century and started a blog. I plan to post bits and pieces of genealogical news that catch my attention in the hope that they'll be of interest to you as well. Some of these posts will be consolidated into this newsletter, so you'll have the option of getting your news instantly or from time to time -- essentially in digest mode. Happy reading!

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Was Grandpa Reincarnated?

A few months ago, I ran a contest in this newsletter. To enter, you had to either submit photos of ancestral lookalikes or tell me your favorite book or film with a genealogical theme.

Today, I thought I'd share a pair of the lookalikes, starting with the winner, Robert Cassella. He's the fellow on the right below. To his left is his grandfather, Guiseppe Cassella. I'd say the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. For his submission, Robert won a signed copy of The Queen of the Big Time by bestselling author, Adriana Trigiani. So now Robert can get a sense of what life might have been like for Guiseppe. BTW, if you're of Italian ancestry and haven't read any of Trigiani's books, do yourself a favor and go snag one.


The winner of the other book, a signed copy of Andrew Carroll's Behind the Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters -- And One Man's Search to Find Them, is Carol Anderson of California.

She wrote, "I very much enjoy the Butter in the Well book series by Linda K. Hubalek. Many years ago, I won the first book in the series called Butter In the Well and loved it. It's about a Scandinavian Woman's Tale of Life on the Prairie. My father and his family immigrated here from Norway when he was eight years old and it is easy to imagine from these stories how things were for them back in those days!"

I had never heard of this book series myself, but if I were of Scandinavian origin, I suspect I'd order every one! Besides, I can't help but be intrigued by a bison-farming writer.

Congrats to both Robert and Carol!  

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Put Your Baby in the Smithsonian

As contests go, this is pretty cool. Photostamps.com is holding a contest in conjunction with the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum. There are assorted prizes (trips, cameras, etc.), but the best aspect to me is that all winners get their photo-stamps displayed at the Smithsonian! As the site says, "Your winning image will become a part of American history." How's that for a little slice of posterity?

I haven't played with photostamps in a while (as you can see from the fact that those seen below are for 37 cents), but when I did, it wasn't possible to use sepia or b&w photos. With a bit of luck, that's changed by now. So time to start digging through all your family photos for the winning image. In the meantime, here's a peek at a pair of my nephews, Austin & David.

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So Much for the Trip to Mongolia

The New York Times recently shared something that was already known in genetic genealogy circles. Many newspapers have reported recently on a Florida professor's link to Genghis Khan -- discovered via DNA testing.

But it turns out not to be the case. See Falling From Genghis's Family Tree for details about why the poor fellow will no longer be traveling to Mongolia.

The problem is that the initial test used was low resolution (only 9 markers). And the problem with low resolution tests is that they can lead to false positives -- as in this case.

In other words, two fellows who get DNA tested and match 9-for-9 markers might only match, say, 28 for 37 markers if tested at a higher resolution (incidentally, tests are now available for up to 67 markers). In short, they don't really match at all and therefore do not share a common ancestor.

This is exactly why I'm always discouraging low-res testing when I speak. On a village project of mine, I've found about a 20% rate of false positives. So please, if you decide to enter the world of genetealogy, invest in a test with at least 20-some-odd markers -- preferably more. Sure, the low res ones are cheaper, but as this amply demonstrates, they can be extremely misleading.

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If Your Name Is Motyczka or Nelligan . . .

I'm about as addicted as they come to genetic genealogy (which I like to shorten to "genetealogy"). I was introduced to the topic via my work on the Army's Repatriation project back in 1999 and have been personally involved since January 2001 -- starting with a vanity study for the surname Smolenyak.

I now run or participate in the following projects:

  • the village of Osturna, Slovakia (both those who live there today and those who trace their roots to the village)
  • surname: Shields
  • surname: Reynolds
  • surname: Nelligan, Neligan
  • surname: Motyczka, Motichka and other variations
  • assorted deep-ancestry (e.g., I1c-Y-clan)

The Motyczka and Nelligan projects are my newest DNA-centered initiatives, so I'd like to selfishly ask everyone reading this to direct anyone they know with these names to me for more info about these projects. As with traditional genealogy, the more participants, the better for all of us, so I'm on a recruitment mission! Please help this needy DNA-junkie!

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Going through Your Parents' Stuff

This article couldn't have been better timed for me. Heirs should sift slowly through attic is a look into an issue more and more of us are dealing with -- sifting through a lifetime's worth of memories and memorabilia left to us by our parents:

"Much has been made of the ongoing "transfer of wealth" from the World War II generation, but the old soldiers and their wives are leaving behind a lot of stuff along with their stocks and bonds. Puzzled middle-aged children, some ready to downsize their own households, are left to decide what to keep, what to sell, what to donate to charity and what to haul to the dump."

With my mother's recent passing, I'm in this midst of this process right now, and even as a genealogist, there's a temptation to rush it. Just so much stuff. But it pays to go slowly. I found my father's original baptismal certificate. He and my mom divorced about 30 years ago, but she still had this document. Until now, even my father did not know where he had been baptized.

I found a prayer card given to my mother by a nun in the family at the time of my birth. The convent records of this distant cousin of mine turned out to be the key to unlocking a lot of mysteries about the Nelligan branch of my family tree. But until now, I hadn't realized that my mother and Sister Aldegonde had even known each other.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, and as the family historian, I'm the recipient of countless boxes and bags of photos. It will take me ages to sort through and organize, but it will be worth it.

Please take a moment to read this article -- and ponder it not only in terms of dealing with your parents' stuff, but also in terms of others dealing with your stuff.

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Are Your Family Treasures on eBay?

A recent "Tips from the Pros" piece (Keep an Eye on eBay) I wrote for Ancestry.com's 24-7 Family History Circle provoked a bunch of great examples and additional tips about "working" eBay to find your family treasures. I found the comments posted very useful and suggest you take a peek if you've got a few minutes to spare. Who knows? Maybe a piece of your roots puzzle is for sale . . .

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More Famous Roots: New York Times

I was delighted to catch Dr. Scott Woodward of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) today on CBS's The View. Barbara Walters gamely took a DNA test for SMGF on the air. Those of you who are familiar with this process know that this means she swished mouthwash for 45 seconds and then spit it out -- as gracefully as possible.

I'm a big supporter of the SMGF project and bring the foundation's kits to my talks. Recently, I've started taking photos of what I call the Swishers Club -- folks who are willing to all take their tests at once and swish away while I snap away. The gang below attended a conference I did in Port Charlotte, FL for the Charlotte County Genealogical Society. Good sports, all!

P.S. Keep an eye out and I'll post more photos of swishing genies! 

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Read Any Good Genealogical Mysteries Lately?

Until recently, I didn't realize there was a whole literary genre (albeit a sparsely populated one) of genealogical mysteries. Here's an article I wrote for Ancestry.com's 24-7 Family History Circle on the topic.

Since then, I've read another book by Jimmy Fox. It's called Deadly Pedigree and was his first -- and I have to say, a little harder to swallow. This time, virtually every action the lead character, Nick Herald, took was something an actual genealogist would never do. He still displays an in-depth knowledge of our world, but I spent a good portion of my reading session cringing -- and it wasn't the plot that made me do it. Of course, the fact that I read it while stuck on the tarmac for a few hours might have influenced my opinion. Environment does have an effect, I guess!

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GenealogyBank.com: New Resource for Genealogists Coming Soon!

I've been keeping an eye on NewsBank, a service I've been using for several years (for their NewsLibrary.com and ObitsArchive.com services). Perhaps a month or so ago, Dick Eastman wrote that they would have a new product offering for genealogists. Today, I spotted this on their site:

Coming soon, GenealogyBank.com consolidates the core genealogical records of the United States from the 17th to the 20th centuries into a single, robust Web-based resource. Like no other research tool, GenealogyBank.com makes it easy for genealogists to instantly search and browse digital facsimiles of American historical genealogies, obituaries, marriage notices, local histories, casualty lists, military documents and many other types of primary source materials published over the course of four centuries. [continue reading . . .]

Here are a few of the highlights according to their "Quick Facts":

  • Provides convenient online access to a vast number of primary source records and documents through a core collection of American historical resources
  • Features four centuries of genealogies, obituaries, marriage notices, local histories, casualty lists, military conflict records and much more
  • Includes American historical newspapers, books, government documents and other publications
  • Offers easy-to-use, fully searchable digital copies of every item

I, for one, intend to be one of the first in line for this service! It ought to help tremendously with the Repatriation Project I work on for the U.S. Army. And I can't wait to see what I might be able to find on my own family!

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More Unsung Heroes: Dick Eastman & Others

Here's a link to an article (second in a series) I wrote recently that appeared in Ancestry.com's 24-7 Family History Circle. What unsung heroes do you know??

Earlier this year, I wrote an article about unsung genealogical heroes, the few who have done so much for so many. Several months have passed, so I thought it was time to recognize the contributions of a few more heroes. I'd like to start with a long time favorite of mine, Dick Eastman.

Continue reading More Unsung Heroes

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Finding 20th Century Ancestors

In a recent article in Ancestry.com's 24-7 Family History Circle, I shared a few guidelines for locating living kin, based on my experience finding thousands of individuals for the U.S. Army:

Sounds strange to say "twentieth century ancestors," doesn't it? There are those who would scoff at the notion of research within the last century being true genealogy. And fortunately, many of our twentieth century ancestors are still very much with us! In fact, many of you reading this are technically twentieth century ancestors yourselves. But still, a lot can happen in a hundred years; whole generations can enter the stage and exit within that time frame. So how do you go about finding those most recent of ancestors--or even, some living kin?

Continue reading Finding 20th Century Ancestors 

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These Are a Few of My Favorite Blogs . . .

One of the best ways to keep up on the latest and greatest in the genealogical world is to monitor blogs. While I still love my hard-copy monthly and quarterly periodicals, I confess to being equally enamored with the instant-gratification provided by blogs. I've been following quite a few -- and while variety is the spice of life, I can't help but have my favorites . . .

The Genealogue
Chris Dunham is hands-down the funniest genealogist out there. The first word that springs to mind when I think of him is 'irreverent.' His humor is smart -- sometimes delivered slyly and sometimes in-your-face -- what the British might call 'cheeky.'

I love that he sees the lighter side of family history -- and that he finds it in so many surprising places! He's also consistent (new stuff every day) and right on top of the latest happenings. And BTW, he's also an outstanding researcher and recently contributed his talents to a BBC documentary I worked on (more on the doc shortly).

24-7 Family History Circle
OK, yeah, I might have a bias on this one. I suppose the fact that I write for this blog sort of disqualifies me from commenting on it, but I'm going to break the rules and include it any way. Long-time readers of Ancestry Daily News have had to make the transition from a daily newsletter to a blog/weekly newsletter combo over the last few months. I've heard a bit of grumbling, but folks are making the adjustment -- and a big part of the reason is Juliana Smith, the editor.

Juliana Smith is a not only a dream editor for any writer -- she's a terrific writer herself. And that's not just my opinion. I travel the country speaking all over the place. Whenever I do, folks come up to me mentioning my articles in Ancestry Daily News -- and then they mention one other writer: Julie. Time and time again, it's Juliana that the readers relate to -- and it's no surprise with her friendly, approachable style. If you're not already a fan, do yourself a favor and check out Julie in her new 24/7 environment.

Genealogy Roots Blog
Joe Beine gets my vote for the world's best unknown genealogist. I include screen-captures from some of his online resources in a number of my talks (my all-time favorite being deathindexes.com, the best place on the internet to find what's out there that might lead you to the details of the deaths of your ancestors). Whenever I do, I poll the audience on who knows Joe Beine -- and I'm lucky if I see one or two hands.

This is probably largely due to Joe's modesty -- the fact that he's a I-don't-need-the-credit kind of fellow. But he's got some of the best (and cleanest and well-organized) resources out there. And they're current. I don't know how he keeps on top of everything, but he does. Check out his latest batch of recent vital records updates. And once you get done exploring his blog and death indexes, spend a little time browsing some of his other offerings, such as resources for immigration and military records.

Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter
Talk about timing! About a month ago, I wrote an article called More Unsung Heroes, featuring Dick Eastman. Guess what just recently appeared in 24-7 Family History Circle? You got it -- that article. So I guess I'm going to cite a piece in another blog in my own blog to tell you why I like Dick's blog! Is that legal??

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Never Too Late to Reconnect (and AZ Vital Records)

Loved this piece in the May 3, 2006 issue of The Arizona Republic about siblings reuniting after 60 years. It really reaffirms Alex Haley's remark about our hunger to know our roots being marrow-deep. Sooner or later, every one of us feels the pull!

The article also includes a link to online Arizona birth and death certificates, including birth certificates for 1887-1930 and death certificates for 1878-1955. When you conduct a search, you're actually presented with a (.pdf) image of the document itself! If you'd like to experiment with it, try entering "Baron Goldwater" and take a peek at the death certificate of Barry Goldwater's father. If only all states would follow Arizona's lead!

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24/7 Obituary Hunter

I received one today -- a notice of an obituary for an individual named Sydorko, my grandmother's maiden name. As it happens, I can't find any relationship to this person, but sad to say (I suppose a reflection of our somewhat disjointed, or at least, far-flung families these days), this alert system is how I have learned of the passing of a few of my great-aunts over the years.

I'm a heavy user of Ancestry.com and suspect the Obituary Hunter tool is one of their most under-utilized features. I have it set to constantly monitor a variety of newspapers nationwide for surnames of interest to me. Whenever it spots ones with my specifications, it sends me an email with a link to check it out.

Because the names on the Eastern European side of my family are fairly unusual, I'm interested in anyone who shares them. But for folks with more common names, you can qualify the search by including additional factors, such as a first name, location, newspaper title, the names of someone else who would likely be mentioned in the obituary, or just any keyword. Used strategically, you can back into married names of females, find out where that missing branch of the family went after the 1930 census, or simply keep an eye on your hometown.

Give it a try. Go set up a few alerts and then just forget about it. Let the Obituary Hunter do the work for you!

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7,000 Images of Death Certificates Online

As if you didn't have enough ways to squander your time surfing the 'net, I'd like to suggest another one. Go to Google Images and type in "death certificate." I just did this and came up with 6,990 hits.

Click on any that interest you (click on the thumbnail version that appears at the top of the resulting page to go straight to the image) and meander your way through thousands of death certs that folks have popped online for one reason or another.

If you're the kind who actually likes to accomplish something while meandering through cyberspace, qualify your search by adding a surname. Almost everyone who uploads an image of a death certificate includes the relevant surname in the file name. When I tried this with one of my family names -- Shields -- I instantly located four certificates for individuals named Shields. None from my branch, but it was worth a try.

BTW, in case you're curious, "birth certificate" results in 8,930 hits (as of this writing) and "marriage certificate" produces another 6,070. So about 22,000 certificates to browse in all.

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What I Learned at VGS's Genetealogy Conference

Many thanks to the Virginia Genealogical Society for hosting me recently at their Is Genealogy in Your Genes? conference in Richmond, VA. The event was all about genetic genealogy and was held in the Library of Virginia, a perfect venue (especially loved the hi-tech audio-visual toys!).

I had the chance to deliver a couple of lectures and watch others given by genetealogy guru, Donn Devine, and genogram expert, Christine Crawford-Oppenheimer. A real eye-opener for me. For instance, this is the first I learned about the lack of standardization in genograms -- did you know that that some use "A" to indicate adoption, while others use "A" to indicate alcoholism? Room for confusion, eh?! Be sure to go see Donn or Christine speak if you get a chance!

I also had the opportunity to meet a lot of terrific folks and hear your amazing tales. I think the stand-outs in my mind this time were the woman who announced that she thinks her half-brother might really be her uncle (now that's a close family!) and the fellow who wondered if he should be concerned that there's a mutation separating his results from his brother's.

Fortunately, there's what I refer to as "close kin" testing available for the brother/uncle situation (check out GeneTree for more information), and I reassured the concerned gentleman that mutations are rare but random -- and that FamilyTreeDNA owner, Bennett Green, and his son are also separated by a single mutation. Thanks again to the Virginia Genealogical Society!

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Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards for 2006

Once again, I had the opportunity to attend the annual Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards. This year's recipients were Tommy Lasorda, Frank McCourt, Madeleine Albright and Shelly Lazarus. Each of this year's awardees was extremely gracious and seemed genuinely appreciative of the honor. It was especially touching to see the Lasorda clan - 5 brothers still close after all these years -- definitely practicing what their immigrant parents taught them! I also got a kick out of Tommy Lasorda's remark that he's grateful that his dad didn't miss the boat, but if he had, he'd be Pope Thomas XXVI now!


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Honoring Our Ancestors Grants

Congratulations to the April and May Honoring Our Ancestors grant awardees -- Sylvia and LaVaun who are both prime examples of what a single person can accomplish! Those of you with Brandon, VT and Lipscomb County, TX roots are very lucky!

May 2006
Sylvia Manning of Vermont is a genealogical researcher on a mission. While reading through an old series of newspapers for marriage and death notices, she realized how helpful it would be if they were indexed and made readily available to others. So between 1998 and 2005, she indexed 57 years' worth of weekly papers and posted that index online. Now she's working on a fresh round of projects including one that will be incredibly valuable for anyone with roots in Brandon, Vermont or the surrounding area. The library there has a collection of index cards and information compiled by a local man who passed away. Apparently, the collection includes census records, land information, vital records, civil actions, etc. -- and much of it is not available elsewhere. Due to space considerations, the collection is stored in the library's attic, and because some researchers pilfered documents or badly misfiled them, the local librarians have restricted access. Since there are only two librarians, the boxes of index cards and notebooks -- that fill shelves that are roughly 6 feet high and 8 feet wide -- are mostly untouched these days. Sylvia offered to scan the cards and put them on CDs for accessibility and distribution, and the library has agreed, so Sylvia will use her grant for a scanner to support this project. She's aware that this initiative will take years, but says, "I have the patience to stay with the job until it's completed, even if it turns in to another seven year project like the newspaper project I did." I think the genealogical world could use a few more folks like Sylvia!

April 2006
LaVaun Kraft of Texas recently inventoried and published her second edition of nine Lipscomb County, TX cemeteries. She personally walked each cemetery many times to record names and vital information on the existing tombstones. During the inventory, she discovered that many graves were unmarked or had deteriorating, tin markers. LaVaun will use her grant to purchase small, granite head markers that will record names and birth and death dates. She has already contacted many family members to secure funds to mark their families' graves, and has personally paid for ten markers herself. This donation will help her continue her admirable efforts.

Please visit the Honoring Our Ancestors Grants page to read about our awardee projects, and how you can apply for a grant to support your genealogical project.

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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.

  • July 15, 2006 - Pittsburgh, PA - Roots in the Boot Italian Genealogy and Heritage Conference - "Trace Your Roots with DNA" and "Building a Village-Based Community"
  • August 5, 2006 - Newport News, VA - Tidewater Genealogical Society - "Trace Your Roots with DNA"
  • September 2, 2006 - Boston, MA - Joint Genealogical Speakers Guild and International Society of Family History Writers and Editors luncheon at the FGS conference - "Finding Your Voice: Speaking and Writing in the Genealogical World"
  • October 21, 2006 - Ramapo, NJ - David Ackerman Descendants 1662 - "Trace Your Roots with DNA"
  • November 11-18, 2006 - 2006 Genealogy Conference and Cruise, Hosted by Wholly Genes Software - "Trace Your Roots with DNA" and "Find That Obituary! Online Newspaper Research"

The Diamond Princess
The Diamond Princess

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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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