Honoring Our Ancestors Newsletter
August 13, 2007
By Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak
Well, I'm getting on the road to head to Fort Wayne, Indiana for FGS, and I hope to see lots of you there! I'm delighted to have the opportunity to share Annie Moore's story (she of Ellis Island fame) at Friday night's banquet -- not to mention, deliver four other talks on genetic genealogy, "reverse genealogy" (finding the living), and online newspaper research. When I'm not speaking, I'll be doing a book signing at Ancestry.com's booth (Thursday, 3:30-4:30), and otherwise hanging at the Roots Television booths (318 & 320). By the way, on Thursday the 16th, we've got a special surprise guest at Roots Television, so you might want to stop by and say "hello!" Hope to see you there!
In this newsletter. . .
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OK, I have to admit I haven't really played with this site (basically because I'm not a big fan of sites that make you register to do just about anything -- which this one does), but this press release caught my eye:
If you'd like to tell the world about the old house you live in, you now have a vehicle at That's My Old House. Sort of puts me in mind of If Walls Could Talk on HGTV. It looks very basic, but the site claims to have over 1,400 "house entries" in just its first month, so maybe there's something interesting brewing here. I definitely like the idea of house histories, so I'll keep an eye on this site.
Was intrigued to read this posting about a DNA talk by Rick Kittles recently. Seems to suggest that 60 Minutes will be running a piece on genetic genealogy -- possibly one focusing specifically on African Ancestry tests.
I see that Tony Burroughs was there pointing out a reality of this particular test, but the audience didn't want to hear it. I know what he's talking about and appreciated that African American Lives (on PBS) shared this reality, too.
Here's what folks need to be aware of. Africa is the cradle of mankind, so we've had longer to migrate around this continent than any place else. So the notion that one's genetic signature will exist only in one place in Africa is slightly optimistic. On African American Lives, this was seen when celebrity after celebrity had genetic matches in several locations in Africa. So while the test represents a giant step forward in terms of what was available previously for learning about African origins -- that is, virtually nothing -- it should be taken more as an indication than an absolute.
I'm obviously a major fan of genetic genealogy in general, but it does concern me when it borders on being oversold. I always fear a backlash down the road, so I don't be a downer to anyone -- but I think it would be great if everyone ordering a test understood in advance exactly what it can and can't do.
I was recently at the San Francisco airport trying to fly home, and as seems to always be the case these days, my flight was delayed. At first I was aggravated, but then I discovered a great independent bookstore in the airport. I decided to regard it as a treat and headed straight for the recently released, non-fiction section. Of course, it was only a matter of seconds before I spotted a couple of books with a genealogical theme -- and between the delay and the actual flight, I swallowed them both whole.
The first was a book (Kinfolks -- falling off the family tree) about author Lisa Alther's search for her Melungeon ancestors. I was hooked as soon as I saw the reference to DNA testing on the inside flap -- especially since it said that "DNA testing finally offered answers."
This intrigued me because I've followed a lot of the online chit-chat about the use of DNA for this purpose and hadn't seen anything conclusive. So I did as I always do -- went straight to the back of the book. I was pleasantly surprised to see Trace Your Roots with DNA mentioned in the bibliography, but absolutely delighted to see my co-author, Ann Turner, singled out for recognition in the Acknowledgments section. Anyone who's into genetic genealogy is full of admiration for Ann and for good reason. She's a genius who can explain things so that the mere mortals like myself can understand. And as it happens, I had just met with her earlier that day. Odd coincidence.
At any rate, the book struck me as an honest read -- and a journey that many fellow genies will recognize. Her description of online DNA lists on p. 213 will make genetic genealogists guffaw in recognition -- and let's face it, hasn't everyone with a Melungeon rumor in the family checked for shovel teeth and a Mongolian blue spot? And her father's reactions to everything throughout were very familiar as well. I suspect most family history sleuths will appreciate this ride.
The second book snagged my attention as soon as I spotted the word "cemetery" the title. Love Cemetery -- Unburying the Secret History of Slaves. C'mon? How could I resist a book like that?
This book, by China Galland, also struck me as very real and honest -- right down to the disagreements and bureaucracy that hinder this noble undertaking to restore an old cemetery in Texas. It should be read by everyone who's considering such a task -- and fingers crossed that many more will follow in their path. I love anything that brings a voice to the forgotten, and heaven knows, these former slaves buried in an almost unreachable place had nearly been forgotten. But that's being rectified. If you're into genealogy, this one belongs on your read-soon list.
If you're into genetic genealogy, you might be interested in this talk by Gina Paige of African Ancestry recorded by Roots Television at the recent Family Reunion conference. I include this company's tests in many of my DNA-related talks, so it was interesting for me to see a lecture by one of African Ancestry's principals. If you've got half an hour to spare, why not take a look?
Not quite, but how cool is this? I don't have a drop of British blood (that I know of, anyway), but I've been anxiously awaiting the release of the rest of Ancestry.com's British 1880-1984 phone book collection, so I was delighted to see the addition of almost 85 million names. Why? Because we lived there when I was a kid, so I was pretty darn sure there would be an entry for my family -- and sure enough! There we are at 6 Epsom Close in Camberley, Surrey, England. This was back in the days before we were all glued to our phones 24/7, so I wasn't even aware that we had a 5-digit number. Does that give me "When I was your age . . ." rights??
OK, time for me to stop griping about my complicated name. Check out this list of birth announcements I spotted in the local paper during my recent vacation in Hawaii.
You know, I haven't watched The Simpsons in a while, but I was channel surfing last night and spotted Lisa Simpson with a genealogy book on her desk (yeah, they showed the g word on TV -- in a cartoon, no less!).
Of course, I had to see what she was up to and it turned out that she had to do a presentation about one of her ancestors. I didn't catch all of it, but for whatever reason, she decided to create a fictional Native American ancestor and snagged the brand name from the nearby microwave as her tribal affiliation. So the Simpsons were now of Hitachi descent. Problem is -- her presentation was so good that she wound up having to present elsewhere, get interviewed, and so forth . . . you get the idea. Probably not an inaccurate portrayal of how and why so many families today claim to be descended from Cherokee princesses.
At any rate, the episode is too new to be online anywhere. In fact, all I was able to find was this description from a web page with upcoming episodes, but I'm going to keep an eye out because I think most genealogists would get a kick out of it.
I went to see the playMaking Up History: Searching for Annie Moore last month and I have to say it was surreal seeing myself as a character. There I was in the front row watching intense, borderline neurotic "Megan" (yeah, that was definitely accurate!) and her quest for Annie Moore, the first immigrant through Ellis Island. And there were the right and wrong Annies, Annie's brother Anthony, Megan's assistant Melinda (sort of a combination of my husband Brian, my virtual assistant Alyssa, and others who are forced to deal with me on a consistent basis), two of Annie's kids, and Weber of Ellis Island.
Here's a hint: if ever you go to see a play that includes you, don't sit in the front row because you'll be a mess. I spent half the time trying to discreetly wipe tears away -- and that's a testimony to the talent of playwright Alia Faith Williams. I have no idea how she managed to intertwine Annie's story along with my search for her and put it on stage, but she did. Her ability to convey abstract concepts such as the swarm intelligence of the virtual network of genealogists who contributed their skills to solve this history mystery is remarkable. In fact, there's so much more I want to share here, but I'll hold back because I don't want to spoil it for those who go. But let's just say I love what she did with the two Annies and how she brought the true Annie's life into focus.
The actors were all great as well. Melora Kordos and April Sigman were perfect as the two Annies -- very much as I've imagined them in my mind's eye. Dee Ann Lehr was a younger, improved version of me, and for that, I'm grateful! Karen Lange as my assistant Melinda was so convincing I wanted to hire her on the spot! Kevin Finkelstein was born to be Anthony and Joseph -- the brother everyone wishes they had. And John-Paul Pizzica added the proper pomp and gravitas as Weber and the Ellis Island emcee.
As to the photo below? That's my husband Brian putting a dot on the map to show where his ancestors came from. Again, I don't want to give it all away, but I'll just mention that there's some clever audience participation that will open your eyes about how distortion creeps into our personal and national histories.
I'm delighted to see Annie's story told this way, and especially so that it should be done by the likes of Alia. It's one thing to have the opportunity to see yourself in a play -- everyone should have that chance. But it's another thing entirely to have it done by someone as capable and caring as Alia Faith Williams.
Shortly after the research that revealed the Sharpton-Thurmond connection, I answered questions for a short film by Eddie Harris -- and recently, I spotted it on Current TV. If you'd like a bit of a behind-the-scenes peek, you'll want to watch Half a Negro Boy Named Coleman. The title refers Coleman Sharpton, Al Sharpton's great-grandfather, and a mostly neglected aspect of the research that I found especially eye-opening.
Check it out! George Morgan and Drew Smith have reached the 100 podcast milestone! If you haven't discovered the Genealogy Guys yet, do yourself a favor and give them a listen. Hands down one of the best ways to stay current with what's going on in the world of genealogy.
Spotted this and all I want to know is when our turn coming. Why is the U.S. about the only country left without genealogical programming on conventional network or cable TV? It's good for Roots Television, of course, but still puzzling.
This kind of stuff infuriates me. Chris Dunham, the much beloved Genealogue, caught my eye with an intriguing posting about A Titanic Error -- referring to the misidentification of a child who had died aboard the Titanic.
I read the original article here.
I'm going to be blunt here. This is lame.
And I know what I'm talking about because I've been in a very similar position to these researchers when I worked for the BBC locating families of sailors who lost their lives on the U.S.S. Monitor in the Civil War. The idea was to try to identify the two fellows whose skeletons had been found in the turret when the Monitor was recovered a few years ago.
Even back in 2002, we all knew the limitations of mtDNA -- and the fact that someone declared victory -- that is, announced a match and made an identification -- based on just HVR1 testing (think of this as very low resolution) is well . . . ridiculous. To give you a sense, based on my own HVR1 results, I have over 4,000 matches just in the database of the company that did my testing -- and probably millions of maternal cousins if it were possible to test everyone in the world.
In the case of The Iron Coffin, the episode of Timewatch I worked on, a maternal relative I found in Scotland for James Fenwick did indeed match one of the skeletons based on their mtDNA results. But the lab that did the testing correctly refused to make an identification for the reason I just mentioned -- the lack of precision. Is it supporting evidence? Yes. Could that skeleton be Fenwick's? Yes. But the mtDNA match is not compelling enough on its own. If higher resolution testing could be done (complete mtDNA sequence testing is now available -- I've had mine done -- but "ancient" or degraded remains like those from the Monitor present stubborn challenges in this regard), if isotope testing is done, if other artifacts are considered, if other candidates are eliminated (there were 16 who lost their lives that night), etc. -- then maybe an identification could be made. But not yet.
And the lab refused, even though I'm sure the folks at BBC were desperately hoping for an identification. I understand the pressure because I've been there. I've participated in discussions on the ethics of disinterring bodies for DNA testing to help solve historical riddles. I've worked on enough TV shows to know the extreme pressure that comes when producers -- who work under the burden of impossible schedules -- are hoping against hope that your research will give them at least a good story, and better yet, a new discovery to share. Even in non-TV-related situations -- with Ellis Island's Annie Moore, with the Sharpton-Thurmond connection, with Barack Obama's Irish roots -- I've felt the pressure to make a declaration of some sort.
But even under those circumstances, you have to be sure. In fact, under these circumstances when there's possible meaning beyond one's personal roots -- maybe a snippet of history at stake -- it's even more important to be sure you're right.
I realize I'm pontificating here, but incidents like this give all of us in the genetic genealogy community a black eye, so it's a bit of a pet peeve of mine. We all get tarnished because a few people or one company fell victim to wishful thinking. I sympathize. I really do because of my similar experiences. But it's just not cool to cave to the pressure. Because that's how stuff like this happens.
This is an update to my earlier article, An Avoidable DNA Error:
I decided to touch base with Ann Turner about this, and I'm glad I did because she shed some new light on the situation. It appears that the article gave a sketchy version of events (and I should know enough to be on the lookout for that) -- and while there was still avoidable error, it was of a slightly different nature than what the article suggests.
Ann was aware of an article from The Journal of the Canadian Dental Association on the research and science behind this particular history mystery and brought it to my attention. According to Ann:
"I'm not sure I'd reconstruct events the way the Nova Scotia article did. I suspect they would have done the HVR2 test at the time if it were possible with the technology available back then. According to the article below, they were aware that two HVR1 results were the same, but they let the dental forensics trump the mtDNA. One sample was completely consumed by the HVR1 test."
If you read the article, you'll see that they essentially had an mtDNA tie between two candidates, so they made the final identification based on dental forensics -- and that's where they apparently took their misstep.
I queried Ann further about the state of mtDNA testing at the time -- how viable it would have been to test HVR2 on degraded remains in 2002, and here's her response to that:
"I think it would have been possible if they'd had a sufficient sample. HVR2 is more difficult in general, though, because of the length variations with insertions and deletions around 309 and 315, and databases for comparisons are very heavily weighted toward HVR1 results, so the first step would have been HVR1 (which obviously consumed some of the sample).
In hindsight, they could have used techniques developed a few years later for identification of WTC victims, where DNA was degraded into very short fragments. If the Titanic project had tested HVR2 of the living descendants, they could have zeroed in on a short segment containing the critical difference(s). That would have a higher probability of success (but not guaranteed, of course)."
So yeah, they could have done more sophisticated testing -- but it would have been iffy based on the sufficiency of the available sample and more effort than time permitted -- and it still might have been inconclusive.
So thanks to Ann for the clarification. My bad for not delving deeper before venting, but I confess I'm happy to learn that this is an error of dental forensics, rather than genetics. Now, if only the article would correct its errors and give genetic genealogy credit for correcting a dental misjudgment!
Check out The Genealogy Craze in America -- Strangled by Roots in The New Republic (you'll have to register to view the article, but it's free). The writer, Steven Pinker, never uses the term, but much of the article focuses on the concept of the selfish gene. A lot of the content will be familiar to hardcore genealogists (especially the math), but it's still an interesting read.
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!
Please forward this newsletter to your family and friends who are interested in genealogy -- thank you!
Wishing you an abundance of genealogical serendipity!
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