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Honoring Our Ancestors Newsletter

September 15, 2008

By Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

Megan Smolenyak SmolenyakGreetings Fellow Family History Sleuths,

With presidential roots, Unclaimed Persons, RootsTelevision.com, and so much more, the last month has been a blur, so there's a lot to catch up on. I hope you have a few minutes to spare for some genealogical surfing – and again, if you’d like your news a little faster, please consider "friending" me on Facebook!

Take care,


In this newsletter. . .

Dan Waddell: The Blood Detective

An interview with Dan Waddell appeared on RootsTelevision.com last month. Those who live in England will likely recognize his name as the author of the original companion guide to the popular Who Do You Think You Are? series.

What I find more intriguing, though, is that he's ventured into fiction and recently came out with the first in a series of genealogically-based mysteries. If you watch the interview, you'll see that he came up with the initial premise for The Blood Detective during having an evening out in a pub and texted the idea to himself to make sure he didn't forget it!

You'll also see that he admits to not being a genealogist, but rather, a journalist -- but having read the book, I can tell you that it doesn't show. Many non-genies who try to write something with a genealogical theme don't quite pull it off. Their work tends to ring false to those of us who have been at it for a while. But Dan's intensive education in our arena has paid off. He's done his homework, so I readily went along for the ride.

Plus, the plot is satisfyingly complex. Who wouldn't be pulled in by the discovery of a current-day body marked with a sort of code, later determined to be the registration number of a death certificate? And the realization that the connection between the two suggests that more murders are coming.

If you're into family history and love mysteries, you're going to want to check this one out! If you read it, let me know what you think, OK?

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Wireless in Estonia

I thought I'd share a few photos from my family's recent Baltic cruise, starting with this one. Those of you who keep an eye on my Facebook profile know that I was thrilled to be able to confirm the rumors about the availability of extensive, free wireless in Estonia. Here I am with some sort of cider drink and my iPhone, checking emails in a subterranean pub -- the oldest in Tallinn.

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More on Barack Obama's Irish Roots

Well, this is interesting. Still more on Senator Obama's Irish roots. Some of you may recall last year when I did some digging in my capacity of Chief Family Historian for Ancestry.com to learn which village in Ireland his ancestors hailed from. Here are a few links to refresh your memory:

Tiny Irish Village Is Latest Place to Claim Obama as Its Own

Finding Barack Obama's Irish Roots

Barack Obama's Irish Family Roots Confirmed in Offaly County

Now, Eneclann has picked up where up where we left off and made some interesting new discoveries:

Barack Obama's Irish Family - The Kearneys

You might also want to give a listen to this piece from RTE radio's Morning Ireland. It's toward the end, about 37 minutes into the podcast.

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Meet My New 1st Cousin Once Removed, Robbie!

More years ago than I care to remember, my cousin Eileen (see From Ellen to Eileen, a story of genealogical serendipity I wrote about her marriage a few years ago), was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. I visited her while she was there and have fond memories of the trip.

Guatemala obviously made a big impression on Eileen, so now we're all welcoming Roberto Villa Fontana into the family. In addition to his mom and dad, Eileen and Mike, Robbie's got a big sister, Gabriella, as you can see below. I haven't met him yet, but from all reports, he smiles constantly and will climb just about anything! And I, of course, have a fresh leaf to enter into the family tree. Welcome, Robbie!

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If you like cemetery mysteries . . .

. . . be sure to watch the new episode of Down Under (Florida), featuring super-sleuths George Morgan and Drew Smith (aka the Genealogy Guys). This one involves the poignant tale of a mother and daughter who died on the same day. George and Drew use their genealogical skills to learn what happened and uncover many more details about the family -- and along the way, develop quite an attachment to these former strangers.

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Annie Moore to get her memorial!

Remember Annie Moore, the first immigrant through Ellis Island? Here's the latest:

Annie will finally get her marker

Will I be there? You bet!

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Unsung Heroes at Unclaimed Persons

Many of you reading this know that I started a Facebook group called Unclaimed Persons a couple of months ago (note: if you want to join, you'll have to register (for free) on Facebook). This was an outgrowth of the launch of the Unclaimed Persons show on RootsTelevision.com.

When the show first aired, we were inundated with emails from avid genealogists who wanted to contribute their skills to help coroners locate next of kin for people who are, quite literally, unclaimed. In an effort to steer all this talent and enthusiasm in the same direction, I started the Facebook group without really even knowing what you can and can't do in that online environment. I chose it largely for the purpose of expediency because I didn't want to become a bottleneck to the resolution of outstanding cases.

A couple of months in, we're still chipping away at establishing a structure, guidelines, FAQs and all that good stuff, but already, there are a half a dozen people or so who have gone above and beyond, and I wanted to take at least a moment to recognize and thank them.

*** Dee Akard Welborn was an early standout with her combination of detective and organizational skills, so I asked her to be the UP initiative's first case manager. Since then, she's devoted untold hours to developing procedures, tracking tools and everything else needed to coordinate the efforts of over 350 volunteers. She's also been at the heart of non-stop communications with case administrators and researchers, and I for one, am grateful for her boundless energy! UP would still be limping along without it.

*** Terry Elliott was the next person I tapped for case manager and this was due not only to her apparent and creative research aptitude, but for her way with words and others. She has a knack for saying exactly the right thing exactly the right way. It's an added bonus that she's also an organizer-extraordinaire and that she and Dee have turned out to be a dynamic duo!

*** Dra. Ana Oquendo-Pabon (sorry, Ana, no accents in my blog platform!) was the first to step up to the plate as case administrator, taking on the responsibility of guiding a case from start to finish -- introducing it, fielding endless questions, steering and cheering the volunteers, preparing reports for submission to the coroner, and sharing the outcome with everyone. I was delighted when Ana volunteered because she had been a major player in the resolution in several of the first cases we tackled, so I knew she knew her stuff. Prior to this, I knew her for her contributions to the world of genetic genealogy, but this was a whole other side I wasn't previously aware of! Ana's taking on of this role was selfless as it required her to resist the urge to solve cases herself -- something she's very good at -- to oversee cases in their entirety. Anyone who likes to research knows that's no small sacrifice.

*** Thomas MacEntee also gamely stepped up to take on the role of case administrator and has also done an amazing job of coordinating cases from start to finish. He's fast, friendly, optimistic, savvy, encouraging and everything else I could hope for. And like Ana, he also manages to somehow discipline himself to let the others have most of the research-fun while he shoulders the administrative responsibilities.

*** Jackie McCarthy is our third case administrator and has also chosen to take on the launching, steering, reporting and other responsibilities involved in making sure we're helping coroners, rather than adding to their already considerable burdens. Like Ana and Thomas, Jackie has a great attitude and doesn't get flustered when we encounter a new situation or unexpected finding, and that's key too.

*** Andrea Batcho is our administrator-at-large and Social Security administrator. Anyone who reads our discussion boards will see Andrea's postings all over pretty much every case, so I knew she'd be a great person to turn to take on vital responsibilities that are not case-specific. I don't think there's anything I've asked Andrea to do that she hasn't agreed to!

This feels a little like the Academy Awards to me in the sense that I know I'm leaving out people I shouldn't and I'm not doing justice to those I have mentioned, but please just know that I am so thankful and impressed by my fellow genies! You are all incredible!

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that in addition to this remarkable team who are donating countless man hours of their valuable time, there are a number of impressive researchers in our midst. I want to acknowledge them as well, but wanted to start with the officer team, so for now, I invite you to peruse the case discussion boards at the Unclaimed Persons group. I suspect you'll be dazzled by some of the creative research that's being done and maybe get a few ideas for your own family!

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Genealogical Round Up

Here's another collection of genealogical links I've recently posted in my Facebook profile (don't forget, you can register for Facebook -- it's free -- and invite me to be your friend)!

What do former Beatles drummer Pete Best, the authors George Orwell and Ruskin Bond, former Miss World Diana Hayden, actresses Vivien Leigh and Merle Oberon, and model Melanie Sykes have in common? Read this and find out.
The Brown Chronicles

Good news! Annie Moore's finally getting her memorial! Read more here . . .
Annie will finally get her marker

Well, it's a little odd, but why not, eh?
Rock Stars to Send DNA Into Space

Thanks for the kind words re: RootsTelevision.com, Michelle!
New Educational Goldmine!

Watch this!
Cemetery Research Videos on Roots Television: Free funeral records, cemeteries, graveyards, monument

More updates to deathindexes.com from Joe Beine!
Latest Additions - Online Death Indexes, Records and Obituaries

Well, her birth father was named John Jones -- how many of them can there be in Wales? Still, I hope lots of genealogists swarm all over this and find her family for her!
Adopted 90-year-old's family hunt

Whaddhya know? A fairly balanced piece on genetic genealogy!
Genealogy Gets More Precise

Another genealogical mystery novel . . . although the author's great-great-grandfather obviously contributed to her thought process!
Local author

Rescuing a little piece of history, the involvement of young people, a happy widow -- this story has several ingredients that appeal to me.
Artist recreating Ellis Island mural

I keep hearing about Mamma Mia, but Joe has convinced me to actually go. Wonder if it will remind me of my youthful adventures in Corfu??
Mamma Mia! and the Joy of Choosing Your Own Ancestors

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An Adoption Story on RootsTelevision.com

I have to confess, this made me verklempt -- especially the last couple of minutes. Last year, I was one of the speakers on the annual Wholly Genes cruise (check out this video to get a feel for genealogical cruising, in case you're curious - and take a look here if you'd like to learn about this year's cruise).

On the Wholly Genes cruises, one of the activities is a series of one-on-one consulting sessions between participants and speakers. Last year, Marilyn Andrus signed up for a slot with me. It turned out that Marilyn was adopted and looking for her birth father.

I'm not an adoption expert by any stretch of the imagination, but Marilyn had enough information that I thought I might be able to find her father. Internet access on ship is still iffy and slow, so I had to wait until I got back to shore, but once I did, I managed to track down Marilyn's dad. Sadly, he had passed away just a few years ago, having lived into his 90s. But there were relatives!

When Marilyn came to the Southern California Genealogical Society's Jamboree this summer, she was kind enough to find me and tell me the outcome. I have to say it's really rewarding when you get to hear the happy endings! In the following video, Marilyn tells her own story:

An Adoption Story

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Obama and Biden Both Descend from Irish Shoemakers Who Came to America in 1849

If, as the saying goes, the cobbler's children have no shoes, it seems that the ensuing generations do pretty well for themselves!

Joe Biden has frequently made reference over the years to his Irish Catholic roots, and more specifically, to his "Grandpa Finnegan" -- claiming that it was at his home in Scranton, Pennsylvania that his early political values were formed. Grandpa Finnegan would have been Ambrose Finnegan, so I was curious. What were his roots?

In my attempt to answer this question, I tripped across a few interesting discoveries, including the following:

  • Biden's grandfather was orphaned at an early age
  • Biden's great-grandfather was a blind musician
  • Obama's and Biden's shoemaking Irish ancestors arrived in New York in May and April 1849, respectively, with their families making the voyage the following year
  • Biden's Finnegan roots are most likely from Carlingford, Co. Louth

Let me back up and explain how I reached these conclusions. As Ambrose Finnegan's WWI and WWII draft registration cards reveal, he was born in 1884 in Olyphant, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania -- not far from Scranton, where he would spend most of his life. By the 1900 census, he was living with an uncle, which begged the question -- what happened to his parents? Sadly, Lackawanna County records revealed that the most obvious explanation was correct. Ambrose was orphaned at a young age, losing his mother, Catherine, before his second birthday and his father, James, at the age of 10.

Curious to learn more about James and Catherine, I checked out assorted census records for them and quickly discovered from the 1880 census that James was a blind musician (blind being indicated by a tick mark). The census also showed that both James and Catherine had been born in Ireland, so I was already back to the immigrants, but there was still a lot to learn.

This same 1880 record indicated that several of their kids had been born in New York, but where? The 1870 census showed them living in Rochester with James running a hotel, but this, it turned out, was just a brief detour. More digging took me to Seneca County, New York, where James's family was concentrated primarily in Ovid and Catherine's a few miles away in Lodi.

In all, I found four census records for James, two indicating he was blind and two not. I take this to mean that while he may not have been completely blind, he probably had a severe vision problem of some sort. This also provides a likely explanation for why I found no records for him serving in the Civil War, although others in his family did.

James and Catherine married in Ovid in 1866 at Holy Cross, a Roman Catholic church. Before then, I find them living with their respective parents, Owen and Jane Finnegan and Thomas and Bridget Roche.

At this point, I concentrated on the Finnegan family. They were already in Covert, Seneca County, New York by the 1850 census. So when had they come to America? As it turns out, not much earlier.

Owen, Biden's great-great-grandfather, arrived in New York on May 31, 1849 on a ship called Brothers. His wife Jane immigrated with their three children (including Biden's great-grandfather, James) almost a year later on May 15, 1850 on a ship with the interesting name of Marchioness of Bute. The Boyles traveling with her? Likely her younger siblings, as Jane's maiden name was Boyle.

I've often thought that countries like the United States, Canada and Australia were the unintended beneficiaries of the Irish famine (a theory I refer to as "famine's finest"), and as I looked at these arrival records, I realized that this was a familiar story to me. Just last year when I traced Barack Obama's Irish roots to Moneygall in County Offaly, I had seen this same pattern. His 4th great-grandfather, Joseph Kearney, arrived on April 25, 1849, and his son (Obama's 3rd great-grandfather) turned up the following year on March 20, 1850. So both of their emigrant ancestors had crossed the pond in 1849 and been followed by their families in 1850, little imagining how the lives of a pair of their descendants might intersect in the future.

Another curious overlap is the fact that both Obama's and Biden's immigrant ancestors were shoemakers. Here's Biden's ancestor, Owen Finnegan, in the 1860 census and being taxed for his business in 1866:

And here's Obama's ancestor, Joseph Kearney, listed as a shoemaker in the baptism record of one of his children:

Tucking the shoemaking aspect aside, I turned back to Biden's Finnegan ancestors. I had their arrival, which naturally leads to the question of where in Ireland they had come from. While I'm not 100% certain, I think I know. The ships the Finnegans came on all left from Newry, so that provided a clue. Working with Griffith's Valuation pointed to the counties of Armagh, Louth, Cavan, Monaghan and Meath -- a useful narrowing, but still a lot of territory.

I knew from my research to this point that I was looking for a James Finnegan who was born around 1840 with parents named Owen Finnegan and Jane (Boyle) Finnegan, who would have probably married in the late 1830s. After a lot of digging, I came up with this:

  • James Finegan baptized on December 18, 1840 in Lordship Parish in County Louth, parents Owen Finegan and "Jean Bail" (likely a distortion of Boyle due to factors such as poor penmanship or transcription errors, as Griffith's Valuation shows no Bail families)
  • Owen Finigan and Jane Boyle married on December 8, 1839 in Cooley Parish in County Louth

The records involved are all Roman Catholic and the parishes neighbor each other, suggesting an origin of Carlingford, Co. Louth, Ireland.

Can I rule out another family meeting these specific criteria in this timeframe within the five aforementioned counties? No, but this is pretty darn compelling. I'll leave it to my fellow genealogical detectives to confirm or deny and to round out the picture. Here's a little hint to get you going -- I suspect that Owen's father's name was Hugh. Happy hunting!

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

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Descendants of Irish Cobblers: Obama & Biden

I did a radio interview at 1:30 this morning with my friends at RTÉ in Ireland, which apparently resulted in a brief piece by the AFP:

Obama, Biden descended from Irish cobblers: researcher

Oddly, both Barack Obama and Joe Biden have Irish, shoe-making ancestors who arrived in New York in 1849 (just five weeks apart) and were then followed by their families in 1850. There are some more interesting tidbits you can read about in a posting I blogged earlier this week.

What I've especially enjoyed, though, is watching variations of the AFP article being published in Spanish, Brazilian, Romanian, Turkish, French and Hungarian!

And I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I've already been asked about Palin's roots. Yes, she too is part Irish -- although I suspect it's her Mayflower roots that will garner the most attention. What do you want to bet that she's distant cousins with Obama?

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Honoring Our Ancestors Grants

August 2008
Brian Bouchard of Brunswick, ME created a website for Maine genealogists, providing photos of more than 400 cemetery gravestones from Maine cemeteries and allowing visitors to upload their own photos. The website also has scanned images of antique letters and books, as well as a blog that keeps visitors up to date on things happening around the state related to Maine history and genealogy. With this grant award, Brian will be acquiring new letters for his Online Letters Collection, which is a set of scanned images of letters that are available for free to download/view with the goal of returning the originals to the related families.

September 2008
The Chester Historical Society began digitizing their archives in 1999. In 2003, they began a website for the Society, and then in 2006 joined the Hudson River Valley Heritage project making original source documents (obits, maps, indentures, estate accounts, etc.) available to the public. The grant award will go toward the purchase of a professional scanner and printer that can accommodate oversized original documents for the digital archive they are sharing online.

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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.

  • September 20, 2008 - South Portland, 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" and "Remembering Our Ancestors"
  • September 27, 2008 - Naperville, IL - Fox Valley Genealogy Society - "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones," "Find That Obituary! Online Newspaper Research," "Trace Your Roots with DNA" and "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options"
  • October 18, 2008 - Huntsville, AL - Huntsville-Madison County Public Library - "Trace Your Roots with DNA," "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options," "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones" and "Welcome to Roots Television!"
  • October 26-November 2, 2008 - 4th Annual Genealogy Conference and Cruise, hosted by Wholly Genes, Inc. - "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options", "Right Annie, Wrong Annie"
  • January 16-20, 2009 - Auckland, New Zealand - Australasian Federation of Family History Organisations 12th Australasian Congress on Genealogy & Heraldry - Topics TBD
  • February 14, 2009 - Secaucus, NJ - Hudson County Genealogical Society - "Trace Your Roots with DNA"
  • March 7, 2009 - Surrey, BC - Surrey Public Library - "Trace Your Roots with DNA," "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones," "Introduction to Ancestry.com" and "Cases That Made My Brain Hurt"
  • April 18, 2009 - Anchorage, AK - Anchorage Genealogical Society - "Introduction to Ancestry.com," "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones," "Find that Obituary! Online Newspaper Research" and "Cases That Made My Brain Hurt"
  • April 22-26, 2009 - Manchester, NH - The New England Regional Genealogical Conference 2009 - Topics TBD
  • May 30, 2009 - Marion, IN - Marion Public Library - Details TBD
  • June 20, 2009 - Wichita, KS - Kansas Council of Genealogical Societies - Topics TBD
  • September 11-13, 2009 - Spokane, WA - Eastern Washington Genealogical Society - 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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