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Honoring Our Ancestors Newsletter

December 15, 2007

By Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

Megan Smolenyak SmolenyakGreetings Fellow Family History Sleuths,

Yikes! Seems I've been blog-happy the past month, so I hope you don't mind if this issue is longer than usual. I'll just wish you all happy reading and even happier holidays!


In this newsletter. . .

Genealogy in a Commercial

Hmmm . . . not sure how a records office in Norway revealed the family was Swedish, but still nice to see some roots-seekers in a commercial:

Click here to view video

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World's First Genealogical Wave!

What I believe to be the world's first genealogical wave took place in November -- appropriately enough -- on a somewhat wave-tossed cruise ship. I just got back from the annual Wholly Genes cruise and had a blast -- and along with my co-conspirator, Dick Eastman, snagged footage of this genealogical first!

Click here to view video

Many thanks to Bob Velke and the entire Wholly Genes gang, as well as my 350 fellow genies. One of the best aspects of genealogical cruising is the camaraderie, and this one was as good as it gets. If you've been thinking about taking your family history on the seven seas, but aren't sure what to expect, keep an eye on Roots Television for some upcoming videos -- including more terrific interviews by Dick Eastman!

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The Genetic Strand: Slightly Disappointing

I've been waiting for over a year now for the latest book by Edward Ball, author of the best-selling Slaves in the Family, a book I much admired. I had participated in a webinar of sorts last year when he spoke of his latest project -- using genetic genealogy to explore his roots. The trigger for this exploration intrigued me -- his discovery of 9 old hair samples from his family. I was curious about this since it's fairly well known that he'd only be able to test for mtDNA on these samples, and that the odds of success were far from guaranteed. In fact, I wrote about this in July 2006.

So now the book is out: The Genetic Strand - Exploring a Family History through DNA. What surprised me was the randomness of his genetic journey. He avoided all the major genetic genealogy companies and only took a test or two from companies like DNAPrint Genomics, Trace Genetics and African Ancestry. He also almost willfully ignored common knowledge about genetic genealogy, taking a meandering course of testing that leaves one sort of baffled.

I found myself mentally questioning why he took particular tests from particular companies in the order he followed. For what he ultimately learns, he could have taken a much more efficient testing path. And while he goes into some depth on the science behind all the testing, he doesn't cover some basics -- like the fact that some of the tests he took were low resolution (and what that means in terms of interpreting results). I also found myself wanting to see his family tree (he has one hard-to-follow illustration that attempts to show the hair-providers) so I could see what his testing options were. Instead, the reader is left with his choices -- which may have been perfectly logical, but are presented without much context.

I was also somewhat taken aback by this quote from pages 129-130:

"Genealogy, a search for family history, is practiced by millions of middle-aged and middle class Americans, for whom it has traditionally been a way to snatch a bit of glory or a helping of a fantasy from the past. It is, after all, the little activities, visiting libraries and surfing Web sites, that allow one to acquire "good genes." Most people who do family research are white, and most of them look for ancestors with the goal to unearth the whitest, most moneyed forebears they can. That is one definition of good genes."

This comes as a surprise to me. That someone as immersed in the world of genealogy as he is could still be living with the retro-perspective that we're all just seeking glory -- that supposedly stems from whiteness and dollars no less -- caught me off-guard. Maybe these remarks reflect the world Ball grew up in or maybe he meant it in a more historical way -- but as a contemporary of his, I was thrown. Perhaps my mostly Ellis Island heritage and Army brat upbringing have left me with a wildly divergent paradigm. Maybe I'm the one who's seeing things through a peculiar prism. But I sure hope I'm not the only one who finds herself raising an eyebrow at his assessment.

But more to the point, as I often tell my genetic genealogy audiences, the folks who are most likely to be disappointed with their testing results are the ones who end up 100% anything -- including European. Folks these days seemingly crave admixture -- and in a sense, so does Ball. He essentially winds up disappointed with his testing project because it reveals that he's mostly just plain old European. He had brief hopes of Native American and African, but they're both dashed by the end of the book, so he's somewhat dismissive of genetic genealogy, saying, "I'd been skeptical of the swagger of science before entering its molecular world, and now DNA wasn't the fields of truth it claimed to be."

I'm not sure where he developed his expectations for "fields of truth," but it doesn't take much effort to learn what DNA can and can't tell us in terms of our roots these days. Frankly, I'm surprised at his seeming surprise that DNA testing can't answer all questions of a roots nature.

Some will still enjoy the book -- especially those who love absorbing the science and learning about the people behind the science. In those areas, he certainly delivers (including an unexpected portrayal of Kary Mullis). As to me, I suppose I'm a victim of my own high expectations. I was thrilled that a writer of Ball's caliber was tackling the topic of genetic genealogy, but I found Lisa Alther's Kinfolks -- falling off the family tree -- about the author's genealogical and genetic quest for her Melungeon ancestry -- more authentic and satisfying. So I guess I'll end on the hopeful note that we're seeing the beginning of a new genre -- the genetic family history.

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Genealogy in the News

It's getting to the point where you can't open a newspaper without spotting a genealogically-related article -- and that's a good thing! Here's a recent sampling:

Now-public military files reveal private lives

Out of the Attic, Family Memoirs With a Nazi Past

A Daughter Discovers Branches of the Family Tree Pruned by Her Father

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What Will You Say on Your Tombstone?

This sort of brings new meaning to "he who has the last laugh" . . .

Traditional epitaphs rest in peace

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The Great Cyndi on Roots Television!

If you haven't spotted it yet, we've got a terrific interview with Cyndi Howells of Cyndi's List fame on Roots Television. During the recent Wholly Genes cruise, Dick Eastman sat down with Cyndi and asked her all the questions we've all wondered -- like how many hours a day she spends on her site, how it all started, and how many links she has now. Plus, Cyndi tells us what happens when there's a full moon! Check it out:

Cyndi Howells on Roots Television

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Haley Family Joins the Genetic Revolution

If you haven't caught it yet, Chris Haley, nephew of Alex Haley, was recently DNA tested. Learn all about his results in this pair of articles:

Haley Family of Roots Fame Joins the DNA Game

"Roots" searches dig into DNA: Genetic maps help tracers of family trees, including Alex Haley's nephew, fill in the gaps archives leave.

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Another Entry in the DNA Field

Hmmm . . . this is interesting. It's a new company, but the testing is being done by Genealogy By Genetics Ltd. -- or as the company's better known, Family Tree DNA. The interesting spin in this is the $888 combo of DNA testing and research "as far as records allow" -- although the research only includes the tested line.

Harvard's Gates Refines Genetic-Ancestry Searches for Blacks

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Oh . . .my . . .gosh! I knew this was coming, but didn't expect it this soon.

Personal Genome Race Goes Into Overdrive

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3 DNA Companies Launched

Heaven forbid we should go 24 hours without a DNA company launch, so here's your fix for today:

23AndMe Will Decode Your DNA for $1,000. Welcome to the Age of Genomics

I've been waiting for this one for a while, but boy, it's getting hard to keep up! Check my earlier postings or the other two.

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161 Meme: Kasparov-style

Randy Seaver of Genea-Musings tagged me as part of what's being called the 161 meme. Apparently, I'm supposed to go the 161st page of the book I'm reading and share the 6th sentence, so here goes . . .

I'm reading How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov, and the relevant sentence is:

"The media attention for the first game of the rematch was beyond that of a world championship."

It pertains to Kasparov's matches against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in 1996 and 1997. About the only parallel I can draw to genealogy is the amount of media attention genealogy has been getting of late -- especially in the realm of genetics.

So there you have it. I'm now supposed to tag 5 others, but it seems plenty of folks have already been tagged, so I'll let this particular meme-branch take a Sunday afternoon respite.

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Getting More out of RootsTelevision.com

I recently created a brief video tour of Roots Television to help folks explore our more than 24 channels.

We recently discovered that we already have more than 1,100 videos in there -- all available 24/7, on-demand -- allowing you to watch what you want when you want. But with so much content, the trick is finding what appeals to you. If you want to do some deeper diving, take about 5 minutes and watch this new Help video.

You can find it anytime by clicking on the Help link at Roots Television or go directly to the video.

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3 Videos on 23andMe

Hmmm . . . turns out that Anne Wojcicki and Linda Avey are not lactose-intolerant and do not have strong sprinting potential. Wonder what else your DNA can reveal?

I really enjoyed watching this troika of videos on a 23andMe, a company I've been curious about since I first heard of it. And as a bonus -- as co-founder of Roots Television with Marcy Brown -- it was a real kick for me to watch an interview with another pair of women who created a tech-based company. Still not something you see too often.

I'm really looking forward to the next year in genetic genealogy because I suspect we ain't seen nothing yet!

Click here to view video

Click here to view video

Click here to view video

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U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925, Online!

I am one happy camper! I just learned that the 1795-1925 U.S. Passport Applications have been added to Ancestry.com. I'm nostalgic about this collection as I've been using it so long that I can actually recall being taken to one of those hidden, almost half-floors at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. the first time I requested access.

I love this collection as it's a terrific and underutilized one that sometimes even serves up the bonus of a photo. I especially enjoy finding records for immigrants returning home as they often provide the place of birth, father's name and other details straight from the horse's mouth -- not from a survivor in the person's death certificate. About as handy as Social Security applications for this purpose, but now, a heck of a lot easier to access!

And as if I needed something else to be thankful for, Ancestry also added the 1895 New Jersey State Census! Something tells me I'm going to be spending at least some of the holiday searching for my Jersey City Irish!

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A Sign of the Times

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to research Barack Obama's roots to uncover exactly where in Ireland his most recent immigrant branch (on his Mom's side) came from. As it turns out, it was Moneygall -- back in 1850. At any rate, I just get a kick out of this t-shirt . . . one more indication of our ever-growing obsession with roots!

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Me on RootsTV

If you watch Roots Television, you've probably noticed a recent series of video interviews by Dick Eastman. While traveling on the annual Wholly Genes cruise, my husband Brian and I played crew and taped Dick interviewing some big favorites in the genealogical world -- how 'bout the likes of Cyndi Howells, Tony Burroughs and John Grenham?? Not too shabby, eh?

Well, now it's my turn. Dick turned the tables and chatted me up for a few minutes, so if you'd like to hear us talk about the story behind Roots Television, all the fun stuff I get to do with Ancestry.com, the benefits of genealogical cruising, genetic genealogy mania, and some tidbits about famous roots, check it out: Dick & Megan

P.S. If you're curious about my t-shirt, it says "Team Genealogy."

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Nothing to Do with Genealogy

Yeah, this has nothing to do with anything roots-wise. I just like it!

Click here to view video

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Another Soldier Goes Home

JPAC has identified yet another soldier who served in Korea, and I'm pleased to have played a small role in this particular case. Yet another example of "no man left behind."

Remains identified of missing soldier from Korean War

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Ancestry's Digital Magazine & Another Rescued Orphan Heirloom

I am really loving the digital version of Ancestry Magazine. I like how easy it is to search and maneuver around. Plus, it just looks cool. Of course, I still love curling up with the actual magazine!

At any rate, here's the latest article from my Found column, where I write about my orphan heirloom escapades. This one involves an amazing travel diary about a European tour back around 1911-1912. It also addresses the issue of what to do when there simply are no descendants. Enjoy!

Travelin' Man

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If Only I Had $350,000 to Spare

I knew it was coming, but I can't believe it's already happened. What I would give for $350,000 to satisfy my curiosity!


I feel very lucky to have lived through the advent of the Internet and now this. And though many will probably get sticker shock when they read this, I think it's actually quite a bargain.

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Genealogical Exchange Rate?

I enjoyed a chat with journalist Helen Morris of CanWest the other day and was quoted in an article that appeared yesterday.

Canadians have no idea where they came from, survey says

Ms. Morris asked me about the dangers of discovering skeletons in the closet and here's the gist of my response:

Of course when you start your search you never know what you might find. But Megan Smolenyak, chief family historian for ancestry.ca said while in the past you might have people searching for connections to royalty, "nowadays the exchange rate for bragging rights is one royalty equals two rebels or rogues. A rebel is almost as good as a prince in some places. Half the fun is finding those secrets."

Many who aren't into genealogy (and even some who are -- check out this recent posting) still have an outdated notion that we're all in it for bragging rights. I try to get across the point that there's been a democratization in genealogy and that we're all out for the truth, the thrill of the hunt, and the stories. I try to explain that most of us enjoy a horse thief in the family tree as as much as a Charlemagne connection.

So my question is -- do you agree? And if so, what do you think the genealogical exchange rate is?

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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.

  • 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"
  • February 3, 2008 - Morristown, NJ - Morristown Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution - "Trace Your Roots with DNA"
  • February 8-9, 2008 - St. George, UT - St. George Genealogy and Family Heritage Jamboree - "Trace Your Roots with DNA, "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones" and "Find That Obituary! Online Newspaper Research"
  • February 16, 2008 - Hemet, CA - Hemet-San Jacinto Genealogical Society - "Jump-Starting Your Eastern European Research," "Trace Your Roots With DNA," "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques For Finding Your Lost Loved Ones" 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"
  • March 29, 2008 - Virginia Beach, VA - Virginia Beach Genealogical Society - "Trace Your Roots with DNA," "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options," "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones" and "Find That Obituary! Online Newspaper Research"
  • April 12, 2008 - Pittsburgh, PA - Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society - "Trace Your Roots with DNA," "Find That Obituary! Online Newspaper Research," "Building a Village-Based Community" and "Cases That Made My Brain Hurt"
  • 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 - "Cases That Made My Brain Hurt," "Trace Your Roots with DNA," "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones," "Jump-Starting Your Eastern European Research" and "Remembering Our Ancestors"
  • May 10, 2008 - Thousand Oaks, CA - Conejo Valley Genealogical Society - "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones," "Cases That Made My Brain Hurt," "Find That Obituary: Online Newspaper Research" and "Right Annie, Wrong Annie"
  • June 21, 2008 - Mandeville, LA - St. Tammany Parish Genealogical Society and the National Knowles/Knoles/Noles Family Association - "Trace Your Roots with DNA," "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options," "Introduction to Ancestry.com," "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones" and "Remembering Our Ancestors"
  • August 15-16, 2008 - Indianapolis, IN - Indiana Historical Society Midwestern Roots Conference - Topics TBD
  • September 3-6, 2008 - Philadelphia, PA - Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference - "Trace Your Roots with DNA" and "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options"
  • 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"
  • 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. - Topics TBD
  • 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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