Part forensic scientist, part master sleuth, Megan Smolenyak has solved some of America's oldest and most fascinating genealogical mysteries. You've read the headlines; now get the inside story as the "Indiana Jones of genealogy" reveals how she cracked her news-making cases, became the face of this increasingly popular field--and redefined history along the way.
How did Smolenyak discover Barack Obama's Irish ancestry--and his relation to Brad Pitt? Or the journey of Michelle Obama's family from slavery to the White House? Or the startling links between outspoken politicians Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond? And why is Smolenyak's name squared? Test your own skills as she shares her exciting secrets.
Whether she's scouring websites to uncover the surprising connections between famous figures or using cutting-edge DNA tests to locate family members of fallen soldiers dating back to the Civil War, Smolenyak's historical sleuthing is as provocative, richly layered, and exciting as America itself.
"Thank you for taking the time to lay out our family map. . . You're practically family. You certainly know more about us than we do." –Stephen Colbert
"Megan is a genealogist's dream, a forensic investigator who can also tell a great story." –Sam Roberts, The New York Times
"Megan is a blessing to cold case detectives and a master genealogist." –Julie M. Haney, special agent, NCIS Cold Case Homicide Unit
"The Indiana Jones of genealogy. . . Megan Smolenyak is a national treasure." –Buzzy Jackson, author of Shaking the Family Tree
"In this breezy narrative, Smolenyak allows us to look over the shoulder of a relentless genealogist as she works the puzzle pieces of her craft. Whether unearthing evidence from Internet databases, newspaper offices, court houses, libraries and cemeteries, consulting translators, historians or her vast network of fellow genealogists, pioneering the use of genealogical DNA testing, solving the mystery or occasionally hitting a brick wall, Smolenyak remains wholly committed, curious and cheery, eager to share her methods and excitement. Bottom-up history from a top-shelf researcher."-Kirkus Review
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About the Author
A popular writer, speaker, and TV guest, she does all she can to get the g-word out there and inspire others in their quest for roots. She has appeared on Good Morning America, the Todayshow, CNN, NPR, and the BBC, and consulted on shows ranging from Who Do You Think You Are? to Top Chef.
Megan is the author of six books (including Who Do You Think You Are? The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History, companion guide to the NBC series), a Huffington Post contributor, and former chief family historian and spokesperson for Ancestry.com. She lives in southern New Jersey with her husband and lots of research tools.
Read an Excerpt
Hey, America, Your Roots Are ShowingAdventures in Discovering News-Making Connections, Unexpected Ancestors, Long-Hidden Secrets, and Solving Historical Puzzles
By MEGAN SMOLENYAK
CITADEL PRESSCopyright © 2012 Megan Smolenyak
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNo Man Left Behind (for Real)
A decade of forensic consulting for the Army
Of all the research I've done to date, perhaps the most important is the forensic genealogy I do in conjunction with the repatriation efforts of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). Though many don't realize it, "no man left behind" is much more than an expression. The U.S. military genuinely does all it can to recover soldiers from all conflicts, and over the past decade, I've had the privilege of helping solve cases pertaining to WWI, WWII, Korea, and Southeast Asia.
As an army brat whose father served in Vietnam, I can't think of any more meaningful work. It gives me a deep sense of satisfaction each time one of "my boys" is identified and buried. (I tend to get a little possessive, and even though it's tempting to think of the soldiers as old men since they mostly lived and died before I was born, I remind myself that the majority barely made it past their teens.) I've had the opportunity to visit JPAC's facility in Hawaii, and on the walls, there are large plaques with rows of gold faceplates engraved with the names of those who have been identified. Gazing at them and recognizing so many names is one of my best memories.
The perennial research boot camp this initiative provides is largely responsible for sharpening my skills and making me the sleuth I am today. In Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, he cites the ten-thousand-hour rule—the notion that once you've done something for that many hours, you tend to get pretty darn good at it. I'm blessed to have started genealogy in the sixth grade, but thanks to the effort I've put into locating thousands of family members for the army, I've gotten even better. The repatriation project gives me the chance to flex my search muscles every day with cases that take me to every corner of America (not to mention a number of other countries) and expose me to family dynamics I never could have imagined. When you research thousands of people, you're bound to confront a stunning array of human drama, and because of that, these cases keep me humble as a genealogist. Just when I think I've seen it all, they throw me curves I never could have dreamed of. And because I'm the one who locates and cold-calls my way into the lives of soldiers' families, I've evolved into a hybrid genealogist/detective, as good at finding the living as the dearly departed.
This work has also served as the springboard for so much more I've gone on to do, such as establishing Unclaimed Persons, a volunteer organization that assists coroners, and helping the FBI and NCIS with cold cases (more on both of these in upcoming chapters)—but I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.
Did you know that roughly 75,000 Americans are unaccounted for from WWII, and another 8,000 from Korea and 1,700 from Vietnam? You can add still others from WWI and Cold War days, but unless these figures include someone from your family, there's a good chance you haven't heard of JPAC. Headquartered in Hawaii, its mission is to "achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation's past conflicts."
Some four hundred-people strong, it consists of personnel from all American armed forces and some of the most highly respected forensic anthropologists in the world. Every year, JPAC teams scour the globe for remains and effects of soldiers from past conflicts in conditions that resemble episodes of Man vs. Wild. Any given expedition might center on a mountaintop in India, a swampy region in Vietnam, or the jungles of Papua New Guinea, and whatever is found is brought to the Central Identification Laboratory on the island of Oahu for processing and analysis.
Many factors go into identification. Location is key. For instance, if an excavation takes place at the site of a former POW camp or plane crash, historical documents can furnish a short list of candidates. Buttons, heels of boots, or countless other items that might be recovered are examined. Skeletal remains are carefully scrutinized for clues about size, age, ethnicity, previous injuries, and so forth. Teeth, if found, are compared against soldiers' dental records. And as you might suspect, DNA—using reference samples supplied by soldiers' relatives—is also used. That's where I come in.
PNOK and mtDNA
I'm afraid JPAC was just a warm-up when it comes to the alphabet soup aspect of this work, so please bear with me as I introduce the concept of PNOK. When I handle a case, it's my responsibility to find the PNOK, or "primary next of kin," the individual officially considered to be the soldier's closest living relative. To this end, there's a strict hierarchy involving spouses, children, parents (in the early days, I would still find the occasional 100-year-old mother of a Korean War soldier alive), siblings, cousins, and beyond. Should any effects be found, this is the person who will receive them, and should any remains be identified, this is the person who will make the burial decisions.
In addition to locating the PNOK, I'm responsible for locating at least three living relatives with the same mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) as the soldier. Mitochondrial DNA is passed maternally. In a nutshell, mothers transmit it to both their sons and daughters, but their sons don't pass it on. So if, for instance, a soldier from the Korean War had a brother and sister who are both alive, either could provide a reference sample to help identify him. But if both siblings have passed on, the sister's children can give mtDNA samples, but the brother's cannot.
Though Y-DNA (passed paternally from father to son down through the generations) can be used in exceptional cases, this is a recent development and one that still offers somewhat iffy prospects at this time. Mitochondrial DNA is plentiful, and therefore quite resilient. Even in degraded remains, it tends to survive in sufficient quantities to test, so it is the preferred type of DNA for most cases. This results in research that disproportionately emphasizes the maternal half of a soldier's family, and that can be rather challenging since most women's surnames change upon marriage. But with a solution rate that hovers around 95 percent, I can confidently say that there's almost always someone alive with the right DNA to help identify any given soldier.
With all the anthropological, archaeological, dental, linguistic, forensic, and other experts working for JPAC, why is there a need for genealogists as well? Well, to begin with, the paper trail isn't what you might expect. Back in 1973, a fire (along with the water used to extinguish it) destroyed a significant portion of American military personnel records from the twentieth century up to that point. The army was hardest hit with roughly 85 percent of its records damaged or consumed. That's especially regrettable since the majority of those who remain unaccounted for—particularly from the Korean War—served in the army.
For that reason, most of my cases start with skimpy information—the name and birth date of the soldier, the county he enlisted from, and the name and address of someone associated with him (maybe parents, wife, siblings, or friends) at the time he joined. That's about it. Even with the simplest of cases, decades have passed and relatives have died. It's a given that I will encounter at least these factors, but most cases entail a variety of other roadblocks and detours.
One of these is the fact that Americans have been on the move for centuries. With Vietnam cases, I'm dealing with a forty plus year gap, and with most of my Korean War cases (the largest share of my work), I'm researching soldiers born around the late 1920s based on a few tidbits from the late 1940s. Now ponder our recent history for a bit. Dust bowl migration. The Great Migration. Katrina. Each one of these scrambled people around the country, and that's before we consider the coal miners who left Pennsylvania for auto jobs in Michigan or their children who left Michigan the following generation for jobs in the oil industry in Texas. Then there are the New Yorkers who retire to Florida for a warmer climate or the Californians who retire to Oregon for a lower cost of living. Of course, I can't forget the career military families (like the one I grew up in) that bounce from place to place every few years. Every once in a great while, I find someone in a soldier's family still living at the same address that they (or more likely, their parents) did in 1948, but that's a much-celebrated exception. However you look at it, we are a remarkably mobile society.
Having conducted or orchestrated research in many countries, I can also say that the United States is quite complicated compared to most. Whereas many countries have centralized vital records, for example, each of our states maintains its own birth, marriage, and death records. We were relative latecomers to the establishment and maintenance of such records, and just for fun, each state has its own set of laws determining who's entitled to copies of those records. Many of these rules have become more restrictive since 9/11 and due to growing concerns about privacy, and I've spent untold hours requesting, pleading, cajoling, and campaigning for copies of documents that might help solve a case. I've found that it can be easier to secure a copy of a particular record from Sweden than from Maryland, and I'm not above faxing a state governor or senator for assistance in gaining access to a birth certificate that might help me find a soldier's family.
While I'm on this topic, I might as well answer the question I get all the time: Yes, Hawaii is exceedingly tight with its records. Barack Obama's birth certificate is not treated any differently from any others. I have never succeeded in getting a copy of the birth certificate of a Hawaiian-born soldier, even though my requests are being made on behalf of the federal government and I can prove that the individual in question is long deceased. Some states have inexplicably restrictive laws and refuse to make exceptions for anyone or any reason. One state's department of health (not Hawaii) made it clear that they were quite proud to have rejected the request made by one of their senators to help solve the case of a soldier from their state. I find that attitude perplexing, but it certainly exists. Having dealt with every state at this point, I know which ones are researcher-friendly and which aren't, and I've developed workarounds for the ones that aren't.
The genealogist is also the one who makes the initial contact with a family. This is necessary to confirm that the family tree I've pieced together through the paper trail is correct, as well as to confirm current contact information for family members. Put yourself in the shoes of those who receive these calls. You have, say, an uncle who was killed in Korea and someone calls out of the blue decades later. How are you going to respond? As you might expect, I get every kind of reaction possible. Many are stunned and grateful, but over the last decade, we've become increasingly wary. When I finally manage to get past the hurdles of multiple addresses and unlisted numbers, I frequently get grilled by those who think I'm a scam artist or a creditor (I always offer an 800 number to call the army to verify that I am who I claim to be, but some prefer to vent instead). From time to time, I get yelled at or hung up on. Some are indifferent and some are still angry. And then there are language issues when a case leads me overseas, where the reason for my call or e-mail sounds stranger still to those I'm contacting. I won't lie; this work requires a thick skin. But for every time I bear the brunt of suspicion or pent-up frustration, there's another when I'm showered with gratitude I don't deserve. And I'm the one who has the pleasure of finding the soldier's twin, ninety-year-old siblings hale and hearty, listening to the fond reminiscences of an elderly person happy to have an audience for their memories of the soldier, occasionally reuniting branches of the family who have lost track of each other, or otherwise receiving or delivering good news.
But perhaps the most important reason to use genealogy is this: you have to be right. With JPAC's critical mission, the involvement of soldiers' families, and the use of DNA testing, accuracy matters. I remember watching a documentary about the H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine that sank in 1864, and much to my horror they mistakenly disinterred a step-relative—in other words, a person with no blood relationship—in an attempt to identify one of the sailors. While I'm not against disinterment with the aim of solving history mysteries, I think every precaution should be taken to dig up the right people! I'm not saying that mistakes are entirely avoidable. You might DNA test a soldier's relative only to later learn (even to the relative's surprise) of a hidden adoption in the family. Quirky situations definitely arise. But every effort must be made to find the true next-of-kin and potential DNA donors, and it's remarkably easy to bark up the wrong family tree. In fact, the ever-exploding plethora of family history resources that has become available in recent years makes it easier than ever to take a misstep by accidentally latching on to the wrong Smith or Jones family, one that just happens to share a lot in common with the soldier's family.
The Family Factor
Speaking of the families, the soldiers themselves and their families are obviously the raison d'être for all this. It's long been said that one of the measures of a civilization is its treatment of its dead, and that's just one of the many reasons I'm so grateful for this "no man left behind" commitment. In terms of genealogy, though, the soldiers' families are representative of the rest of us—and that means that they include every possible circumstance you can imagine.
When I'm lucky, the PNOK and mtDNA candidates overlap. For instance, the soldier's oldest brother or sister might happen to be both, so all I have to do is include a few more siblings or perhaps the children of the sister and I'm done. It sounds straightforward, but rarely is. I can't begin to spell out all the complications that can trip you up, but here's a sampling:
The soldier was an only child or all his siblings and other close relatives have passed away. (That means I'll wind up reaching out to relatives who have probably never heard of him.)
His next-of-kin is his oldest brother, but no one's seen him in decades. (Guess who gets to find him?)
The soldier was adopted or raised in foster care, or his parents were (requiring me to deal with sealed records and other obstacles).
He's from South Carolina, but enlisted while on vacation in Philadelphia (which wouldn't be a problem if anything in his file indicated that he was from South Carolina, something I'll have to figure out on my own).
The soldier's name was Henry, but everyone knew him only as Buddy, Junior, or some other nickname (leading to strange conversations where it takes relatives a while to register that I'm calling about the cousin they grew up with).
The only relative listed is his wife, but there's no sign of her since she remarried into another surname and there's no hint of the soldier's birth family (which essentially doubles the workload since I have to trace both his former spouse and the family he was born into).
The soldier didn't even know his own mother's name (this sad occurrence makes it considerably more difficult to find mtDNA candidates).
He was an immigrant and the only one in his family ever to come to America (which translates into adventures with foreign languages and records for me).
The soldier has plenty of close relatives, but none who share his mtDNA (time to steel myself to dig back several centuries).
The soldier's parents had half a dozen marriages among them and even his siblings aren't clear on who's a full or half sibling. (It's always fun to sort out what the family itself doesn't know!)
He lied—about his age, his parents, or even his name (more common than you would expect).
These are some of the more common hiccups. For instance, before Social Security registration truly took hold on a nationwide basis, it was very easy to fib about your age. For that matter, many immigrants didn't know their own birthdays, but the challenge I run into over and over is soldiers who were so patriotic that they lied in order to enter the service underage. Luckily, most of us are unsophisticated liars, so all I usually have to do if I can't find a soldier in birth indexes or records is to look for those born on the same day and month, but one to three years later. Using this tactic, I've discovered soldiers to be as young as fifteen at the time of enlistment.
Over the years, I've bumped into these and countless other hurdles in the course of my research. Of course, protecting the families' privacy is paramount, so to give you a better sense, I'll briefly describe some of my more memorable cases and the unexpected scenarios I've dealt with without disclosing specifics that would point to a particular family.
Excerpted from Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing by MEGAN SMOLENYAK Copyright © 2012 by Megan Smolenyak . Excerpted by permission of CITADEL PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Henry Louis Gates, Jr. xi
Introduction: Rewriting History 1
1 No Man Left Behind (for Real) 5
A decade of forensic consulting for the Army
2 Famous Cousins 23
Barack Obama and Sarah Palm are related-*Yawn*
3 Serial Centenarians 32
Could two relatives who knew each other live in four centuries?
4 Alex Haley Was Scottish? 41
Uncovering the unexpected heritage of Roots author, Alex Haley, through DNA
5 Egyptian Roots in a Hurry 49
Researching Hoda Koth's roots for the Today show on a fierce deadline
6 A House Divided, a Bible Shared 56
The strange travels of a Civil War-era Bible
7 There's No One as Irish as Barack O'Bama 73
Tracing his roots to the Auld Sod
8 Unclaimed Persons 87
Why you should call your estranged brother
9 Adventures in TV Land 96
You need what by when?!
10 Finding Melvina, Michelle Obama's Great-Great-Great-Grandmother 105
How do you trace a slave girl in South Carolina?
11 The Road to a First Lady's Roots 114
Road-tripping to discover all that's not online about Michelle Obama's heritage
12 King of America 126
Who would rule America today if George Washington had been king?
13 Skeletons in the Turret 138
Could DNA reveal the identity of the men of the USS Monitor?
14 Anatomy of an Adoption Search 148
Helping adoptees discover who they are
15 The Slave Who Rescued Freedom 160
Rediscovering Philip Reed, without whom the Capitol would look very different
16 No, Your Name Wasn't Changed at Ellis Island 169
Why you shouldn't fall for this popular myth
17 Paralyzed Prostitute 179
Following the trail of an Oregon madam
18 Half a Negro Boy 187
Finding a hidden connection between Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond
19 A Lonely Tombstone on the Sidewalks of Manhattan 199
The wandering memorial of a Jewish pioneer goes home
20 Grandma Stepped Out 208
My accidental genetic discovery
21 They Call Me Yak-Yak 219
What I learned from assisting the FBI with civil rights cold cases
22 Annie Moore, Ellis Island's First 227
Rectifying a case of historical identity theft