Calling Up the Ancestors: Genealogist Megan Smolenyak

Megan Smolenyak and President Barack Obama in Dublin, May 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.
Megan Smolenyak and President Barack Obama in Dublin, May 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

By Sheila Langan, Deputy Editor
February / March 2013

Digital archives, DNA testing and increased interest have made finding ancestors easier than ever before. But tracing one’s roots – especially Irish roots – is still no easy task. Megan Smolenyak^2 is the genealogist behind such important discoveries as President Obama’s Irish roots and the real identity of Annie Moore, the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island. It’s time-consuming, tedious work. But Smolenyak^2 (more about that later) wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Our ancestors are lucky that Megan Smolenyak is on their side. A genealogical detective with a 95% success rate (that’s over the course of thirteen years and thousands of family trees), Smolenyak takes on cases big and small, high profile and not, for commission and out of her own interest. She has consulted for everyone from Ancestry.com and Top Chef to the FBI and NCIS. She traces the roots of celebrities and figures from history. She also founded Unclaimed Persons, a volunteer group through which genealogists volunteer to help coroners identify next-of-kin, and works with the U.S. army in its efforts to repatriate soldiers who died abroad in World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam.

Over the summer, Megan, who lives in southern New Jersey, came up to New York to talk about her research and her latest book, Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing, which gives an in-depth look at some of her most fascinating cases to date. On a bright and blustery morning we strolled through the Irish Hunger Memorial in Manhattan’s Battery Park, chatting about her heritage and the particular challenges faced by Irish Americans trying to uncover their roots. Over lunch at the Liberty Grill, with the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island* and Jersey City (where, coincidentally, her mother’s Irish relatives settled) just beyond the patio railing, she shared stories of her key Irish cases and passion for her work.

Megan’s life is a testament to how popular genealogy has become in the last few decades, during which she said a “perfect storm of circumstances” led to the mainstreaming of the field. The Internet and the digitization of records and indexes have played a major role, as has the potential for connection opened up by social networking sites, through which people can reach out to distant relatives in far corners of the world. There are now a myriad of television programs (such as Who Do You Think You Are, for which Megan has worked) devoted to exploring the roots of everyone from average Joes to A-list celebrities. As Smolenyak has experienced directly from her discoveries concerning Annie Moore and the roots of Barack and Michelle Obama, genealogy can be front-page news.

This also means that when people want to know things, they want to know them quickly. Far from a quiet routine of flipping through dusty records, Megan’s work involves hours of finely-tuned digital and physical research; cold calls to living relatives; DNA testing; networking and enlisting the help of fellow genealogists around the world. Once, she told me, while conducting research for a celebrity round of the reality show Top Chef, she found herself clocking 19.5-hour work days. Still, she wouldn’t trade if for anything. “I’m really fortunate to love what I do. I don’t care if the hours are flying by. It’s time well spent, solving mysteries for a living. If I weren’t me, I’d probably want to be – well, me.”

Smolenyak can say this with absolute confidence as she had a whole other professional life before returning to genealogy, her original passion. Perhaps her deep interest in roots stems from her childhood spent in so many places. Her father worked with the U.S. Army, so the family moved around frequently. Megan was born in France, lived in England as a child, and then moved to the Washington D.C. area, Kansas, and different parts of New Jersey. “I’m told I spoke French before I spoke English, but I don’t recall it at all,” she mused. “I had a British accent the first time I visited Ireland, when I was 9. No one believed my sister and I were American!”

Her interest in genealogy was piqued in 6th grade, when a homework assignment prompted her to find the origins of her surname. On a large map, the students had to paste their names over the countries their ancestors came from. Megan, who has  paternal roots in Slovakia, recalls “basically having the whole Soviet Union to myself. That was the first time I realized there was something different about my heritage, so that started me on [genealogy]. I was that twisted little kid saving up money to buy copies of death certificates. When I was living in the D.C. area, I couldn’t wait to turn 16 – not to get my license, but because that’s how old you had to be to go to the National Archives without an adult.”

She continued to do genealogy work throughout college in D.C., but at that point it wasn’t yet a field in which one could make a full living. Instead, she became an international marketing consultant, a job that took her all over the world. Despite a grueling itinerary – she was, at one point, averaging nine months each year outside of the U.S. – Smolenyak made time while at home to pursue genealogy work and another side interest, producing local access TV.

When she wanted to try a new career path in production, a documentarian she knew connected her with a team from PBS. Though genealogy wasn’t on the agenda for the meeting, they spoke briefly about Ancestors, a genealogy program on the network, and Megan expressed her interest in the field. Just a few months after that, the series’ lead researcher dropped out of the project, and Megan was asked to step in. She flew out to Provo, Utah, where the series was based, and in a whirlwind quickly researched leads, put questions to the then-budding online genealogical community, and called in all the favors she could.

The result was 13 rich stories for the series, which aired in 2000, and many more that didn’t make the cut. Megan felt that they still deserved to be told, and from these she wrote her first book. While on tour, she met the colonel who runs the Army’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, and he enlisted her help in identifying soldiers who were killed in action abroad. As Megan put it, “things just kept snowballing from there, and one opportunity led to the next.” Another perfect storm of circumstances.

It was also thanks to genealogy that she met her husband. All Smolenyaks trace their ancestry to one village, Osturna, in present-day Slovakia. Megan connected with various Smolenyaks over the years, and in 1996 they organized a reunion in Osturna. One Smolenyak, another enthusiastic researcher, introduced Megan to his first cousin, Brian Smolenyak. Megan and Brian wed in 2001 in New Zealand.

They do not share a common Smolenyak ancestor – DNA testing showed that they aren’t related through that branch of the family at all. But the coincidence is all the more fantastic when you add in Megan’s line of work. After they married, she faced a dilemma about what to do with her name since, as she explained, most professional female genealogists use their full names. More than wanting to avoid an onslaught of  kissing cousins quips (which she confirmed she gets all the time) she was apprehensive that people would think it was a gimmick. With a new book on its way to publication, she had to make a decision, and in the end it was the writing that inspired her to move on with it. “The irony is that the book was called Honoring Your Ancestors, and there I was, too afraid to use my full name and represent my and my husband’s families.” She decided to save  eight letters and square her name, writing it “Smolenyak^2.”“I’m just glad I found one who spelled it the same way!” she joked.

While Megan knows the detailed history of her Slovak roots, her Irish ancestors have been harder to pin down. Her great-grandmother Ellen Nelligan emigrated from Dromlegagh, Co. Kerry during the famine, and she has traced her Murphy and Shields branches to Cork and Ballymena, Co. Antrim, respectively.

“My earliest branch are the Murphys from Cork. I grew up with stories about hedge schools on the River Lee,” she said. “But try to find a Murphy from Cork who came to the U.S. in the 1830s. It’s tough. I have more luck with other people’s families and not much time to research my own roots, sort of a ‘the shoemakers kids have no shoes’ case.”

Having witnessed many people’s frustration trying to map their Irish heritage, I found it reassuring to hear that even master genealogists encounter obstacles. Megan confirmed that, while digital records have made things easier, many Irish Americans have a particularly tough time.

“After African-American genealogy, it’s one of the hardest. Between the 1922 fire [in Dublin’s Four Courts, which destroyed years of Census records], Catholicism being more or less illegal, and government registration [of births, deaths and marriages] not starting ’til 1864, it can be very difficult,” she explained, especially for people whose ancestors left during the famine. “The most helpful thing is to find out the townland or parish your ancestor came from,” she advised. From there you can explore local records, which may contain clues unavailable elsewhere.

Proud of her Irish heritage, Megan admitted that she takes a special interest in cases involving Irish ancestry. “I like the surprise Irish,” she said, “I always look for them when researching celebrities.” A few Irish surprises she has found include Beyoncé, whose Irish ancestor immigrated to New Orleans; Katy Perry, who has roots in Eyrecourt, Co. Galway; Barry Manilow, who is 1/4 Irish; and Stephen Colbert, who, despite the French last name, is 15/16 Irish.

Her track record testifies to a vested interest in Irish roots. She has brought to light some of the most important Irish genealogical discoveries of the past decade.

One army case she was assigned to concerned Private Thomas D. Costello, a WWI soldier who was found in Bois de Bonvaux, France. Costello’s case was somewhat unique in that he was an Irish immigrant. Born in Galway in 1892, he came to America with three siblings, and Megan was able to track down his great-grandnephew, who traveled from Maine to attend Private Costello’s final burial at Arlington National Cemetery on July 10, 2010.

The following year, from the 1901 and 1911 Irish Censuses online, she found more living relatives in Costello’s hometown of Tuam, Co. Galway. With the help of a local genealogist, John Joe Higgins, she confirmed that a Tom Costello still living in Tuam was the soldier’s great-grandnephew. It also turned out that John Joe’s wife was Private Costello’s second cousin twice removed, and that their grandson, Cian,  goes to the same school Costello attended.

In 2007, during the Democratic primaries, she researched the candidates’ backgrounds, and her findings were released by Ancestry.com, where she was chief family historian. The fact that then-candidate Barack Obama’s maternal third great-grandfather was Irish sparked the media’s interest, so Megan persevered to find out where in Ireland Falmouth Kearney had been born. As we now know, it was Moneygall, Co. Offaly, the small, sleepy town President Obama visited in May 2011.

“Back when I did the research in 2007, I wasn’t really thinking forward,” Megan recalled. “I know the whole classic pint-in -the-pub moment past U.S. presidents [with Irish roots] have had, but you just don’t think when you’re doing research that that’s going to be the result.”

Smolenyak was invited both to Moneygall and to hear Obama’s speech in Dublin. She and her sister Stacy opted for the latter, and it was there that Barack and Michelle Obama thanked her personally for discovering his Irish heritage. “It was a good time to be American in Ireland!” Megan recalled. “My sister was running around telling people who I was, and strangers were shaking my hand. The Is Féidir Linn message was very important, and it was incredible to be part of that buoyancy. Even if I hadn’t had anything to do with it, it would have been fun to be there. Any excuse to visit Ireland.”

Then, of course, there’s Annie Moore, who holds a special place in Megan’s heart. An Irish girl from Co. Cork, Annie was the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island. At 17 years old, she arrived  on the SS Nevada on January 1, 1892, with her younger brothers Philip and Anthony. Her story received renewed interest in 1992, during Ellis Island’s centennial and restoration, and her relatives came forth to talk about her legacy. The only problem was that their Annie had been born in Illinois.

Megan shared this glaring discrepancy  with the genealogical community in 2006, and offered a $1,000 reward to whomever could come up with proof of the real Annie. A few weeks later they had identified the real Annie and her living descendants, and had even found her grave – an unmarked stone in Calvary Cemetery, Queens. Annie received proper commemoration in the U.S. and her home town, Cobh, Co. Cork.

Despite the happy ending, Megan’s work with Annie isn’t done. During the memorial service for Annie in 2006, which drew Irish dignitaries and Annie’s descendants from across the U.S., one relative presented Megan with what she thought could be a photo of Annie, Philip and Anthony at Ellis Island. Another relative had found it in the Ellis Island archives. It had no caption, but they thought it might be Annie. From their own albums, the family was able to dig up two additional photos – one of Annie as a young woman, and another of her near the end of her life in 1924, at age 50.

The great and careful lengths that Megan went to in order to figure out whether all three photos show the same person are detailed in Hey, America. In short, a range of forensic artists, historic photo analysts and other experts agree. When she presented her findings to Ellis Island, she was told that the photo could not be of Annie. Despite evidence pointing otherwise, the official word there remains that the photo is of the on-shore Barge Office, where Annie never set foot.

But Megan isn’t giving up on seeing the photo acknowledged. For her, it’s not a question of being right, but of what having a photo of that seminal moment would mean.

“It’s an iconic image, one of those photos that should be in textbooks. We’re a nation of immigrants, so unless you’re Native American, Annie represents you. She’s an accidental symbol, but she’s a real symbol of the immigrant dream.

“The other reason I’m so adamant,” she continued, “is because it could inspire a lot of young people. Kids don’t often get to see other kids making history, and to see Annie there with her two brothers, that’s the kind of thing that could get a lot of kids really excited about the past. . . . It’s an uphill battle, and after all these years I think Annie will decide when she’s done with me.”

Speaking with Smolenyak, it’s clear that while she enjoys the mystery and the hunt, there’s also an almost spiritual element to finding these lost histories, helping people better understand who they are and where they come from.

“I think it’s important to know about your history,” she agreed, “In tough times, when you learn what your ancestors endured, it really does give you a sense of hope and strength to know their blood is flowing in your veins.”

Of equal importance, she also believes that knowing our ancestors can alter how we see ourselves in the world. “Genealogy is ultimately about connections, and it doesn’t hurt, especially in today’s world, to remind people that we’re all related. That’s very ‘kumbaya-ish,’ but it’s true. And it’s nice to emphasize the ties instead of the things that separate people.”

- – -

* Following infrastructural damage sustained during Hurricane Sandy, Ellis Island and Liberty Island are closed until future notice. As Smolenyak reported in a post on December 17, the National Parks Service is still assessing the damage, but an estimated $59 million in repairs will be necessary. Though no archival items were lost, approximately 1.7 documents and artifacts have been moved off of Ellis Island for safekeeping.

Smolenyak will appear at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House on March 14 to deliver a genealogy lecture, “The Quest For Annie Moore.” Visit the event page for more information. In partnership with Hager’s Journeys, Smolenyak is now offering customized roots trips for those exploring their ancestry.

2 Responses to “Calling Up the Ancestors: Genealogist Megan Smolenyak”

  1. Tom Salony says:

    If “reCAPTCHA” is required, doesn’t it belong ABOVE/BEFORE the SUBMIT button? Along with “ERROR: That reCAPTCHA response was incorrect” the dumb thing erased my well phrased Reply! grrrrr

    Greatly simplified, I don’t believe the reference to the Soviet Union was ever correct, was it?

  2. Would like to know if this lady has information on Charlotte Holloway whose family left the UK for America in the 1600′s. She is great great great great grandmother to President Obama and related to me going back a long way.

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