She untangled the web of Michelle Obama’s family history. She uncovered the true story of the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island. She helped football star Emmitt Smith learn about his roots.
And now, one of the world’s leading genealogists is coming to the New York Public Library to teach patrons how to uncover their own family secrets using DNA testing.
Megan Smolenyak, one of the nation's leading genealogists, will teach New Yorkers how to use DNA to trace their roots at NYPL on April 13.Megan Smolenyak, chief genealogist for Ancestry.com, founder of UnclaimedPersons.org and RootsTelevision.tv and author of several books including the companion to television show "Who Do You Think You Are?"will speak at the The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on the evening of April 13 to present a free lecture entitled, “Trace Your Roots With DNA.”
“The media often leaves the impression that there’s one magic DNA test that you can take to trace your roots,” Smolenyak said. “But there are actually several options. So this talk is more of a survey where I walk the audience through the different options.”
Smolenyak said genetic research is “like the game of Clue,” and said, “It becomes a matchmaking game. DNA is a really good way of telling you you’re on the right track or your theory isn’t right.”
Although DNA testing has “actually been around about a decade,” Smolenyak said, “It’s getting bigger and bigger, which is great, because the more players we have, the more people we have sitting in databases, the better the odds and the more success stories.”
Smolenyak knows plenty about success stories – she has uncovered countless family histories, including those belonging to famouse folks like Al Sharpton and Michelle Obama (whose history she called “one of my greatest challenges”). She has also helped the U.S. Army track down family members of unaccounted soldiers, figured out who would be in charge of the country today if George Washington had been a king, and returned hundreds of orphaned artifacts to their rightful owners.
“I returned a Bible that belonged to a slave family,” she said. “I also returned a photo album that was found on the streets of Jerusalem. A woman saw it in the garbage and rescued it. She passed away, but nine years later her daughter called me. It turned out the owner was in New Jersey and had never been to Jerusalem. Had no idea how it got there.”
This is why she calls herself a “genealogical adventurer” – she never knows where her research will take her next.
Smolenyak has unraveled the family histories of Michelle Obama, Emmitt Smith and the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island, Annie Moore.But of all the work she’s done, she has a soft spot for Annie Moore, the first immigrant to walk through Ellis Island on the day it opened on Jan. 1, 1892. It was previously believed that the Irish teen – memorialized with a statue at Ellis Island – settled in Texas.
But through her research, Smolenyak discovered that the real Annie lived on the Lower East Side, married a bakery clerk and had 11 children, passing away in 1924.
“Basically, history had her story completely wrong,” Smolenyak said. “That frustrates me. So now, by uncovering the true story, it gives us a different historic perspective. Genealogy is literally re-writing history. People are learning that, and as the word gets out, we’re getting lots of fresh recruits looking to try it.”
Some tips for those just starting out – “Start at home. Most people’s first instinct is to jump online. But you should really do a scavenger hunt at home. A lot of us are sitting on a lot of clues without even knowing it. And you want to speak to your elders. Do it right away. Call anyone 20 minutes older that you. Because they’re living libraries. We don’t tend to appreciate how much they know until you lose them. You know how many times I hear, ‘If only I had talked to.’”
After that, people can use software, go to courthouses, cemeteries and, of course, libraries.
“And then there’s always DNA,” she said. “Which is exactly what I’ll be discussing at the New York Public Library.”
New Yorkers who want to join the adventure should head to South Court at the Stephen A. Schwarzman building on 42 Street and Fifth Avenue at 5:30, Tuesday, April 13 for Smolenyak's lecture.