Megan Smolenyak is the expert genealogist behind such discoveries as Barack Obama’s Irish roots and the true identity of Annie Moore, the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island. With ancestral links to Cork, Kerry, Longford and Antrim, Smolenyak is always happy to discover “surprise Irish” in her research, though her work goes far beyond traditional genealogy. We had the chance to talk to her about her most famous findings, the other aspects of her work and the best way for us amateur genealogists to begin to trace our roots.
Genealogy has been a hobby of yours since you were a child. What initially piqued your interest?
It was a homework assignment that got me started. We had to go home and find our surnames. The reason I had claimed the Soviet Union is because my father, who was clueless about our history, told me that we were from Smolensk, which makes sense because it sounds a lot like Smolenyak. That’s what triggered me.
So your father didn’t know much about his family history?
It’s funny, my mom’s side – the Irish half – had been here [in the US] longer but they knew a lot more. When you have a funny name like Smolenyak, a lot of families just did their best to assimilate as quickly as possible. It typically takes about two generations, I find, between the immigrant generation and those here today before they start to become interested. In those first couple of generations, you take it for granted because your parents or grandparents have the accent, and so that’s what had happened with my dad.
You recently told Irish America magazine, “If I weren’t me, I’d probably want to be – well, me.” What is it about your job that you love so much?
I love so many aspects of it, but I would have to say I’m addicted to the thrill of the hunt. I love solving mysteries. Certain ones like Annie, my girl Annie, they just grab onto me and they don’t let go. I become sort of obsessive about it, which I suppose is sort of annoying for others [laughs]. I love that aspect. … I truly just lose track of time when I’m totally immersed in a case. The stuff that I do with the Army, for example, it’ll be 14 years in April that I’ve been doing that, and I’m still like a kid in a candy store when I get a fresh batch of cases after all these years. I love digging and finding solutions.
Annie Moore is just one of many newsworthy cases you’ve worked on. Are there certain discoveries that you’re most proud of or connected to?
Well, Annie’s been a part of my life now for 11 years. She’s probably the one I’ve been the most obsessed with. … Every time I think I’m wrapped up with her, she pulls me back in for another round.
The higher profile ones, like Barack Obama going to Moneygall, I loved that because it was really fun to be a part of. … But also, a lot of the stuff I’m proudest of, quite frankly, is the stuff you never hear about, like individual Army cases or cases with coroners or things I’ve helped the NCIS [Naval Criminal Investigative Service] with. Or, for example, another hobby I have is orphan heirlooms, where I do research to return items that have strayed from family hands back to the family. Those kinds of things can be very meaningful to individuals, so a lot of the most important stuff I do is the stuff you would never know about. It doesn’t make a big splash, like the work I’ve done on the Obamas, but it makes a big impact for just one, two or three individuals.
The people that you’ve researched range from Barack Obama to Bruno Mars. How do you pick your subjects?
When I have free reign, which is what I do on the Huffington Post, it is mostly driven by people I like. If I like your music, there’s a good chance I’m going to peak into your past. That’s why Katy Perry is there. And lately a kick for me has been multiculturalism and that’s one of the reasons it really appealed to me to look into Bruno Mars’ past. … So if I like your music, if I like your movie, if I like your TV show, there’s a good chance I’m going to do your roots.
How can someone with little knowledge of genealogy begin to trace his or her roots?
This is counter-intuitive, but I actually suggest that people start offline. These days, everybody’s first instinct is to jump online, but I suggest you do a little homework first; go through your attics and drawers and closets, and see what bits and pieces of family history you have. And talk to your elders. Gather those clues; it could be diplomas, it could be a family bible with names on it, all sorts of pieces like old letters and that kind of thing. A lot of us are sitting on tons of information and of course, your older relatives are living libraries. They have stuff locked up in their brains that you want to make sure you capture.
Do you have any tips for approaching a roadblock in the research process?
Oh boy, classic brick walls. We all hit them. On my Army cases for example, I’m really, really stubborn. I’ll just keep on backing up and coming at another way to break down the wall. I’ll brainstorm everything I possibly can. And at a certain point, once I feel I’ve exhausted everything possible, I kind of sit back. It’s weird, there’s a sort of serendipity thing that happens.I always say our ancestors want to be found as much as we want to find them. You’d be surprised how many times when you really have done everything you possibly can think of that all of a sudden an email will fall out of the sky from some posting you did six months ago that you’d forgotten about; some little clue will happen; a new record set will be released; or you’ll be using a new newspaper site and trip across an article on your ancestor or something.
With all the new resources available today, has the process of genealogy and tracing one’s roots changed?
Obviously with all the stuff that’s online now it’s much easier to get a running start and I do not miss the tedium that used to be a part of it – the amount of effort it took to look up each individual census record, for example. I think actually this is the best time ever to be a genealogist because we have all these tools. I’m so glad I was here when the Internet came along and DNA testing. I mean, to have these two toys to add to our toolbox is just amazing and it’s opened up possibilities for so many people who otherwise would have been stymied in their research. It’s the perfect time to be a genealogist, but the underlying methodology is still the same: link by link, prove every connection.