What's Hidden in Your DNA?
Renowned genealogist Megan Smolenyak says ancestral connections to famous figures are common
You’ve made high-profile discoveries, like tracing Obama’s roots to Ireland. Any other fascinating celebrity backgrounds?
Anthony Bourdain, who, sadly, we lost last year. At the age of 13, his grandfather hid in a ship from France. He also had roots in Eastern Europe and places like Brazil and Gibraltar. You begin to see where he got his sense of wanderlust. It’s as if he did what his genes compelled him to do.
Who initiates the research?
It’s a mix of both. Occasionally I research somebody’s roots out of admiration, like Lin-Manuel Miranda. I discovered that, along with his Puerto Rican ancestry, which he’s naturally very proud of, there’s another branch with a revolutionary past — though not the American Revolution. In a nutshell, a Virginia ancestor of British heritage named David fell in love with an enslaved woman named Sophie, and they ran off to Nacogdoches, Texas. It’s a dramatic tale with the fate of the family in constant jeopardy. I tweeted out the story, and Lin-Manuel instantly responded. I even got to go backstage and meet him at Hamilton!
Tell us about Michelle Obama.
Her great-great-great-grandmother Melvinia was born enslaved in South Carolina. She was recorded in the estate with a value of $475. It’s one thing to know that your ancestors were once considered property, but quite another to be confronted with a price tag. I also found out that Michelle Obama and Meghan Markle, who married Prince Harry, both had third great-grandmothers in Jonesboro, Ga., right after the Civil War, so it’s likely they knew each other.
Do you have a favorite unknown person you’ve researched?
Annie Moore. She was the first immigrant to come through Ellis Island when it opened on January 1, 1892. She was 17 years old, from Ireland, and represents the American dream. Annie stayed in New York, lived in the tenements and worked very hard. Countless Americans have a story of a brave immigrant who made sacrifices so that his or her descendants would have better lives.
What inspired your interest?
First, there was just my last name. It’s obviously a bit unusual, and I wanted to learn more about it. My dad, before I was old enough to drive, took me down to the National Archives. I could spend all day just going through their records and census files.
I imagine people hope to find a link to someone notable.
If you go back far enough, almost everyone can find a connection to royalty or some historic figure, though these days people also get a kick out of finding rebels and rogues in the family tree. One of my favorite cases was cold-calling a man in Texas and revealing to him that had George Washington been America’s first king instead of president, he would be king of America today. He was tickled.
Everyone probably reacts a bit differently to your findings.
Oh, yes. I’ve had to share some sad and uncomfortable findings with certain celebrities over the years, and many respond very soberly. But then there’s someone like Judy Collins, who learned that two of her ancestors from Ireland served in the Civil War and another had been a drummer boy in the Revolution. Hearing this inspired her to write a song called “New Moon Over the Hudson,” which includes the lovely lyrics “My father’s father’s fathers/ Sailed from Ireland’s shore/ They played the drums in Lexington/ And they fought the Civil War.”
I can’t share names because of promises of privacy, but one high-profile person had a Civil War ancestor who was a hero in their family lore but actually turned out to have been a deserter. Another famous individual wasn’t thrilled to learn about a womanizing ancestor who had a long series of wives. Our ancestors were just like us — some worthy of admiration and some just total schmucks.
Any personal surprises?
While researching my own family, I found out, accidentally, that my father’s only brother was actually his half brother. I finally settled on saying, “Hey, Dad, if I were to learn something unexpected or possibly unsettling about our family, would you want to know?” He instantly said yes. After I told him, he said, “Maybe that’s why he had asthma and I didn’t.”
What about DNA tests for health?
I always say, “Don’t get tested for giggles.” Prepare yourself and think it through. What if you’re predisposed to dementia, for which there’s no cure? For preventable diseases like colon cancer, it can be a benefit to know about it early on so you can get an exam sooner than you planned.
You work with the military to identify recovered remains.
It’s the most fulfilling work I do. I’ve researched 1,360 cases so far. I determine who the closest living family members are and find relatives to provide DNA reference samples. When an identification is made, the service member can be returned and receive a proper burial. People have a desire for their loved ones to be remembered, and they deserve to be. To me they’re all heroes.