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5 Genealogy Secrets

Megan Smolenyak found Obama’s Irish ancestry. Now she shares tips for shaking your family tree

Genealogist Megan Smolenyak, the first person to document Barack Obama’s Irish ancestry, got an official thank-you from Obama during his trip in late May to his third great-grandfather’s village of Moneygall in County Offaly, Ireland. Smolenyak reveals how she uncovered Obama’s roots; talks about her work with the U.S. Army, NCIS and the FBI; and offers her best tips on how you can uncover your own family history.

See also: AARP The Magazine Editor Nancy Perry Graham reunites with her long-lost cousins.

President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama visit Moneygall, Ireland

Photo by Maxwells/PA Wire/Associated Press

President Obama greets fans in Moneygall, Ireland.

Q: You were the first genealogist to document President Obama’s Irish ancestors. How did you do it?
When Obama was running for president, a press release, which quoted me as a genealogist, announced he was part Irish. I was soon getting calls from Irish journalists wanting to know where in Ireland he was from. Since no one knew, I decided to find out. The key was a pair of tombstones in Ohio, but it took a lot of research to find them. The tombstones of Obama’s fourth great-grandfather, Joseph Kearney, and his son, William, indicated they were born in Moneygall. Joseph’s other son, Fulmoth, was Obama’s third great-grandfather and most recent immigrant ancestor on his mother’s side. To back up my find, I contacted churches in Ireland until one found the corresponding entries in its records.

Q:How have you used genealogy to help the U.S. Army?
As a genealogist, it seems I spend as much time finding the living as the dead. For more than a decade, I’ve helped the Army locate relatives of soldiers who are still unaccounted for from past conflicts. By finding relatives, the Army can identify soldiers using DNA, and notify the next of kin so the family can make burial decisions. I’ve researched cases of soldiers from World War I, World War II, Korea, and Southeast Asia, and often find myself in situations where I know more about the family than they do. I’ve even had two cases where I had to convince someone that they had an older brother who was killed in Korea in the 1950s, even though both had grown up thinking they were only children.

Q: As a consultant for the FBI and NCIS, what do you do?
I help find people associated with cold cases for the FBI and NCIS (the real Naval Criminal Investigative Service, not the TV show). They may be trying to find a suspect, witnesses, or relatives of a victim or suspect. For the FBI, I work exclusively on Civil Rights cases, mostly murders from the 1940s, 50s and 60s that may or may not have been racially motivated, but for NCIS, it can be any kind of cold case.

Before I started consulting with them, I founded, a group of volunteer genealogists who help coroners and investigators find next of kin for the deceased. The identities of these people are known, but the government agencies aren’t always able to find the families, so they’re literally unclaimed. It’s a national problem that coroners are coping with. Genealogists are in a position to help.

Q: What are your top tips for tracing family history?
  1. Be methodical and organized. There's nothing more irritating than discovering the same thing twice because you kept sloppy records.

2. Search courthouse records, old newspapers, archives, and libraries. Not everything is online. Some of the best stories take a little more digging.

3. Don't forget about cemeteries. The true test of a "genie" is how excited they get about cemeteries, which can provide important information — not to mention, a fun field trip.

4. Don't take family lore as absolute truth. Use it as a theory and prove or disprove it. While there's often an element of truth, tales tend to morph across generations.

5. Connect with others. Use social networking to find those third cousins who have photos and other pieces of the family puzzle. You'll all have more fun!

Q: Why do you think so many people are interested in genealogy?
Part of it is the thrill of the hunt; you never know what you might find when you start digging. Genealogy also gives people a sense of belonging at a time we’ve become so mobile. And in hard times, when you know what your ancestors endured, you can remember that their blood flows in your veins, and draw strength from that.