The genealogy detective exposing family secrets
Grab your magnifying glass and prepare to investigate as Mashable discovers Big/Little Mysteries.
When 60-year-old genealogist Megan Smolenyak took one of 23andMe’s first direct-to-consumer DNA tests in late 2007, she unearthed her own family mystery.
“My first experience was a big surprise,” she said in a recent phone call. “I found out my dad’s brother was his half-brother. »
Popular pin tests from 23andMe, Ancestry.com, and MyHeritage are just one tool Smolenyak uses to trace families’ roots as a genealogy sleuth who chronicled Michelle Obama’s slave origins and unearthed Annie Moore’s true identity. , the first documented Irish immigrants to the United States the tests are key to exposing the secrets of ordinary people to big-name celebrities and politicians. His experience was an “autosomal” surprise, meaning something discovered from chromosomal analysis thanks to the advent of readily available DNA testing.
It’s almost impossible to know how often testers find surprises in their results, as journalist Libby Copeland wrote in her 2020 book, The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upsetting. But many cases involve unknown siblings from secret relationships, unexpected ethnic backgrounds, and an unfortunate pattern of hidden incest.
Smolenyak, who is originally from the Washington, DC area but now lives in Florida, first caught the genealogy bug in sixth grade when his teacher sent students on a quest to find where their surnames originated.
She says her father unwittingly misinformed her that he comes from the former Soviet Union. Years later in the early 2000s, she tracked down an obscure ethnic group in present-day Slovakia, which was the true origin of her surname.
Over the past few decades, she’s tackled genealogical mysteries big and small, making headlines when she cracks an intriguing case as an ancestry investigator for hire.
Adept at digging through records online and IRL, she’s been said to be the “secret sauce” for would-be applicants trying to find specific family members or family histories. She’s taught herself the ropes over the years, but warns it’s a tough career path. “To be a genealogist must be rejected,” she said. Most so-called Genies – that’s what genealogists tell themselves – get into it as a hobby trying to crack their own family mysteries, so people in the Genies lump careers with amateurs.
During our conversation, she highlighted her work with the US military. She finds living relatives for missing soldiers from WWI, WWII, Korean and Vietnam wars and has encountered many surprises of genetic variety. While working on more than 1,580 cases for the military, she delved into family dynamics and saw “people from all walks of life.”
“It’s not uncommon for me to know more about the soldier’s family than they [do] themselves,” she says.
She said she chill told at least 10 different families to let them know they had a brother they didn’t know who died in a war. She calls this event “the half-brother surprise.” »
“You can’t get bored” discovering all these stories, she says. But it also “keeps you humble as a genealogist.” »
In one instance, she told a man about a half-brother he didn’t know who was only six months younger. He had been killed in Korea, but flew from California to Arlington National Cemetery for a memorial service for a relative they were unaware of the entire existence of the male family.
Smolenyak has had many instances of what she calls “pure negation.” When she tells families about a secret sibling “they don’t want to hear that someone is out,” she says. She said we tend to think of our ancestors stilted and conforming to societal expectations.
She discovered cases where the eldest daughter had a child out of wedlock, and this baby was brought up as a younger brother. She mentioned actor Jack Nicholson as a well-known example of someone who lived with an older sister who happened to be her mother.
“It was easier to hide your secrets,” she says of generations before DNA testing and online documents. “Now you can’t take your secrets to the grave. »
“It was easier to hide your secrets…Now you can’t take your secrets to the grave.” »
As the former chief family historian and spokesperson for Ancestry.com until 2011, she has seen first-hand how home testing has revealed more and more family mysteries.
Since 2016, the AncestryDNA app that accompanies the company’s home test kit has grown from more than 51,500 downloads each year to more than 2.2 million in 2021 to date, according to data from Apptopia. The app gives a breakdown of your ethnicity and connects you to potential relatives.
The 23andMe app which has similar functionality saw comparable growth with less than 95,000 total downloads in 2016 rising to more than 2.1 million this year, according to Apptopia.
Although DNA testing has surfaced many discoveries, it also opens up other questions. You give private biological information to big corporations who may be emboldened to do whatever they want with your information. The tests also offer more limited ancestry detail for non-white users. Your pin also unlocks information about your loved ones, even if individual family members have no interest in taking a DNA test, or letting a company sell their DNA data to pharmaceutical companies.
Still, Smolenyak sees the benefits in matching DNA testing to archival research. “For hard-core Genies we love digging through the archives,” she told me.
She resurfaced roots of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2015 mostly for fun while Clinton was on the presidential campaign trail. While she knew she wasn’t the first to look into Clinton’s family tree, she discovered some of her grandmothers’ information had been misrecorded elsewhere. It wasn’t all-shattering, just a confusion about the parents of another woman with the same name as Clinton’s grandmother, but it showed how inaccurate information sticks around and misinforms future research. “Bad info is starting to sound good though,” Smolenyak lamented. She was surprised to find the error for someone whose every move was so scrutinized.
Smolenyak used her own sleuthing skills to make sure she wasn’t tied to her husband, who has the same last name.
“I guess the fact that I find myself a Smolenyak who recently married a Smolenyak from one of the other lines gives me reason to breathe a sigh of relief,” she wrote in an article about her findings.
In a recent email, she summed up any confusion: “I’m Smolenyak by birth and by marriage (beat the odds) He’s the reason I sometimes sign my Smolenyak-square books. »
“If you’re trying to solve a mystery in history, each generation adds a potential surprise. »
Smolenyak relishes a good challenge that requires a trip to the archives or months of searching an online database with spelling variations of a surname. “If you’re trying to solve a mystery of history, each generation adds a potential surprise,” she noted for anyone hesitant to learn more about her family’s past.
See also: Learn more about your pup and build a stronger bond with dog DNA testing
Regarding the DNA test, she advises, “If you don’t want to know, don’t test. »
She doesn’t want everyone to assume their dad isn’t who they thought, but there’s a good chance “you’re going to find something unexpected.” This is how these genetic mysteries tend to unravel.