State conference features ancestry expert
Friday through Sept. 13, the Davenport Hotel will be awash in even more history than usual. That’s because the hotel will be the site of the 2009 Washington State Genealogical Conference. Genealogists, family historians and teachers will gather to swap tips, tell stories and talk about the past.
Keynote speaker and author Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (yes, that’s her real name) is the chief family historian and North American spokesperson for Ancestry.com, the largest genealogical company in the world. She’s also president of Roots Television, an award-winning online channel of genealogy- and history-oriented programming.
Her passion for genealogy began with a sixth-grade homework assignment to trace her surname. In a phone interview, Smolenyak laughed and said the initial foray into family history “turned me into a twisted teenager buying her next death certificate.”
It also led to a lifelong quest to help others find their roots. That quest has taken her around the world and led to television appearances, like a segment on “Good Morning America” where she traced the roots of the program’s four hosts.
Smolenyak’s expertise has contributed to solving several high-profile history mysteries. For example, she said, “I traced Barack Obama’s Irish ancestry.” She laughed and added, “That’s O apostrophe Bama!”
It wasn’t an easy task, because Irish history is difficult to trace. “A lot of the records were destroyed in the Troubles,” she said. “I was lucky. It took me only four months. A pair of tombstones in Ohio led me to the right place in Ireland.” It turns out one of President Obama’s ancestors is from Moneygall, Ireland.
The thrill of the hunt is often what hooks amateur and professional genealogists. “There’s always another clue,” Smolenyak said. She once used her genealogical detective skills to discover who would be king of America today if George Washington had been king instead of president. It turns out we would be calling Paul Emery Washington, of San Antonio, King Paul.
While projects like this make for fun reading, Smolenyak spends a great deal of time on a much grimmer mission. For the past decade she has been under contract with the U.S. Army, tracking next of kin for the approximately 8,000 soldiers from the Korean War who are still unaccounted for. She calls this “reverse genealogy” because she’s looking for living people instead of tracing deceased ancestors.
The statewide conference will be hosted by the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society, and organizers said they are thrilled to have Smolenyak speak. The group boasts more than 200 members ages 11 to 89 and meets monthly at the Downtown Public Library.