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Roots and branches on your family tree

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak poses at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. She helps to locate the families of soldiers missing in action in World War II, the Korean War and other conflicts.
Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak poses at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. She helps to locate the families of soldiers missing in action in World War II, the Korean War and other conflicts. PHOTO COURTESY OF MEGAN SMOLENYAK SMOLENYAK

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak’s lifelong fascination with genealogy started with a sixth-grade homework assignment.

Students were asked to investigate the origins of their surnames and map out their findings using small pieces of paper.

“I remember feeling sorry for my classmates because (their names) were mostly crowded around the British Isles,” recalled Smolenyak, a self-described Army brat. “I had the whole Soviet Union to myself.”

Smolenyak is the keynote speaker at “Genealogy NOW,” an all-day annual seminar sponsored by the San Luis Obispo County Genealogical Society.

The Feb. 6 event will feature workshops on DNA research, newspaper archives and photograph dating, as well as project displays, prize drawings and industry vendors. As many as 300 people are expected to attend.

In addition to Smolenyak, the list of speakers includes Maureen Taylor, known as “The Photo Detective” in genealogy circles, and Geoff Rasmassen of Legacy Family Tree, which produces a popular genealogy software program. Also appearing are event coordinators Cafi Cohen and Cheryl Storton, whose Arroyo Grande company, Bridge To Yesterday, researches clients’ family trees and showcases those findings in heirloom albums.

“Every year we have outstanding people come,” society member Anne Brown said. However, she added, snagging Smolenyak is “quite a coup.”

‘Really big potatoes’

The chief family historian and spokeswoman for Ancestry.com,Smolenyak has appeared on such television shows as “Good Morning America” and “The Today Show,” as well as the mini series “Ancestors,” “They Came to America” and “African American Lives.”

She’s also the author of four books, including “Trace Your Roots with DNA: Use Your DNA to Complete Your Family Tree” with Ann Turner.

“She’s really big potatoes” in the genealogy world, Cohen said.

Smolenyak’s highest profile cases involve tracing the roots of such famous figures as President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, TV anchor Diane Sawyer and civil rights activist Al Sharpton.

She sees herself as a private investigator who spends as much time finding the living as tracking down the deceased.

For more than a decade, Smolenyak has worked with the U.S. Army to locate the families of soldiers missing in action in World War II, the Korean War and other conflicts. She’s also part of the Unclaimed Persons Initiative, which helps coroners and medical examiners locate next of kin.

“I really do play detective for a living,” said Smolenyak, who married another, previously unrelated Smolenyak.

One of Smolenyak’s most challenging cases focused on the true fate of Annie Moore, the first immigrant to arrive at Ellis Island.

Popular opinion held that Moore had moved west, married and died in a tragic streetcar accident. But a stray detail persuaded Smolenyak to dig deeper.

“Document after document said she was born in Illinois,” Smolenyak recalled. “That’s what made me realize, ‘Whoopsie, we had the wrong Annie.’ ”

After years of fruitless research, the genealogist posted an online plea for help — offering $1,000 for “the first proof of what became of Ellis Island’s true Annie Moore.”

“A virtual team of genealogists swarmed over it,” she recalled.

Six months later, they had tracked down the real Annie Moore’s descendants in New York. (A great-niece and Brian G. Andersson, New York City’s commissioner of records, split the finder’s fee.)

According to Smolenyak, the case of “Wrong Annie, Right Annie” is a perfect example of the changing face of genealogy.

Once the territory of blue-haired maiden aunts and academics, genealogy has become a science embraced by history buffs of all ages, genders and ethnicities.

Ancestry.com,which describes itself as “the world’s largest online resource for family history,” boasts nearly one million subscribers and four billion historical records.

Cohen credits the popular miniseries “Roots,” which captivated television audiences in 1977, with creating a new generation of family historians. But it was the introduction of the Internet in the 1990s that really kicked amateur genealogists into high gear.

With modern search engines and research rings, she said, “I can pull up a Texas death certificate from 1880 in two seconds.”

“Other than pornography, the heaviest use of the Internet is genealogy,” Brown quipped.

Strong local interest

Interest is especially strong here on the Central Coast.

Founded in 1967, the San Luis Obispo County Genealogical Society has more than 250 members countywide.

According to Cohen, the group’s education chair, “Genealogy NOW” is second in size only to the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree, held every June in Burbank. Enthusiasts flock from all over the state, as well as Arizona, Oregon and Nevada.

“It tends to be addicting,” Smolenyak acknowledged. “Once you make one discovery, you decide, ‘I want more, I want more.’”

For those just beginning that journey, Cohen advises sticking close to home.

“The absolute best approach is to start with yourself,” Cohen said, “not the Civil War hero you’ve heard about, not the person who crossed over on the Mayflower — and work from the known to the unknown.”

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