A bunch of people named Smolenyak, all hailing from the same tiny village, thought they shared a common ancestor. We were wrong.

Road to nearby village of Ždiar from Osturňa in 2000 (photo by husband of writer)

Many are not aware that genetic genealogy has been around for slightly more than two decades. I was introduced to using DNA for forensic purposes back in the dark ages of 1999 when I began my work with the U.S. Army assisting with the identification of soldiers still unaccounted for from conflicts ranging from WWI to Vietnam. As a result, I was an early adopter when the first commercial testing companies launched in 2000, but as often happens with new technology, there was a lot of resistance in the early days.

In spite of already being an established writer and…


He did the crime, he did the time, and then he disappeared — again.

Harry Pincus mug shots (New York Department of Correction as seen in Walloomsick Review 22)
animation of the photo above (MyHeritage’s Deep Nostalgia)

I should have known better when I decided to write an article about Barry Manilow’s Irish roots. As an Irish American fanilow, I wanted to know which town or city could lay claim to him (shout-out to Limerick!), but that’s not where the real story was — or where 80% of my research effort went. I only made it as far as his grandmother, Anna “Annie” Sheehan, before getting derailed when I accidentally tripped into a retro, true crime tale featuring a central character who disappeared.

When Harry Met Annie

A New…


Credit: Shawn Ahmed

Every one of us is an amalgamation not only of all our ancestors, but of their decisions, and in 1831, Ambrose Hawkins was contemplating moving his family from America to Africa. Had he done so, his son Joseph would have been raised in Liberia instead of North Carolina and never would have become Pharrell Williams’s third great-grandfather.

As it happens, Ambrose did go to Liberia, but opted for a solo round trip, rather than a family migration. If not for this last minute change of plans, the gene pool that would eventually produce Pharrell couldn’t have crystallized. He wouldn’t exist…


Joe Biden and Barack Obama’s respective Irish cousins, Laurita Blewitt and Henry Healy (courtesy of Laurita)¹

This is an updated version of an article that was first published in Irish America in 2013, but for obvious reasons, has become freshly relevant.

How can you not love a name like Finnegan Biden? I find it charming when family names are given fresh life in ensuing generations, and that’s exactly what happened in the lineage bracketing Joe Biden. His beloved mother Jean’s full name was Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden. Subtract “Catherine Eugenia” and you have the name of one of his granddaughters — Finnegan Biden. …


Ancestors from Ukraine to China Arrived 1893 to 1940

Jon Stewart and his great-granduncle

Until a few years ago, Jon Stewart came into our living rooms four nights a week to both educate and entertain us. Now he uses his celebrity sparingly to support select causes such as keeping our commitments to and 9/11 first responders, but otherwise keeps a low profile. He didn’t, for instance, join Twitter until January of 2021. So he remains something of an enigma to most.

As a genealogist, I was curious about the ancestors who produced a descendant of such intellect and principle, so here’s a bit of information about his heritage — including an unexpected Mongolian and…


What a difference two decades make

Author’s memorabilia from the launch of the AFIHC and database

In April of 2001, a miracle occurred. Well, it certainly seemed that way at the time. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation (SOLEIF) opened the American Family Immigration History Center (AFIHC), launching an online database — digitized and indexed — of the passenger records of millions of immigrants who took their first steps in America at Ellis Island.

Fast forward 20 years, and we expect genealogical companies to provide fresh databases weekly, but I’d like to try to convey what a big deal this was. It was — quite literally — national news. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:



Which animation will you choose from the menu?

I don’t know if my great-grandfather, Peter Smolenyak, will ever forgive me. Several weeks ago, I wrote about using MyHeritage’s Deep Nostalgia tool to animate him, but now they’ve introduced fresh functionality to customize your animations, and I couldn’t resist playing with it.

MyHeritage’s special animation menu

Immediately drawn to the “special animations” menu, I tried experimenting with my great-grandfather. To give a sense of the kind of results you can expect, this trio of photos shows the original image I uploaded followed by a restored version, and then one that’s been both restored and colorized — all using MyHeritage.


Galway joins Mayo and Louth as an Irish ancestral home

President Biden’s ancestral homestead awaits his visit (Google Maps)

Ireland loves to claim her own, so President Biden — who’s conspicuously proud of his 5/8 Irish ancestry — is a source of pride for many in the land of his ancestors. I first explored his heritage before he became Vice President, and later shared some of my findings in Irish America when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013. My research on his mother’s side of the family led to the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth and Ballina in County Mayo, where I was fortunate enough to find his Blewitt cousins. …


Tombstones in Ohio made all the difference

Writer with Barack Obama in Ireland (credit: Pete Souza)

Over the years, my sleuthing has resulted in some curious outcomes, but few were as unexpected as the time I traced Barack Obama’s roots to the village of Moneygall in Ireland. At the time I did the research, I had no notion that he would wind up visiting his ancestral hometown as President, but that’s exactly what happened. Identifying his Irish hometown took both effort and luck (as it happens, a pair of tombstones would be instrumental), so I thought I’d share the trail that led me there.

How It Began

Back before he was even President, a St. Patrick’s…


A tale of genealogical serendipity

Ellen (Nelligan) Murphy, 1832–1927

Many of us have a particular ancestor who calls to us louder than others, one with whom we feel a special kinship. For me, this is one of my great-great-grandmothers, Ellen Nelligan. Perhaps it’s because my own grandmother — her granddaughter — told me tales of her life. Or maybe it’s because she anchors the bottom row of my pedigree — my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother. Or it could just be because her name is fun to say, giving the tongue a workout pronouncing the syllables. …

Megan Smolenyak

Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! You may not know me, but chances are you’ve seen my work. (

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