Jon Hamm and Megan Smolenyak

Yeah, I never thought those two names would belong in a post together, but I recently got to meet Jon Hamm and it turned out he had read my recent Huffington Post piece about his roots. So he was kind enough to sign a copy. He was interested enough that he had actually read a couple of my other articles that were linked. Delighted to find him as gracious a fellow as you would hope.

Seton Shields Genealogical Grant Awarded to Girl Museum

Congratulations to our most recent Seton Shields Genealogical Grant recipient!

Girl Museum is a completely virtual museum that focuses on research and exhibitions about girl culture from across time and space. They recently started the Heirloom Project, which is an opportunity for girls to investigate their own families to find out more about their genealogy and histories through interviews and researching old photographs, artifacts and heirlooms. Girls will submit their discoveries to Girl Museum and become part of a large exhibition that will go online at the end of 2013. The grant award will be used toward the creation of a downloadable PDF guide, several how-to videos and online support for participants. 

You can apply for a grant here.

Seton Shields Genealogical Grant Awarded to Maureen Taylor, The Photo Detective

Congratulations to our most recent Seton Shields Genealogical Grant recipient!

Maureen Taylor, The Photo Detective, has spent ten years journeying through databases, private collections, and museum holdings to find as many photos from the Revolutionary War Generation as possible. So far, she has located over 200 of these images, and some of them are profiled in The Last Muster: Images of the Revolution (Kent State University Press, 2009) and The Last Muster: Faces of the Revolution (in press, 2013). Maureen is now partnering with award-winning Verissima Productions of Cambridge, MA to bring the photos, and the stories behind them, to film. In order to produce and distribute “Revolutionary Voices” they are raising a total of $225,000.

This month's grant award was made in the form of a pledge for this project on Kickstarter. Please consider making a pledge to help get this wonderful project off the ground!

You can apply for a grant here.

Seton Shields Genealogical Grant Awarded to Wikipedia Foundation

Congratulations to our most recent Seton Shields Genealogical Grant recipient!

I wonder how many know that Wikipedia is a non-profit organization that operates off of donations. I didn't, and yet I use it all the time. And yes, as genealogists, we know that it's a good idea to double check information found here, but what a terrific resource for getting a running start on just about any topic. I know I hit it up for everything from 19th century politicians to obscure Ukrainian villages, so this month's grant goes to the Wikipedia Foundation in gratitude for a resource that's often taken for granted.

You can apply for a grant here.

Seton Shields Genealogical Grant Awarded to JewishGen

Congratulations to our most recent Seton Shields Genealogical Grant recipient!

This month’s grant was given to JewishGen, a valuable resource I’ve used many times over the years.  If you have any Jewish heritage or have ever used the popular website, you’re already familiar with all JewishGen has to offer, including countless databases and many other tools and resources.  If not, I encourage you to visit and explore.

You can apply for a grant here.

Name Change and Double Milestones for Genealogy Grants Program

You may or may not be familiar with what I've long called the Honoring Our Ancestors Genealogical Grants Program.  In a nutshell, I make a donation to support one genealogical initative each month.  I've been steadily doing this since I first became a professional genealogist and am delighted to announced a special pair of back to back milestones.

The May 2012 grant marked the 12th anniversary of this program and the June 2012 is the 150th grant (for those who are swift with math, I occasionally give more than one grant a month, which is why the numbering is running slightly ahead of the number of months).  This seemed to call for a celebration of sorts, so I've decided to rename the program in honor of my remarkable mother.  From this point on, it will be known as the Seton Shields Genealogical Grants Program.

Here's to the next dozen years!  In the meantime, you might be interested to read about the most recent awards.


May 2012

For the 12th anniversary grant, I decided to do something I've never done before.  I sought out an unsung hero - someone who probably doesn't get enough recognition for what they contribute to the genealogical world - and I selected Tom Tryniski of If you're not familiar with this website, I'll briefly explain that Tom single-handedly scans and uploads millions of pages of newspapers, much like some larger, commercial organizations. The site initially focused on Central New York, but has branched out to include newspapers in nearby areas ranging from the Pennsylvania border to Brooklyn. I have no idea how he does it, but he does and I'm grateful, so I took advantage of the PayPal donation option he provides on the website. If you have ancestors in that area, do yourself a favor and check it out. And by the way, it's one of the more amusing websites you'll encounter!


June 2012

For the 150th grant, I opted to do something a little different. I was fortunate enough to start playing with genealogy way back in the 6th grade due to a homework assignment. Mrs. Berkowitz provided the spark for me to become a professional genealogist today. For that reason, I thought I would see whether I might be able to pass that spark along. I've long been a fan of, an organization that allows you to browse and support school projects. Many know that education in our country is suffering and both students and teachers are affected. This is a great way to help make up for at least a little of the relentless deficits in our school budgets. So I did a little searching and picked five projects across the country that had some aspect of family, national or international history and culture associated with them. Just maybe a couple of the students will feel the pull of genealogy and contribute to our field and understanding of our history in the future.

Traveling with the Dead Ancestors

Hey Everyone,

I'm delighted to host my first ever guest blog, and doubly so, because it happens to be from an author whose book - Running Away to Home - I genuinely loved (yes, I had already read it when we tripped across each other on Twitter). Having dragged two groups of 40 Americans to an ancestral village in Slovakia, I could totally relate to so many of the escapades that Jennifer Wilson shares, but I promise, you don't have to be a world traveler to smile in recognition at her family's adventures and mishaps! If you enjoy what you read below (and I expect you will), please consider adding Jen's book to your library. 



(P.S. Sharing of this post encouraged!)


How to follow the roots of your family tree across the globe

by Jennifer Wilson

A few years back, when the economy tanked, my husband Jim and I took a life time-out.

               We’d been feeling restless, running around too much with the kids, spinning on The Great Hamster Wheel. It was time to get our family back on track before our daughter headed to the mall with some skeevy dude and our son started wearing black eyeliner. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

At about that time, my great aunt, Sister Mary Paula Radošević, passed away—the last of the immigrant relatives. I inherited her personal papers and became immediately enchanted by our ancestral home: the ancient Croatian mountain village of Mrkopalj (pronounced MER-koe-pie). It’s like the dead relatives were whispering in my ear, tempting my mom-frazzled brain with a simpler life in the Old Country. I wanted my kids out of soccer practice and into the branches of apple trees in this place that looked like it was built for gnomes in a cleave between forested mountains. I wanted Jim out from behind from his office computer screen, walking with me through fairytale meadows.

Losing half our savings in the 2008 stock market crash was the final nudge we needed. It was just a crazy enough time to follow our roots back to the beginning and start over as a family. We sold our stuff in a name-your-own-price garage sale, worked extra jobs and saved every penny. And then we ran away.

We lived in Mrkopalj for several months, milking the neighbor’s cow (which lived in her house), turning sheep on a spit at village festivals, shooting nosehair-burning rakija with the neighbors. I wrote about the whole fabulously messy adventure in my new book, RUNNING AWAY TO HOME .

You really can’t beat roots travel for insider access. If you’re curious about building your own journey—whether it’s for one week or one year—here are some tips.     

  • Scout It Out. Just as my great-grandfather before me, I took a short scouting trip to Mrko palj before we moved there. Sure, it worried me when the tourism guy was too drunk to help me. But the dead ancestors whispered in my ear that this trip would be worth it. They were right. Short-term travelers: You can scout from home on the interwebs.
  • Scour for Connections. Consult your genealogy papers. Call local ethnic clubs. Ask relatives about family members in the Old Country. Any contacts to greet and guide you will enrich the experience. Even if you’re just visiting cemeteries, let people know you’re coming, because it could shake a distant relative out of the woodwork. And then they might feed you.
  • Call Tourism Honchos. Contact national/local tourism boards for travel advice. Ask directly for specific things: lodging recommendations, cultural cues you need to know, potential translators, things like that. Tourism employees are busy, but they know everything. A short, friendly email that says: “I’ll be in the area researching my family, and am looking for a good B&B in San Sebastian,” will generate the information you want. A long, rambling letter about how you miss your Spanish granny will not.
  • Assemble Your Documents. In addition to the usual stuff, I traveled with a letter from the Croatian Tourism Board, introducing me as an American researching my roots. It helped when my Croatian language skills couldn’t communicate why I was wandering around a post-Communist country with a camera, tape recorder and reporter’s notebook. The letter al so listed a name and number at the consulate if I got in a jam.
  •  Be Flexible of Mind. Prepare for surprises. As you well know, things aren’t all sunshine and daisies when you’re sifting through family history. Like the time I learned that the ancestral village was perhaps (probably) aligned with Nazis and Fascists in World War Two. It’s a long story. In fact, there’s a whole book about it! It’s called Running Away to Home  and I believe you will like it.
  •  Live Local. Once you’re walking the streets where your ancestors lived, consider yourself one of them. Expel all preconceived notions to make room for new ideas. My kids ran feral in an open meadow where the main worry was whether that mountain viper would show up again. We ate suspicious local stuff like fried dormouse. I drank the village moonshine before noon with a group of old ladies hell-bent on teaching me to knit with four needles.

We were learning about our roots through our bodies and our taste buds and our connections to another country that remain close to our hearts.

 Is your own ancestral home tempting your travel muse now? I hope so. When we traveled in the footsteps of our ancestors, it changed our lives forever.

Happy travels.

Jennifer Wilson writes for Esquire, National Geographic Traveler, Better Homes & Gardens, and many other national magazines and newspapers. Find out more about RUNNING AWAY TO HOME at     

"Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing" Available Today!

I'm so excited to announce that today is the official birth day of my new book, Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing! It's a collection of my favorite investigatory romps from the past decade (check out what Ken Burns, Stephen Colbert and Kirkus Reviews had to say) and I invite you to watch my first ever book trailer video to get a taste!

I'd love to hear your reactions and would be especially grateful if you could share your comments with fellow genealogists, history buffs, and mystery lovers, as well as post reviews on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. "Likes," Tweets and retweets, +1s and so forth also much appreciated.

Finally, I'd also love it if you'd consider joining me at one of my upcoming events in NJ, PA, MD, VA, AZ, TX, OH, IN, CA and even online (thanks to Legacy Family Tree) – and please let your genealogical buddies know, too! The book, video and my speaking schedule are all available on my freshly hatched website,


Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing

Part forensic scientist, part master sleuth, Megan Smolenyak2 has solved some of America's oldest and most fascinating genealogical mysteries. You've read the headlines, now get the inside story as the "Indiana Jones of genealogy" reveals how she cracked her news-making cases, became the face of this increasingly popular field—and redefined history along the way.

How did Smolenyak2 discover Barack Obama's Irish ancestry and his relation to Brad Pitt? Or the journey of Michelle Obama's family from slavery to the White House? Or the startling links between outspoken politicians Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond? And why is Smolenyak2's name squared? Test your own skills as she reveals her exciting secrets. Whether she's scouring websites to uncover the surprising connections between famous figures or using cutting-edge DNA tests to locate family members of fallen soldiers dating back to the Civil War, Smolenyak2's historical sleuthing is as provocative, richly layered, and exciting as America itself.

"Watch out Watson and Crick! Megan Smolenyak decodes our
fascinating, complicated past in this tour de force of detective work."
Ken Burns

"Thank you for taking the time to lay out our family map...
You're practically family. You certainly know more about us than we do."
Stephen Colbert

"This splendid book makes genealogy come alive in the most vivid and compelling manner."
from the Foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"Megan is a genealogist's dream, a forensic investigator who can also tell a great story."
Sam Roberts, The New York Times

"Megan is a blessing to cold-case detectives and a master genealogist."
Julie M. Haney, Special Agent, NCIS Cold Case Homicide Unit

"Megan . . . is, hands down, America's greatest genealogist, and this book is proof of it."
Andrew Carroll, editor of the New York Times bestsellers War Letters and Behind the Lines

"The Indiana Jones of genealogy...Megan Smolenyak is a national treasure."
Buzzy Jackson, author of Shaking the Family Tree

"Megan Smolenyak is the genealogist's genealogist - the go-to person for building
your family tree and solving stubborn historical mysteries."
Dr. Spencer Wells, Director of the Genographic Project, National Geographic

"In this breezy narrative, Smolenyak allows us to look over the shoulder of a relentless genealogist as she works the puzzle pieces of her craft. Whether unearthing evidence from Internet databases, newspaper offices, court houses, libraries and cemeteries, consulting translators, historians or her vast network of fellow genealogists, pioneering the use of genealogical DNA testing, solving the mystery or occasionally hitting a brick wall, Smolenyak remains wholly committed, curious and cheery, eager to share her methods and excitement."
Kirkus Reviews, "Bottom-up history from a top-shelf researcher"