Grab your magnifying glass and get ready to investigate as Mashable uncovers Big/Little Mysteries.
When 60-year-old genealogist Megan Smolenyak took one of the first direct-to-consumer DNA tests from 23andMe in late 2007 she unearthed her own family mystery.
“My very first experience was a big surprise,” she said during a recent phone call. “I discovered my dad’s brother was his half-brother.”
The popular spit tests from
It’s nearly impossible to know how often testers find surprises in their results, as reporter Libby Copeland wrote in her 2020 book,
Smolenyak, who is from the Washington, D.C. area but now lives in Florida, first caught the genealogy bug in sixth grade when her teacher sent students on a quest to find where their surnames originated.
She says her dad unwittingly misinformed her that it stemmed from the former Soviet Union. Years later in the early 2000s, she
For the past several 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 online and IRL records, she’s been told she’s the “secret sauce” for so-called seekers trying to find family members or accurate family histories. She’s taught herself the tricks of the trade over the years, but warns that it’s a hard career path. “To be a genealogist is to be dismissed,” she said. Most so-called genies — that’s what genealogists call themselves — get into it as a hobby trying to crack their own family mysteries, so people lump in career-genies with hobbyists.
During our conversation she emphasized her work with the U.S. Army. She finds living relatives for unaccounted soldiers from World War I, II, the Korean and Vietnam wars and has encountered a lot of surprises of the genetic variety. While working more than 1,580 cases for the military, she’s gone deep into family dynamics and seen “people of all stripes.”
“It’s not uncommon for me to know more about soldier’s family than they [do] themselves,” she said.
She said she’s cold-called at least 10 different families to let them know they had a brother they didn’t know about that died in a war. She calls this event “the surprise half sibling.”
“You just can’t get bored” discovering all these stories, she said. But it also “keeps you humble as a genealogist.”
In one case she told a man about a half brother he didn’t know about who was only six months younger. He had been killed in Korea, but the man’s whole family flew from California to Arlington National Cemetery for a memorial service for a relative they never knew existed.
Smolenyak has had plenty of cases of what she calls “pure denial.” When she tells families about a secret sibling, “they don’t want to hear that someone stepped out,” she said. She said we tend to think of our ancestors as straight-laced and in line with societal expectations.
She’s discovered instances where the oldest daughter had a child out of wedlock and that baby was raised as a younger sibling. She mentioned
“It was easier to hide your secrets,” she said about generations before DNA testing and online records. “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 at Ancestry.com until 2011, she saw first hand how at-home testing has unlocked more and more family mysteries.
Since 2016, the AncestryDNA app that accompanies the company’s home testing kit has grown from more than 51,500 downloads each year to more than 2.2 million in 2021 so far, according to data from Apptopia. The app gives a breakdown of your ethnic background and connects you to potential relatives.
The 23andMe app that has similar features has seen comparable growth with under 95,000 total downloads in 2016 jumping to over 2.1 million this year, according to Apptopia.
While DNA testing has surfaced many discoveries, it also
Still, Smolenyak sees the benefits in pairing DNA tests with archival research. “For hard core genies we love picking through the archives,” she told me.
She resurfaced former secretary of state
Smolenyak has used her own sleuthing skills to make sure she wasn’t related to her husband, who has the same last name.
“I suppose the fact that I happen to be a Smolenyak who recently married a Smolenyak from one of the other lines gives me reason to sigh with relief,” she wrote in
In a recent email she summed up any confusion: “I’m a Smolenyak by birth and by marriage (beat them odds). It’s why I sometimes sign my books Smolenyak-squared.”
“If you’re trying to solve a history mystery, 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 last name. “If you’re trying to solve a history mystery, each generation adds a potential surprise,” she noted for anyone hesitant to learn about their family’s past.
As to DNA testing she advises: “If you don’t want to know, don’t test.”
She doesn’t want everyone to assume their father isn’t who they thought, but there’s a strong chance “you’re going to find something unexpected.” It’s how these genetic mysteries tend to unravel.