Genealogy Travel: Travel to Your Roots

Earlier in 2010, the four-part PBS series, "Faces of America," with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. aired with celebrities Meryl Streep, Stephen Colbert and Mario Batali delving into their heritage. Coming up in February 2011, NBC's TV show, "Who Do You think You Are?" also returns to air, with notable celebrities including Lionel Richie, Vanessa Williams and Ashley Judd tracing their family tree each week.

AOL Travel investigates the trend with Megan Smolenyak, a lead researcher on "Faces of America" and author of "Who Do You Think You Are?: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History" and "Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree". Victoria Staten talks about how a visit to a dying relative began her quest for family roots. And author Amy Hill Hearth tells how sometimes the journey of but a few miles can reveal a personal history that goes back for generations.

It was Megan Smolenyak who traced President Obama's American roots to Ohio, a search that began in 2007, when the campaign looked into the background of all the candidates. "I was with at the time," says Smolenyak, "and it took me two months of complicated research to learn his story."

She discovered that in 1850, cobbler Falmouth Kearney, the president's great-great-great grandfather emigrated from Moneygall, Ireland to Ohio. (In Moneygall, the president is sometimes referred to as "O'Bama.") "And here was another discovery," Smolenyak adds. "Within five weeks of Kearney's arrival, another Irish immigrant -- the ancestor of Joe Biden -- arrived in America. And he was a cobbler, too."

Smolenyak has worked with a number of celebrities, including Susan Sarandon and former NFL player Emmitt Smith. The work, she says, is intense, and 19-hour days are common. "On WDYTYA, the celebrities have no idea what's going to happen in advance," she says. "They have to make a commitment of time -- and to trust us. They have to get involved, to actually connect the dots. When I was taping with Emmitt Smith, he learned that he was going to Africa that same day. You get very sincere emotional reactions." Thus, the legendary runner was visibly moved when his journey led him to the area around Benin, on Africa's "Slave Coast."

Sometimes the connection to American history can be shocking. Remember Sarah Jessica Parker's stunned surprise when she discovered that her 10th great grandmother, Esther Elwell had been arrested in Salem -- for committing "sundry acts of witchcraft" and choking a neighbor to death?

Smolenyak has had her own share of surprises during a career that had its origins in a 6th grade school project. "We had to find out where our families came from and to mark the spot on a map. Dad said the family was from the Soviet Union -- and I remember feeling sorry for my classmates, who were all crowded around the British Isles."

Later, she would discover that she was half Irish, half Carpatho-Rusyn. As an adult, she traveled to Ireland to discover Irish roots, but it was the Carpatho-Rusyn paart that kept Smolenyak going back to Slovakia. "I found Smolenyaks everywhere in this little village [Osturna]. Until recently, even the mayor was a Smolenyak."

Carrying her research a step further, Smolenyak began taking DNA samples from villagers in a project similar to National Geographic's Genographic Project.

In 2001, Osturna became the world's first genetic genealogy village.

Smolenyak predicts that there will be a growing increase in heritage travel, particularly to the countries that have sent the U.S. the greatest number of immigrants: Germany, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Referring to the popularity of "roots" travel to Ireland, she explains: "The government of Ireland used to be possessive of its records, but that changed when they realized the tourism potential. Last year, the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport put the census records for 1901 and 1911 online. It's digitized and indexed and searching is free."

The surge in heritage travel is reflected in the growing number of tour operators that offer genealogy tours (one Irish hotel, the Shelbourne Dublin in Dublin, even has a genealogy butler).

Entrepreneur Victoria Staten, became interested in her roots when her maternal grandmother was dying. "Both my parents were born and raised in Ohio," she says. "My mother is from a 'one bar and church' kind of town south of Columbus. A few years ago, when my grandmother was on her deathbed, relatives came out of the woodwork to pay their respects.

A great aunt who appeared in a rusty van asked Victoria if she had ever been to Staten Island. The aunt then went on to tell Staten that the island had been named after their family. She also found out that her family first immigrated to New York, then went to Pennsylvania before finally landing in Ohio.

"I asked the aunt how long ago this was, not really expecting an answer. But she replied: 'Well, ya know, we been here forever.'"

And so began Staten's quest to see if she was right.

"Most of my life, I have been told that 'we were always here,'" she says. "I found records showing that I've had a relative in every war America has fought. I think we came to America about 1650 from England, specifically from Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire -- from the lands of Shakespeare and Robin Hood.

"Last summer my British husband and I went to England, and after doing some research on Britain's version of, we came to believe that my ancestors first lived in Great Dalby.

"Great Dalby is an itty-bitty town with just one pub. We spent quite a bit of time in that pub, drinking with the owner, a woman who told us lots of stories. Our mission was to find the church -- by now we had figured out that churches were the best places to search."

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Victoria Staten

The search took them around the town, to a stranger's birthday party, and finally to an ancient church, built before the Norman Conquest. "Many of the artifacts date back to the 1500s and 1600s," says Staten. "Sitting in the pews, looking out the windows, I could picture my ancestors singing in the choir section. Walking through the heavy door, stepping on the threshold in my bare feet, I could imagine what life must have been like back then."

The church caretaker helped Victoria access church records dating back to the early 1600s, when many of her ancestors were baptized, married –- and later buried. "She also told me that our family name had been altered over time," says Staten, "and that she believed we were part of the Staunton clan, who were royal guards to Belvoir Castle."

Staten describes the journey as "an emotional experience, one I hope to repeat and share with my children and my mother." And now that she has had a taste of "roots" travel, she hopes "to do a bit more exploring myself."

Not all "roots" travel involves great distances, though it may involve leaving behind your sense of identity. New Jersey author Amy Hill Hearth's discovery took her little more than 100 miles from home on an emotional journey that enriched her life. "I grew up knowing my ancestors were from Germany, Denmark, England and Scotland," she says. "In other words, I thought I was 100 percent Caucasian." But when Hearth and her father were working on the family tree, they discovered that she had Lenni-Lenape Indian ancestry.

"Ironically, I was already living on Lenni-Lenape 'ancestral land' -- territory that once included parts of New York, including Manhattan, all of New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania. I soon learned that most of the Lenape were killed outright, died of disease, or were forcibly relocated to reservations in the West. Very few remained in the East."

Hearth traced her connection to a small tribe of Lenape still living on the Delaware Bay, about 125 miles from her home. After traveling a number of times to see the tribe, she was gradually accepted. "I even wrote a book about the tribe's matriarch, whose name is Strong Medicine," she says. (The book is "Strong Medicine Speaks: A Native American Elder Has Her Say," published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in 2008.)

"Exploring this branch of my family tree has been life-changing," says Hearth. "I see the world differently, and I certainly see myself differently as well. In a ceremony in May 2010, I was given the name Smiling Songbird Woman by the tribe. If I hadn't searched this branch of my family tree, I would not have had this extraordinary life experience."

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