Interview with Melissa A. Johnson, CG®

As an “official blogger” at the New England Regional Genealogical Conference (NERGC 2019), I had the opportunity to interview one of the conference speakers.  I plan to attend two of Melissa Johnson’s lectures, and thought it would be nice to know more about her and some of her thoughts about genealogy.

Melissa Johnson, CG®

Melissa is a professional genealogist specializing in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania research, using DNA test results, genealogical writing, forensic genealogy, and lineage society applications. Her presentations at NERGC 2019 include:

F-104: Demystifying Genealogical Terminology (Beginner)
F-117: Go Paperless! Organizing Your Genealogical Research (All Levels)
S-121 Writing Your Family History (Workshop, Intermediate)

Questions:

Don:    Your website indicates that you specialize in lineage society applications. What do you think are the most significant benefits of becoming a member of a lineage society?

Melissa:           I am not a member of any lineage societies, so I can only speak to the reasons why my clients want to join them. Most of my clients want to become involved in society. Whether it’s the DAR, SAR, Descendants of the Founders of New Jersey, or another group, there are volunteer positions and different types of events that people can become involved in. Some of my other clients want to document their ancestral lines and the people who qualify them for membership in the society, So, in terms of the benefits, it really depends on the person. If I were ever to join a lineage society, I would do it mostly to have my lineage on record for future generations.

Don:    Your bio mentions that you specialize in “forensic genealogy.” What exactly is forensic genealogy?

Melissa:           Forensic Genealogy is genealogy as it pertains to the law. For example, if someone dies without a will, researching to identify their next of kin, would fall under forensic genealogy. So would any type of genealogical research that is part of a civil or criminal case. Also, research to move forward with a process that changes your legal status, such as dual citizenship, is categorized as forensic genealogy. Obtaining dual citizenship makes you a citizen of another country because it changes your legal status. Another example is a person who is applying to become a member of a federally-recognized Native American tribe. That process changes a person’s race (and thus, their legal status).  All those types of research fall under forensic genealogy. The use of DNA in genealogy can also fall under forensic genealogy—for example, if an individual seeks to identify their biological parents after an adoption (a legal process) took place.

Don:    Interesting. It makes me wonder if all genealogists shouldn’t endeavor to treat their research as a forensic genealogist, in that they should approach their research as if they have no personal interest in the results or the findings.

Melissa:    That can be a good approach. It is always good to go into a research project without any bias, but it’s often hard to do that when it’s our own family and when we think we know something about an ancestor we’ve heard it so many times before. It’s also good to treat all of your research as seriously as a forensic genealogist would. Our reports, affidavits, and exhibits are often brought before a court, so you always want them to be your absolute best work. All researchers should make sure that they are meeting the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Don:    DNA testing for genealogical purposes is now very popular in the genealogy field. There is much discussion about DNA testing; my question is, when should a person not test?

Melissa:    DNA test results can be very difficult to understand for a beginner, and can sometimes include surprising results. It is essential to understand what a DNA test can and can’t tell you. That involves knowing and understanding that a DNA test can reveal previously unknown relatives. There have been many cases where a person who took a DNA test found out that they were adopted, or that the man who raised them was not their biological father. Likewise, there may have been individuals adopted out of a person’s biological family. Those individuals might take a DNA test and show up in your results; they might not know about you, and you might not know about them. There are always going to be surprises, so it’s good to understand this before deciding to take the test. Also, everyone should be very clear about what the testing company does (and doesn’t) do with DNA test results. Everyone should read the “terms and conditions” or “terms of use” for each website or third party tool to make sure that they fully understand where their DNA information is going and how the company is going to use it. So, to answer the question about when a person should not test,” I would say it is when they don’t fully understand what information a DNA test will provide, don’t want to know about any unexpected relationships, or are uncomfortable with the terms and conditions of a particular testing company.

Don:    I am the illegitimate son of an illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate daughter. As such, I firmly believe that the truth is always better than lies or confusion. I know many people say they don’t want to know the truth if it disagrees with their current world view. Today, many genealogical ethicists seem to promote only sharing findings if they don’t “hurt” anyone. What are your thoughts about that issue?

Melissa:    Many people are being provided with new information, especially as a result of DNA testing. Some of the surprises I mentioned, such as finding out that one or both parents is not biologically related, could surprise many parties—the child, the parent, the parent’s spouse, the parent’s other children—for example.  Each scenario is different and there are many viewpoints and feelings to consider, and if there isn’t a cut-and-dry sort of answer in terms of making these findings public information. It depends on the situation. It’s always good for a researcher to take a step back, look at all the parties involved, and think about how the news might impact everyone. There are lots of ways to share new findings—publicly and privately within a family, published formally or informally, or published with pieces of information redacted. The impacts on all living people should be considered.

Don:     What do you think is the best, or most desirable, way to preserve genealogical work for future generations?

Melissa:    Writing up your research is definitely the best way. This can be done in many different ways. Some people have blogs with tons of information about their family. Blogs are great because they’re searchable, and someone who is searching for their great-great-grandfather can find that distant cousin’s blog and connect with them. You can also write up your research more formally—some genealogists have written several volumes of books on specific families. There are also other options—researchers can write a short article about an ancestor or an interesting problem for a genealogy magazine. Writing also doesn’t have to be formally published—it can be placed in a file in your local historical society. Writing is the way to go, no matter the format you choose. recommend that everyone writes up some part of their research for future generations. On Saturday at NERGC, I’ll be teaching a workshop that talks about options for how to write up your research.

Don:    Excellent. I’m looking forward to it. Your workshop is on my list of things to attend at the conference. I appreciate your participating in this interview. Thank you so much.

Melissa A. Johnson, CG® is a professional genealogist and can be reached through her websites: www.johnsongenealogyservices.com and www.newjerseyfamilyhistory.com.

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