On a trip this past February to Pakistan, Ammad Sheikh learned more about his ancestry than he ever could have imagined while building his family tree on a home computer in Plainview.
Sheikh, 46, director of marketing for a law firm and the self-appointed family genealogist, took the 18-hour flight with his mother, Wala, 68; his wife, Nahid, 42; and their three children: Rahim, 16; Yaseen, 14; and Amanah, now 8. The two boys had previously visited the country when they were very young, but for daughter Amanah, it was the first time.
While staying at the family home in a suburb of Lahore, the Sheikhs traveled around the country doing relief work at villages damaged the previous year by a major flood, Sheikh said. Rahim Sheikh, who posts cooking videos on YouTube, bonded with his Aunt Anum, a celebrity chef on Pakistani TV, over homemade family meals of keema (minced meat) and fresh-squeezed orange juice.
They also visited the family cemetery where Sheikh’s father, Pervaiz, was buried after he died of a heart attack at the age of 41 aboard an airplane while making his own trip to the homeland in 1987. With help from Sheikh’s mother, many new names were added to a family tree spreadsheet that Sheikh said “keeps growing and growing.”
“We were pointing at various graves and saying, ‘Who’s buried there?’ ” Sheikh recalled of the cemetery visit. His mother, he said, had all the answers — as well as the family stories to go with them.
“There were some graves that were 200-plus years old,” Rahim Sheikh marveled. “My grandmother was able to identify every grave, and she explained who everyone was in the family graveyard.”
Earlier this month, “Finding Your Roots,” the acclaimed PBS series hosted by historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., debuted its 10th season. While the show has traditionally traced the lineage of celebrities like actor Glenn Close and musician Questlove, for the first time it will feature the ancestral stories of three viewers.
But Long Islanders like Sheikh are already a step ahead in the genealogy game, having found their roots through extensive family and online research. Many have followed up with visits to ancestral homelands.
Through census and other records found on FamilySearch.org, Miller Place resident Eileen Swanberg said, “I was able to find enough details to connect with living relatives in Sweden and Norway.” Swanberg, 63, who volunteers at the Terryville Family Search Center in Port Jefferson Station, a free genealogical resource owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, said she and an aunt used the information she uncovered to meet with Scandinavian relatives in 2012. “We got to visit places where our ancestors lived, where they worshipped and where they were laid to rest,” she said.
And Alec Ferretti, a professional genealogist who grew up in Bellmore, said he took a 3½-week trip in 2016 to track down his family lineage in Naples, Salerno and Sicily.
“I was able to visit the church where my great-great-grandfather, Giovanni Ferretti, was baptized,” Ferretti, 28, said. “I met my grandparents’ second and third cousins.”
Returning to the Door of No Return
“Growing up on Long Island and frolicking on Jones Beach and Rockaway Beach, I would always gaze at the shore, wondering what was on the other side of the ocean,” said journalist and author Cheryl Wills, 57, of Freeport. “Little did I know as a child, it was my ancestral home.”
Homing in on that ancestral land, however, proved difficult due to historically poor government recordkeeping, Wills said.
“Census takers from the beginning of the first U.S. Census in 1790 until 1860 did not include the name of enslaved persons — only age, gender and ‘b’ for black or ‘m’ for mulatto,” Wills explained. Using available records, Wills was able to identify a great-great-great-grandfather, Sandy Wills — an enslaved African who escaped from a Tennessee plantation to fight in the Civil War for the North as a member of the United States Colored Troops. Wills shared her family’s journey from slavery to freedom in a series of books beginning with “Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale” (Bascom Hill 2011).
Wills’ research also turned up Sandy Wills’ wife, Emma Moore Wills, through slaveholding records. But Wills said the trail went cold when she tried to delve further into the 18th century, when she believes her ancestors arrived in the United States on slave ships.
Her big breakthrough came in 2011, when she sent DNA swabs to AfricanAncestry.com and Ancestry.com. That testing confirmed, she said, that her roots were “on the other side of the Atlantic in West Africa, from regions that slave traders raided during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.”
The genetic markers opened up a painful new chapter in Wills’ family history, suggesting, she said, that “my ancestors were kidnapped, shipped to islands off the coast of West Africa and were imprisoned there until a slave ship arrived, never to see their native land again.”
The same year that Wills received her DNA results, she said she joined a group of journalists attending the 2011 World Summit of Mayors Leadership Conference in Senegal, an event co-organized by the U.S.-based National Conference of Black Mayors, the National Association of Senegalese Mayors and UNAIDS. As a guest of Senegal’s then-president Abdoulaye Wade, Wills visited the presidential palace, arts centers and markets in Senegal’s capital city, Dakar. Her “ultimate destination,” however, was Gorée Island off the Dakar coast, which, along with other areas of West Africa, had been “one of the key hubs for the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” she said.
Wills said she was the first member of her family to enter Gorée’s House of Slaves, a onetime holding cell for captured Africans shipped off to the Americas. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
More than a decade later, Wills’ memories of the building remain fresh. “I had heard that many people fainted upon entry, and the stench of human flesh still hung in the air,” she said. “I didn’t faint, I didn’t smell the stench, but I was emotionally overwhelmed by the experience.”
Adoptive and Birth Family Ties to Ireland
A different set of challenges has faced Gregory Noone, as he has worked to trace the history of his biological and adoptive families, both of which hail from Ireland.
Noone, 62, of Ronkonkoma, goes by the last name of the family that adopted him at 5 months old. In an effort to learn more about that family, he took a 2014 trip to Ireland to hunt for clues to his Noone heritage. Accompanied by his spouse, James Gale, 60, he said he visited genealogy centers and walked through a small cemetery in the county of Sligo, where many gravestones bear Noone’s surname.
“I also got a wonderful book by Father Seán Noone of County Mayo, who told of many Noone families and their history from the 19th century,” he said. “It helps to have a specialist in the Irish language, also called Gaelic, because spellings can vary,” added Noone, a teacher at the Gerry Tobin Irish Language School, which meets at the Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall in Babylon.
In the end, however, his search was inconclusive, with no records found establishing a connection in Sligo to great-great-grandparents Michael and Margaret Noone, who arrived in New York Harbor in March 1847. To this day, Noone said, “We don’t know exactly who their people are.”
But researching his birth family name, Coyle, opened greener genealogical pastures. It also turned up some surprising coincidences.
“The Coyles found me on Ancestry.com in early 2019,” Noone said. “My aunt reached out to me as we both gave DNA samples and found a match that could only be a very, very close relation.”
He was stunned to discover, he said, that, “Both the Noones and Coyles come from northwestern Ireland, and after coming to America in the 19th century, both settled in opposite ends of Pennsylvania.”
And after traveling all the way to Ireland to trace his adopted family’s lineage, Noone wound up finding a birth relative just a six-hour drive away from his home on Long Island.
He said he met his birth mother’s sister for the first time in 2021 on a visit to Pennsylvania. He was there to help his aunt bury the ashes of Karen Coyle, his birth mother, who unbeknownst to him had been living in a Philadelphia nursing home. At the cemetery, Noone saw the gravestone of a great-grandfather and met a living relative around his own age.
That new relation had a simple message for him: “Welcome to the family!”
TRACE YOUR ROOTS
If you want to walk in your ancestors’ footsteps, a bit of homework can put you on the right track.
Genealogical research is like “playing detective,” said Judith Langer-Surnamer Caplan, of Long Beach, a professional genealogist who traces family trees for probate cases. If possible, begin your journey by talking to grandparents and other older relatives whose memories can provide “things that aren’t going to show up” in public records, Caplan said.
“Heirlooms such as photographs, family Bibles and handwritten family trees can be great sources of information,” said professional genealogist Gillian Gail, of Farmingdale. Gail said that birth, marriage and death records, censuses, naturalization records and wills can also fill in historical gaps.
Long Islanders can find links to helpful groups and forums at the Genealogy Federation of Long Island website, bit.ly/3HmqiYg. Genealogy centers with special librarians, computers and other hands-on resources are also located at various public libraries, including those in Brentwood, Patchogue-Medford and Plainview.
Organizations like the Italian Genealogical Group, which meets the second Saturday of each month at the Bethpage Public Library and on Zoom at italiangen.org/events, are also helpful. “The genealogical societies bring experts and hobbyists together and create networks that help people dig deeper into their backgrounds by learning about different kinds of record resources and research techniques,” said professional genealogist Alec Ferretti.
For some Long Islanders, researching their ancestry can prove difficult. Caplan said that includes the descendants of European Jews. She recommends they consult Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, at yadvashem.org.
African Americans face barriers, too, beginning with historical injustices such as pre-Civil War U.S. Census records that didn’t list enslaved persons by name, experts in the field say. Documents known as cohabitating registers, which were created to legitimize marriages and children born to formerly enslaved people, include names and other information helpful to researchers, said Ruth D. Hunt, a New Jersey-based family historian and genealogist whose work inspired Cheryl Wills of Freeport. Such records helped Hunt identify a great-grandfather.
Long Islanders can also tap into the resources of the African-Atlantic Genealogical Society at the Joysetta & Julius Pearse African American Museum of Nassau County in Hempstead. Hunt also recommended contacting the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, aahgs-newyork.org, and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, newyorkfamilyhistory.org.
Hunt said of a fruitful ancestor search, “There’s nothing more fulfilling than solving the mystery of your own life.”
— Jim Merritt