This story has barely been told: Diversity, Multiculturalism & Africans in pre-British colonial America

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Stuart, a member of a Virginia genealogy society. Our conversation was initially about me presenting at a genealogy conference in 2018.  As any lover of genealogy and history will tell you, once you begin chatting about all things genealogy and history…conversations become far ranging.  Ours wasn’t any different.

Stuart filled me in on how the Freedmen’s Bureau Records project began.  This project was the culmination of years of digitizing an inconceivable number of records from the Freedmen’s Bureau.  For those not in the know, The U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) was established in 1865 by Congress.  Its remit was to help former black slaves and poor whites in the South in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). Some 4 million slaves gained their freedom as a result of the Union victory in the war.  The Freedmen’s Bureau provided food, housing and medical aid, established schools and offered legal assistance. It also attempted to settle former slaves on Confederate lands confiscated or abandoned during the war. 

The story that Scott conveyed was one of a personal mission for the man who envisioned the project via The Mormon Church elders and FamilySearch.org in Utah. It was an incredible story, and I’m honored that Scott shared it with me.

His story prompted one from me. I relayed to him one of my life’s missions: to give names to the “20 and odd Africans” who arrived in the American colony of Virginia in 1619. I want to give these 20-odd souls their rightful names, or at least the names they went by in the Virginia colony…and that I suspect this information is located somewhere in the British National Archives. The English were (and remain) consummate administrators. Copies of colonial documents were regularly sent back to England. The arrival of 20 plus Africans had to have been documented. And, I am willing to hazard a guess: documents about these Africans will include their names and what happened to them.  On the one hand, I want to restore their names to them.  On the other, and yes, for slightly selfish reasons, I want to prove or disprove a story that has threaded its way down through the generations of 3 families I’m related to and/or descended from: the Goins/Gowen/Goings, Thomas, and Christian families of Charles City County and Henrico County in Virginia.  These three old free families of colour claim descent from some of the 20-odd Africans of 1619. Seeing as how I have traced each back to the 1690s, this isn’t such an outlandish claim for them to make.  However, there are only two things that can clinch these claims: 1) documents; and 2) DNA.  However, in order for DNA to truly be of use, we need names in order to trace the descendants of these people.

Then I unexpectedly threw Stuart a curveball.

I asked Stuart if he’d ever heard of any records or documents about the Africans and African-descended people who were in North America long before the British arrived on North America’s shores. I had to repeat the question because he wasn’t sure if he’d heard me correctly. Like me before I began my adventures in genealogy, he’d never heard of African or African-descended people in North America before 1620.

So I sent him some links to some books I had found particularly helpful. You will find links to some of them in the Bibliography section at the end of this article.

My own journey in this lost part of America’s history began a few years ago when researching my mother’s Matthews/Mathis family. To cut a long story short, this part of her family had been enslaved by the Matthews going all the way back to the Pennsylvania Colony of the 1690s. Reading about colonial Pennsylvania meant reading about the colony that was there before William Penn rocked up onto these shores: New Sweden. Reading about this earlier colony grabbed my attention immediately.  In and amongst the cultures hidden in my mother’s mtDNA is a rather large amount of Swedish markers. More specifically, thanks to the DNA testing service Genebase, I know this Swedish DNA largely comes from Ostergotland and Jonkoping.

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Ostergotland in Sweden

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Jonkoping in Sweden

 

These are fairly rural and sparsely populated parts of Sweden, which is something that I hope will work in my favour when uncovering the identity of this Swedish ancestor.  You can read about the data set used by Genebase to calculate and interpret this result via the journal article Homogeneity in mitochondrial DNA control region sequences in Swedish subpopulations via https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19590886The Genebase data set pool of testees used for this Swedish analysis consists of 40 people. I match 23 of the people who provided DNA samples. That’s just over half. That, in and of itself, was a pretty significant discovery. Now it’s just a matter of working out how and from whom this DNA came to be introduced into my mother’s mtDNA.

As it turns out, the early Quaker settlers of Pennsylvania purchased enslaved Africans and African-descended people from the Swedes of New Sweden.  My gut tells me that it’s during this time period that a girl or woman of Swedish-African parentage came into the possession of the Matthews family in Pennsylvania. At the very least, one of the lines of descent from this mixed-heritage woman or girl would remain enslaved by the Matthews family from around 1691 in Chester County, Pennsylvania until 1865 in Edgefield County, South Carolina, when the Confederacy surrendered to Union forces.

So what was going on in Pennsylvania and the other Mid-Atlantic states during this early period of North American colonial history?

Mid-Atlantic States

To be clear, there were two different European colonies in this part of North America.  Both pre-dated the British settlement of the region.  The two colonies were New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony, and New Sweden. Both, it turns out, brought Africans to North America from Africa and the Caribbean prior to the arrival of the British.

New Sweden

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The chronology of the Swedish and Dutch colonies in North America is straightforward.  New Sweden was established first, and was subsequently handed to the Dutch, and became part of New Amsterdam.  The Swedes, it would seem, couldn’t make their colony a go in economic terms. The animal pelts and fish didn’t generate enough income for the colony to become profitable.  While I’m still reading about what work the Africans and African-descended people did in New Sweden, labour seems to have been boiled down into four basic areas:

  • Hunting for the pelts the Swedes would trade, and fishing;
  • Farming and farm laboring;
  • Clearing land; and the construction of buildings;
  • Skilled trades work (metal work, etc)

The Swedes settled along the Delaware River in the early part of 1638. Present-day Wilmington, Delaware, sits atop of their first settlement, Fort Christiana.

Prior to William Penn’s arrival, the black population of New Sweden was never very large (Miller, et al 1997:176).  Nevertheless, African and African-descended people were part of the colony from its earliest period. The first named black inhabitant of New Sweden was a man by the name of Anthony, who arrived in New Sweden in 1639 aboard a ship from the West Indies (Miller, et al 1997:176). It is unclear if he arrived in New Sweden as a free man or as an enslaved man.  Regardless, he was free in later life.

I’m still actively reading up on this subject. However, a picture is slowly emerging about the form of slavery the Swedes practiced in the colony. Unlike the system of chattel slavery that would be developed by the Americans, the Swedes had a system of manumission, or the freeing of enslaved people.  In other words, it was not a status carried for life, for the most part, in the colony. Like indentured servants, enslaved Africans could serve a period of time before gaining freedom. However, like indentured servants, an enslaved person in New Sweden could have his or her enslavement extended for what was deemed bad behavior (theft, immoral behavior (e.g. children out of wedlock), drunkenness, etc).

I am also searching for an indication of how many African and African-descended people were a part of New Sweden.  Hard and fast numbers are proving elusive. For now, I know they were here on these shores. And they were here early on.

New Amsterdam

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While the earliest mention of New Amsterdam appears in 1614, a permanent settlement was secured by 1624 on the present day island of Manhattan in New York (Haviser: 63). It’s estimated that free and enslaved Africans and African-descended people accounted for as few as 15% and as much as 40% of the 9,000-plus population. The Dutch took control over New Sweden in around 1665. By this time, the colony had grown to the size of England: stretching from the Chesapeake Bay area to New England.  By 1681, control over the territory passed to the British.

Prior to passing to the British, New Netherlands became the America’s first multi-ethnic society. Barely half the settlers were Dutch; most of the rest comprised Germans, French, Scandinavians, and Africans, both free and slaves. In 1643 the population included Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, speaking eighteen European and African languages. (Boyer 2012:58)

Notably, the Dutch had a system of slave manumission. While it was a limited system, a policy for freeing the enslaved was established. As to be expected, marriages between blacks and the other inhabitants of New Amsterdam weren’t uncommon. The Dutch, it would seem, were more interested in maintaining harmonious, orderly, and efficient working practices in their colony rather than separating people based on religion or cultural backgrounds (Haviser 2016: 64-5).

In 1664, one-quarter of the 300 enslaved people who arrived in New Amsterdam were initially settled in New Amstel (renamed New Castle) on the Delaware River. Most of these 300 became casualties of war when Britain beat the Dutch during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Classed as spoils of war, these 300 souls were passed over to the British in order to be sold as slaves in Virginia (Miller, et al 1997:176).  

Like the Swedes, the Dutch seemed pretty chilled when it came to different cultures mixing. An orderly, efficient, harmonious society seems to be their primary concern.

The Carolinas and Georgia

Spanish explorers brought enslaved Africans to what are now the Carolinas around 1526 – nearly 40 years before the first permanent European settlement in North America. These Africans escaped in what is the first recorded slave revolt in North America.

In March 1540, the Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, along with Afro-Hispanics and African slaves, reached the territory of the Ichisi, in what is now central Georgia. From here, his exploration party continued to work its way northwards into present day North Carolina and Tennessee. He and his exploration party would arrive in what is now South Carolina on 21 April 1540…the day of a Full moon no less! He and his party would arrive in present day North Carolina on 21 May 1540. For details of his expedition, visit http://www.carolana.com/Carolina/Explorers/desotoincarolinas.html

While it is believed that the Spanish ultimately didn’t establish any permanent settlements north of Florida, they did leave something behind in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee: Spanish, African, and Afro-Hispanic comrades. It’s believed they settled among the various Native American tribes in the region.

Spanish North America

Africans and African-descended people arrived in Florida with both the French and the Spanish in the 16th Century. Their presence in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas is documented as early as the 1520s.

The first Africans from Spain were known as ladinos, or Hispanicized Africans.  They were soldiers, servants, settlers, and slaves. They began to arrive in the Americas as early as the 15th century, many as auxiliaries to the Spanish and Portuguese explorers. As Matthew Restall states, “[F]rom the very onset of Spanish activity in the Americas, Africans were present both as voluntary expeditionaries and as involuntary colonists” (Restall 2000:172). Many people of African descent initially saw passage to the New World from either Spain or the Caribbean as a means of bettering their social and economic positions. Landers notes, “[G]iven their numbers and roles in Spanish port cities like Seville, and their generally depressed economic conditions, it is not surprising that both free and enslaved Africans hoped to improve their lots by crossing the Atlantic on the earliest voyages of exploration and conquest” (Landers 1999:9). Those who voluntarily set out on expeditions, and became part of armed auxiliaries, were more likely to gain their freedom than those in unarmed roles.

African men and women were part of a number of Spanish expeditions. The Panfilo de Narvaez Expedition of 1528 from Cuba to Florida is one example. This expedition included Esteban, perhaps the most notable African male to aid in the exploration of North America. The 1540 Coronado Expedition to Southwestern North America included a free African man who later served as an interpreter and would eventually become a Franciscan friar. The Juan Guerra de Resa Expedition of 1600 included African soldiers, their mulatto wives and children, and Isabel de Olvera, a mulatta woman. These are just three examples of the many expeditions which included Africans and African Americans among their members.

The account of Esteban, a Muslim, is one example of adaptation and survival in the New World. Esteban – also known as Estevan, Esteven, Estebanico the Black Man, Stephen the Black, and the “Black Mexican,” – was born in Azamar, Morocco. He was the first documented African in Texas and what would become the Western United States. As Juan Flores and others recount, he was one of the four survivors in the ill-fated journey of Panfilo de Narvaez in 1528, from Cuba to the Florida coast (Flores 2004). Read more about Esteban.

Thanks to Genebase, I know my YDNA and my mother’s mtDNA is found in Latin America. I always believed this was via the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Meaning that some ancestral African cousins went to either the Caribbean first, and they, or their descendants, were taken to South and Central America – or they went to the Americas direct. This remains the most straightforward theory. However, I can no longer dismiss the idea that I may have a direct connection to that part of the world through some unknown ladino ancestor. I have deep roots in North Carolina and Tennessee. All it would take is one descendant of a ladino for me to have inherited this directly. A long shot?  Absolutely. Is it inconceivable?  If my genealogy adventures have taught me anything…it’s to keep an open mind. My genetic links to Brazil, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Honduras have to be based on something.

Then there is the history of Louisiana, a state with an ancient mix of Native American, European, and African peoples. And, of course, the former Spanish held territories of American southwest, California, and Nevada. Wherever the Spanish went, Afro-Hispanics accompanied them and settled territories alongside them.

Wrapping things up

Needless to say, this was quite a bit to hit Stuart with. It’s quite the thing to take in when you’ve never heard this history before. And what I’ve provided above is merely the highlights. He laughed when I ended the topic with: “When certain Americans talk about a white America, I don’t know what country they speak of. People of colour have always been here. Many different peoples have been here from the beginning. And I won’t apologize if that’s an inconvenient truth.”

The last bit of the conversation is what truly captured his imagination:  Somewhere in the National Archives of Spain, Sweden, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, are colonial era documents about this period of North American history. Those documents will be a treasure trove for genealogists. For in them will be the names of some of the earliest non-Native settlers of North America who were from all walks of life and many different cultures. Within them lays the history of the settlement and growth of the earliest colonial settlements, which forms the true nascent history of America. How I would dearly love to be part of a project that begins the processes of digitizing them.

Bibliography

Blakely, A. 2001. Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society, Indiana University Press.

Boyer, P.S., Clark, C. E., Halttunen, K., Hawley, S., and Kett, J. F. 2012. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People, Volume I: To 1877, Concise, Cengage Learning.

Coughlin, E. K., 2007. The De Soto expedition, Learn North Carolina.

Finkelman, P., 2006. Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass Three-volume Set, Oxford University Press.

Haviser, J. B., and MacDonald, K.C. 2016. African Re-Genesis: Confronting Social Issues in the Diaspora, Routledge.

Johnson, J. G. 1991. Black Christians–the untold Lutheran story, Concordia.

Landers, J., 1999. Black Society in Spanish Florida, University of Illinois Press.

McGinty, B., 2016. The Rest I Will Kill: William Tillman and the Unforgettable Story of How a Free Black Man Refused to Become a Slave, W. W. Norton & Company.

PBS. This Far by Faith: 1526-1775: From Africa to America via http://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/timeline/p_1.html

Randall M. Miller, John David Smith. 1997. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery, Greenwood Publishing Group.

Restall, M. 2000, Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America, The Americas, 57:2 October 2000, pp. 171-205 via http://originalpeople.org/black-conquistadors-armed-africans-in-early-spanish-america-1500s/

Sheppard, D.E. Hernando De Soto’s 1540 Exploration of the Carolinas via http://www.carolana.com/Carolina/Explorers/desotoincarolinas.html

United States National Park Service, Park Ethnography Program: African American Heritage & Ethnography: African Explorers of Spanish America via https://www.nps.gov/ethnography/aah/aaheritage/SpanishAmB.htm

Williams, W.H., 1999. Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865, Rowman & Littlefield.

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10 thoughts on “This story has barely been told: Diversity, Multiculturalism & Africans in pre-British colonial America

  1. Incredible information that needs to be shared. I am interested in connecting with the author specifically because of this part of the story (“I want to prove or disprove a story that has threaded its way down through the generations of 3 families I’m related to and/or descended from: the Goins/Gowen/Goings, Thomas, and Christian families of Charles City County and Henrico County in Virginia.”) I am a descendent of the Goines family from West Chester Pennsylvania. I have run into a wall, and I’m hoping the author can assist me with possible solutions to trace the family lineage back even further.

  2. Very interested in finding out my genetic linkage to our earliest African American ancestors…I’ve done my DNA testing through Ancestry and found linkage to a Peter Thomas who came to the US from Haiti…willing to do blood work/ DNA testing if need be!

  3. I am very intrigue with the discoveries about the first settlers of the US. I would love to know what information that is in the British Archives. I would love to be apart of that project. I have been finding families through DNA from all of the continents. Your research did explain why this is occurring. Thank you so much.

  4. Hey Brian
    This is a very informative and fascinating piece.
    Thanks again for all that you do. I know you have invested a considerable amount of time in your work.
    I just want to add a couple of remarks:
    1. I was disappointed with the results of my own DNA testing from Ancestry.com…their accuracy is a little
    of..
    I would encourage everyone to do at least 3 DNA from reputable entities. Afterwards, sorting and
    compiling this information into a finished product.(Knowing you, you probably have done this..lol.)
    2. The 20 plus odd Africans that came over, have you investigated thoroughly the source(author,
    publisher, books,etc.)
    a. the source roots
    b. background / tendencies
    c. other articles or works
    Maybe there is a hidden clue somewhere in there.

    Best of luck

    • Hello cousin. Aye, I agree with your comment about AncestryDNA. The main benefit for me where that service is concerned is finding the lost branches of our family. The ethnic analysis has been fairly meaningless and too generalized.

      As for the 20-odd Africans. ..I’ve exhausted the records that are available. I suspect they were documented. However, between the burning of Jamestown in the mid-1600s (where suspect original accounts were kept), the Civil War, etc, those accounts/records were lost. Or they are sitting somewhere forgotten and undiscovered. I just now I’m dang tired of referring to them as the 20-odd Africans 😉

  5. This is a fascinating essay, Brian. Thank you so much for investing time and energy to research and write it. Reading some of your posts makes me more determined to do my own DNA testing. I have also asked my daughter (who is bi-racial) whether she would do her DNA testing as I am very curious about where her father’s people came from. She is leery about it and thinks that DNA testing could be used against her. Any advice (at least for me, a white European) on how to get started?

    • Than you for your comment. I’m probably not best suited to address your daughter’s concerns, which are valid. What i can say, from my own experience, is that I’ve been in control of how my results are shared and with whom with the 3 companies I’ve tested with. When I raised queries about data anonymity, I was given insurance that my name and personal details would never be provided in the research projects my results might be used for. Two companies even showed me the level of information that was provided. My advice, for what it’s worth, is to identify the company or companies she would like to test with, and phone them. And get something in writing. Always get something in writing. and always, always, always read the fine print provided by these companies – as tedious and as time consuming as that might be. And never be afraid to ask them questions related to the terms and conditions each provides.

      I know there was a rather alarmist article floating around last year on this subject. If I remember correctly, large chunks of it were debunked. However, it did raise the issue, which was a necessary conversation just to clear the air.

      Now, as for which kind of test to take. I’m going to suggest two things. I’ve written an article “Using the right DNA testing tool to answer the right ancestry question” https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/using-the-right-dna-testing-tool-to-answer-the-right-ancestry-question/ which guides people through identifying the kind of DNA test that best suits their research needs.

      Secondly, I strongly recommend visiting the Genetic Genealogist’s website https://thegeneticgenealogist.com/ She writes about a very complicated subject in a truly accessible way. It’s a great lace to start re: genetic genealogy and working with your DNA results.

      I hope this helps

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