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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Pleasant Roane (Rowan) and the road to manumission in Lynchburg

I’ve been meaning to write about Pleasant Roane for quite a while.  I’ve always felt badly that other research and other stories commanded my attention more, and overshadowed his tale.  Well, as much of his tale as I’m aware of. It’s quite the interesting tale.

I’ve also been surprised that I see to be the only Roane family descendant researching Pleasant. Mine is the only family tree in which he appears. This, in part, probably has to do with the obscurity of his origins. Any Roane would be proud to claim him.

So what prompted my interest?  He is one of a handful of my enslaved ancestors who sued for his freedom…and then sued the State of Virginia to be allowed to remain in the state once he was freed.

Virginia had a statute on the books that slaves freed after 1806 had to leave the state or suffer re-enslavement (see http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/_An_ACT_to_amend_the_several_laws_concerning_slaves_1806).  The only means by which a person freed from slavery after 1806 had to remain in-state was to sue the state and hope the state would find in their favour.  This was by no means guaranteed. The reason why they would wish to remain is pretty simple:  while they were free, other members of their family (i.e. spouse, children, siblings, etc) remained in slavery.

Access to the court wasn’t simple and straightforward for African-descended people.  A 19th Century person of colour, by law, could not sue the state or a person of European heritage. Not at the State or Federal level. A person of colour needed a European-descended person to bring a suite on their behalf, or act as their guardian and act as a proxy in order for a suit to be heard in court.  In the eyes of the law, people of colour had a legal status similar to a minor. That’s the short form backdrop to Pleasant’s story.

I know little about Pleasant’s origins. He’s believed to have been born in Bedford County, Virginia.  An approximate year of birth remains elusive. His first child with a known birth year, Charles, was born around 1815. Estimating that Pleasant was around 20 years old when Charles was born, a plausible birth year for Pleasant would be somewhere between 1780 and 1795.

His court papers provide some of his history.  He was enslaved by John Depriest, his first verified enslaver, in Campbell, Virginia.  There will be an earlier – and as of yet undiscovered – link to the Roane family. He saved Depriest from drowning.  There’s no known indication regarding how Depriest felt about this selflessness.  However, not long afterwards, Pleasant was sold and entered Robert C Steptoe’s household.

DATE:  Aug 1823 (proved 25 Aug 1823)

PARTIES:  Pleasant HAYTHE, Cornelius CRENSHAW and RandolphDEPRIEST, of Campbell County to Robert C. STEPTOE of Bedford County

DOCUMENT TYPE:  Bill of Sale

SOURCE:  Bedford County Courthouse, Bedford VA, Deed Book 18, p363

SLAVES NAMED IN DOCUMENT:    “a male slave named Pleasant,otherwise Pleasant Rowan”

COMMENTS:  Pleasant Rowan was sold to Robert C. Steptoe for $390.

Steptoe was resident in Bedford County, and closely allied with the slave owning Roane family, which provides some initial and interesting indications of how Pleasant was related to the Roane family.

I don’t know whether it was Pleasant or Steptoe who had the idea of freeing Pleasant from slavery. What is known is that a suit for Pleasant’s freedom was filed in Campbell County, the county where Lynchburg is situated, in 1824.

DATE:  1 April 1824

PARTIES:  Robert C. STEPTOE to Pleasant ROWAN

DOCUMENT TYPE:  Deed of Emancipation

SOURCE:  Bedford County Courthouse, Bedford VA, Deed Book 19, p43

SLAVES NAMED IN DOCUMENT: Pleasant ROWAN

COMMENTS:  “for and in consideration of the general good character and conduct of Pleasant alias Pleasant Rowan now my slave and especially for and in consideration of an act of extraordinary merit done and performed by the said Pleasant alias Pleasant Rowan in the life-time of his former master and owner John Depriest, late of the County of Campbell, in endeavoring to secure and save the life of the said John Depriest at the imminent peril and hazard of his own:

Wherefore I the said Robert C. Steptoe for and in consideration of the premises & especially the act last mentioned:  Have liberated, emancipated & from the shackles of slavery set free, and by these presents do liberate, emancipate and from the shackles of slavery forever set free the said Pleasant Roane alias Pleasant Rowan.”

James Hendrick and Nathan Read were witness to this deed.

Lynchburg

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An image of the  view of the Old Marketplace in Lynchburg, dated 1875. Image from King’s The Great South, published in 1875.

It appears that Pleasant, a skilled carpenter, was already resident in Lynchburg shortly before he was freed in 1824. Reviewing records, he seemed to have a great deal of liberty within the confines of enslavement under Stepoe. He hired himself out, an arrangement that Steptoe seems to have encouraged. He also appears to have had his own household, again, apparently with the blessing of Steptoe. While not free, he certainly moved with a great deal of freedom within Lynchburg.

Another suite was brought in 1826 for Pleasant to remain in Virginia, near his wife, Nancy Stewart, and the four children who were born prior to 1826.  Nancy and Pleasant’s 4 children remained enslaved. His wife and children were free by 1830 census.  I’m assuming at this point that, he had saved enough money, through his hard work and industry, to buy their freedom. His children who were born after 1830 were all born free.

There are a few things that stand out in his 1826 suit to remain in Virginia. The first is the number of European-descended people who vouched for his good character and industry. It’s a slight exaggeration, yet, it seems as though half the European-descended population of Lynchburg came out in defense of Pleasant to remain as part of their community. Beloved may be over-egging the pudding.  Nonetheless, their testimony paints a picture of a man who was indeed respected, admired, and valued by many within his community.

I don’t know what prompted Robert Steptoe from taking this course of action. Perhaps, one day, one of his descendants can fill in this part of the story.  I, for one, thank the cosmos that he did. It was far, far from being a straightforward endeavour.

Pleasant’s children and descendants would become part of the African American bourgeoisie, as well as leaders within the religious and Civic spheres of Lynchburg.

As you read through the court records (with transcripts) that follow below, I’d ask you to keep this thought at the back of your mind:  this is what a African-descended person of good, sober, and unblemished conduct had to endure in order to remain in the state of his or her birth once freed from slavery.

Manumission document

I haven’t been able to access the original records in order to make better copies than those which appear below. You will find the original filings and court papers along with an accompanying transcriptions for each image. The original images are small and difficult to read (hence the transcriptions). However, I am mightily indebted to the Library of Virginia for digitizing these records and making them available for free online via http://www.virginiamemory.com/transcribe/scripto/transcribe/13404/40948.

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Robert Steptoe’s Manumission Petition for Pleasant Roane

Transcription:

To the Honorable the Speakers and members of the Senate and House of Delegates of Virginia – The petition of Pleasant Rowan a freeman of Color respectfully sheweth [sic] – That on the first day of April in the year 1825, your petitioner was in due form of law emancipated by Robert E. [Steploe?] Esqr of the county of Bedford (in Virginia). As will fully appear by reference to the original deed of emancipation herewith exhibited and marked – From an inspection of that document, it will be found that in addition to his general good character and conduct an act of extraordinary merit was likewise one of the inducements to his emancipation, and from this Your Honorable bodies might with some plausibility conclude that his present application should in strict [propriety?] have been addressed to the court of the county in which he was emancipated, and not to the Legislature. Upon this point your petitioner begs leave to be indulged with a few words of explanation. Your petitioner in common with a majority of the people of his condition has never been blessed with the [lights?] and advantages of learning and education, and savoring the little information he has picked up in his unequal intercourse with the enlightened part of society, he is yet in the condition of native ignorance. In such circumstances prudence seems to dictate the propriety of relying upon the counsels of the better informed. By these he had been advised that the provisions of the law which conferd [sic] on the county courts power & jurisdiction to hear and determine applications like the present are so [illegible] limited & restricted as to promise nothing but defeat and [discon?], results which are rendered infinitely more intolerable by the reflection, that the same law especially inhibits a second application, no matter from what cause the first failure may have proceeded – For the [illegible] of these remarks your petitioner begs leave to refer generally to the 62nd Section of the act” concerning Slaves, free negroes [sic] and mulattoes” 1.Vol.Rev:Code of 1819.h43b, but more especially
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Leave to remain in Virginia Court affidavits

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Transcript:

[written on left side of page]
to that part of the section quoted which requires the presence of a majority of the acting magistrates of the county whenever such application shall be acted upon – Your petitioner is advised that in almost every other instance in which the laws require the presence of a majority of the justices to act upon a specified subject, they at the same time provide for the contingency of their failure to [illegible], by declaring that a summons duly executed requiring their attendance for the contemplated [illegible], shall be held to be a [illegible] compliance with the law, and that the justices attending the [illegible] that a majority may proceed in the discharge of the prescribed duty – But in a case like the present, when an application is made in behalf of a manumitted slave for leave of residence; no matter how [illegible] all the forms of law may [illegible] been complied with, no matter what [illegible] may have been made to procure their attendance, yet if the required majority be not actually present, the court have no authority to proceed – Your petitioner need I [casualy?] remind your honorable body of the degraded condition of most of that unfortunate race of people with which it is his misfortune to be connected – Denied the use and enjoyment of many of the most valuable rights and priveleges [sic] of free men: Subjected in all cases of offences to the most [illegible] as actions of penal law; and sunk by long settled and inveterate opinion into a state of contempt & degradation the most deplorable, their personal influence, unaided by legal coercion, [illegible] hope to do but like towards convencing [sic] a majority of the justices of a county, even when the most interesting publick [sic] sessions, much less where such convention concerned their own personal interest – Yet not withstanding these appalling difficulties your petitioner was prompted in order to afford a more complete foundation for his present application, to attempt the [illegible] prescribed by law of applying to the county court for relief, he accordingly at the last March [illegible] of the county court of Campbell applied to the said court for an
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[written on right side of page]
order directing the magistrates of said county to be summoned to take into consideration his petition for leave to reside in said county – as well fully appear by reference to a copy of said order herewith exhibited [illegible]
they were accordingly summoned but failed to attend and thus the anticipation of your petitioners advisers were fully [illegible] – From hence if evidently appears that all hope of bringing his application before the county court is utterly vain unless [illegible] some occasion of publick [sic] interest should call together majority of the justices, a contingency not to be relied upon [illegible] any safety, especially by one whose liberty is every moment [illegible] to for future under the existing laws – Your petitioner trusts that in the considerations thus suggested our honorable body discern a reasonable excuse for his present application – He is well aware of the strong prejudices, almost universally prevalent against people of his condition, insomuch that they are generally regarded as a nuisance rather than a benefit to society. Yet he [illegible] that however [illegible] this opinion may [illegible] in General. The respectable testimonials herewith exhibited [illegible] be sufficient in your minds to make him an Honorable [illegible].
Your petitioner in conclusion would respectfully state that many years prior to his emancipation, he intermarried with a slave the property of Mr. Richard Walker of Bedford, by and with the consent of her master, that he has by her four small children for whom he cherishes a fond & [illegible] affection and this connection it is hoped will have its due weight in and of the present application; should it fail, he will be reduced to one of two dire alternatives, either he must forfeit his freedom [continued in the next image and transcription below].
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pleasant-roane-manumission-suit-2

Transcript:

so likely acquired or preserve it by removeing [sic] to a distant state and at once burst [assunder?] those tender ties of affection & feelings which are most deeply implanted in the Human heart –

In [illegible] consideration of the premises your petitioner prays that a law may be passed by the legislature authoriseing [sic] him to reside in the county of Campbell, Virginia, under such conditions the [illegible] [at?] to the legislature may seem [illegible] And as in duly bound your petitioner will ever pray [illegible]
Pleasant Rowan [his mark]

]written in meddle of page]
Petition of Pleasant Rowan for Leave to reside in the County of Campbell
Decr[sic] 28th 1826 ref’d to Ct of J
Wm M Rives
1827 Jany [sic] 2. Reasonable
Bill drawn
[written on right side of page]
[Pleasant] on P Rowan [illegible][illegible] for several years [illegible][illegible] of [illegible][illegible] by whom he had several children. The [illegible] has [illegible] [illegible] to [illegible] [illegible] [illegible] attention to his conduct, with [illegible] him to be [illegible] [illegible] as a likable carpenter. I have [illegible] [illegible] [illegible] [illegible] of a [illegible]. Rich’d Walker [illegible]
I add my testimony to that of Mr. Walker in stating that the character of Pleasant stands uncommonly fair as a peaceable, sober, industrious and honest man – His [illegible] in [receiving?] matters is as good as that of any white person of moderate circumstances. He is entirely humble in his deportment nor have I ever heard a vice of any kind alleged against him. He has a wife, the slave of Mr. Richard Walker, in my immediate neighbourhood [sic], and I believe five young children from whom he will be separated unless he be permitted to remain in the State of Virginia.
Wm Radford

Bedford County
November 15th 1825
I have been acquainted with the above named Pleasant for several years and have employed at [illegible] times to [illegible] work for me in his line of business, and always considered him an honest respectable man, and have never heard anything to his prejudice and thinks he deserves the character given him by the Gentlemen above named. Given under my hand this [illegible] of November 1825. John Waltz
The above [illegible] on P Rowan, (some years ago) did some Carpentry work for me and he appear’d while doing it, a very Sober, Industrious, honest man. Given this 16th Nov. 1825. Harlan Reid
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Transcript:

[written on left side of page]
Pleasant or Pleasant Rowan, a free Man of Colour [sic], has worked for me for some years past as a Carpenter – I consider him a Man of uncommon worth. Js. Steploe Nov. 17. 1825
Pleasant or Pleasant Roan a free man of Colour [sic] I have known from his Infancy first as a slave and him as a free man in both capacitys [sic] he has always supported a good character. I have even considered him a remarkable well behaved honest Industrious sober man. I believe him to be a valuable carpenter. I know of no coloured [sic] man more deserving a residence in the State – William Clements Campbell County November 21st 1823
Certificates J. Steploe & others

[written on right side of page]
Pleasant is a colour’d [sic] man that I have long known, first as a slave & hence, as free man in both capacitys [sic] he has at all times supported a good character as a well behaved, honest, Industrious Man, he is a good mechanic as a Carpenter, & presume he whould [sic] be a loss to the neighbourhood [sic] in which he resides if remov’d [sic] therefrom – given in Campbell County – 12 Novr 1825 M Lambeth ~ Jacob White
I have been acquainted with Pleasant [illegible] numbers of years and think he deserves the characters given him by the gentlemen above named. John [illegible] 15. Nov. 1825
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Transcript:

[written on right side of page]
Campbell County Va November 2nd 1825
I have Rec’d the [illegible] Certificates obtained by Pleasant a free man of colour [sic] and I can only add that he is deserving the character given him by the Gentlemen that [has?] given him their certificates of his character and have long known him both as a slave and [since?] he has been emancipated and never knew or heard anything to his prejudice. Given November 1825 John [Alexander?]
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Transcript:

[written on left side of page]
Certificates
M Lambeth [illegible]
[written on right side of page]
Campbell April Court 1826
On the petition of Pleasant Rowan It is ordered that the Justices of this County be summoned to appear at the next Term of this court to take into consideration the petition of said Rowan for leave to reside within this commonwealth it appearing to the Court that such notice of his petition has been given as the law required. Teste John Alexander Clk [sic]
Upon which order the Sheriff made the following return “Executed on William C. McAllister, Edward B Withers, John E Woodson, Adam Clement, Thomas Harvey, Richard Harvey, Richard Perkins, James Bullock, Meredith Lambert, Thomas Callaway, Henry T Early, Joseph McAllister, Alexander Austin, Samuel Pannill – Rich’d Morgan DS for [illegible] West Shff” [illegible] Teste Jno Alexander Clk
I James Hendrick to hereby certify that I was the counsel of Pleasant Rowan in his application to the county court for leave to reside in the State of Virginia – I do further state that I was present at Campbell May Court 1826 & that a majority of the court did not attend at that term according to the summons as annexed & furthermore I do certify that from my experience in such matters it is exclusively difficult if not impossible to get a competent court in such cases – J. Hendrick 13 Decem. 1836
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Transcript:

[written on left side of page]
Order for Pleasant Rowan ~~
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[written on right side of page]
I have know Pleasant alias Pleasant Rowan a free man of color for several years, which times, I have had many opportunities to observe his general conduct and deportment. The result of my observation is a belief that he is an honest, industrious, sober, and discreet man – I know him to be a useful mechanic – and as far as concerns myself I should regret his being compelled to leave the neighborhood – Given under my hand this 26th Novr 1825 J. Hendrick
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Transcript:

[written on left side of page]
J. Hendricks Certificate
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[written on right side of page]
To all & singular persons to whom these [illegible] shall [illegible] by [illegible] – Know ye That I Robert C Steploe of the County of Bedford & State of Virginia for & in consideration of the general good conduct and character of Pleasant alias Pleasant Rowan now my slave, and especially for and in consideration of an act of extraordinary merit done and performed by the said Pleasant alias Pleasant Rowan in the life time of his former master and [illegible] John Depriest late of the county of Campbell, in endeavoring to reserve and save the life of the said John Depriest at the imminent peril & hazard of his own, Therefore, I the said Robert C Steploe for and in consideration of the promise especially the act last mentioned have Liberated, Emancipated from the shackles of Slavery forever set free the said Slave, Pleasant alias Pleasant Rowan – In testimony whereof I the said Robert C Steploe have hereunto set my hand & seal this the first day of April in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred & twenty four Signed, sealed & delivered In presence of J. Hendrick
Robt C Steploe seal
N. Reid
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Transcript:

[written on left side of page at bottom]
At a Court held for Bedford County at the Courthouse the 27th day of December 1824. This [illegible] [illegible] [illegible] was exhibited in Court proved by the oaths of James Hendrick and Nathan Read subscribing witnesses & ordered to be recorded – Teste [illegible] Steploe C.B.C.
Robert C. Steploe to Pleasant Rowan
Disp of Emancipation
1824 December 27th
Rec’d & Ord to be rec’d
Recorded Page 43 Book L & Ex’d

[written on right side of page]
I hereby certify that I have been acquainted with Pleasant Roan free man of colour [sic] and a carpenter by trade for several years and do now consider him an honest, industrious, and good conditioned man and have heard many persons speak highly of him and never heard any thing otherwise. Rich’d [illegible] Bedford [illegible] Nov 1825
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Court ruling on Pleasant’s leave to remain in Virginia

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Excerpt from Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia
By Virginia. General Assembly. Published by House of Delegates. Courtesy of Google Books https://books.google.com/books?id=HVhNAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA87&lpg=PA87&dq=%22pleasant+rowan%22,+petition&source=bl&ots=BvHIV0znuv&sig=Jk23k-MV5Z1b-OFTP3ot2kqfICA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiuu7vAoOXRAhVF5YMKHYIpCusQ6AEIOzAG#v=onepage&q&f=false

Transcript:

Resolved, as the opinion of this committee, That the petition of Pleasant Rowan, a man of colour, of the county of Campbell, who has been lately emancipated, praying that he may be allowed by law to remain as a free man in the said county, where he has a wife and children who are slaves, is reasonable.

 

Ethnic diversity and the politicization of genealogy in America

o-diversity-facebookSocial media channels, and Facebook in particular, have been a huge boon for a new generation of genealogists. Whether you’re a novice or a professional genealogist – or fall somewhere in-between – social media and blogging easily allow genealogy enthusiasts to make contact with others researching the same families online. The sharing of information, research findings, and discussing these finds, is part and parcel of the new genealogy experience. You can post a query or some research findings within a Facebook genealogy group and receive responses almost immediately.

I know I’ve made some important breakthroughs via this route. For instance, I might be uncertain if I found the correct records for someone I’m researching, or if the records I’m reviewing actually belong to someone else with the same name. Typically, a direct descendant from that line will provide the information and evidence I need. For me, this is one of the strengths of using social media channels as part of my research.  The other, of course, is meeting distant relations who are also working on the same family or families that I am.

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Today’s genealogy isn’t the same genealogy of your grandparents’ day.  The basics still are.  You know, the best practice, day-to-day aspects of genealogy. However, gone are the days of having to entirely work on your own. Today’s genealogy is a very social affair. It’s one of the other things I love about it. Social media can provide a much needed support group when things get frustrating, challenging, or downright difficult. It’s kind of like having an online cheer-leading squad cheering you on.

Over the past few years I’ve begun to notice a dark side to online genealogy when it comes to Americans in particular. This dark side comes in the form of internet trolls, the bane of any social media platform. Actually, I’ve done more than notice.  I’ve had to deal directly with my own online trolls. As America grapples with the issues of race, criminal justice, the deaths of unarmed civilians, and a toxic presidential election cycle, online trolls have become active. Online genealogy groups and forums are not immune.

The trolls I’ve seen online, and have dealt with myself, cover the melanination spectrum: from the least melaninated Americans (e.g. people with a predominantly or exclusively European ancestral identity), to the more melaninated Americans (e.g. people of colour and/or African-American). Interestingly, both sides of this tedious trolling coin have mirror arguments, which I’ll get to in a bit.

A few months ago, a Facebook post popped up on my timeline from an African-American genealogy Facebook group I joined. One of the members had taken an autosomal DNA test and, as a result, discovered she was a direct descendant of Augustine Washington, the half-brother of George Washington. She was surprised. She was excited by certain implications.  And she wanted to know how she could use this knowledge to connect to other descendants from the same line. At no point was she boastful. She posted what she had discovered. In doing so, she and I (as well as some others within the group), were able to work out how, exactly, we were related to one another.

Then came what I can only describe as a highly charged, angry, politicized comment which soured the whole thread of conversation that had occurred. Boiled down, his contribution ranged from: “You know your ancestor was raped”, to “why you people gonna glorify that your ancestors were raped”, to “his white family won’t want to know you”, to “that make you better than black people?, to “Ya’ll aint woke”.

I will give the administrator of this particular group credit.  She took him task for his comments and the tone of voice used. Other group members piled in too, turning it into a teaching experience.

I wish I could say that experience was rare or a one-off.  Far from it.

My contribution to that particular comment was straightforward.  Not all African Americans or people of colour will share a common African-descended ancestor. I used an example from my own experience. I’d spent around six months or so working with a group of 5 Roane DNA cousins on Ancestry.com, Gedmatch, and Family Tree DNA. All of us identify as either people of colour (due to a very mixed ancestry) or African American. In the end, it turned out that we didn’t share a single common black or mulatto ancestor between us.  What we did share were different Scots-Irish Roane men, who were enslavers, from different branches of the same Scots-Irish Roane family tree. I’m going to repeat that.  None of us had a common African-descended ancestor.  Instead, we were all descendants of six men who were descendants of Archibald Gilbert Roane of northern Ireland.

Counting the number of our own family members who were also direct descendants of Archibald Gilbert Roane, we’d worked out that there were a couple of thousand other people of colour and African Americans who are also direct descendants of Archibald Gilbert Roane. That’s just from six people. Now scale this number up for all the thousands of other African Americans and people of colour who have no idea that they connect to this family.  Thousands of Americans who have no idea they are related through this one family alone.

Further research of the African-descended women who were the mothers of these mixed race lines may yet show that we do share common African-descended ancestors.  For now, we know we connect on the Scots-Irish side of the family.

Had we never researched the Scots-Irish side of our family, we would have never been able to make the connection as to how we were all related.

There is also a practical side to researching this side of my ancestry. It’s the only way I can trace the movement of my enslaved ancestors as they passed from one family member to another down the centuries. In order to trace them, I have to know who enslaved them. This is done through researching the enslavers’ probate and tax records as well as any journals, bills of sale, and correspondence that mentions them. It’s how you build a family tree for those ancestors who were enslaved.  There is no getting around it.

I raised a second point in response to this trolling comment.  I have around a thousand different African-descended ancestral lines in my tree at the time of writing this. There is a mulatto at the end of every single one of these familial lines that I’ve researched. Every. Single. One.

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DNA triangulation has enabled to me identify a growing number of European forefathers and foremothers. Yes, I said ‘foremothers’.  Two of my mixed family lines, the Byrds/Birds and the Buggs, are the documented descendants of English women who were indentured servants who had relationships with African or African-descended men. European DNA accounts for 45% of my autosomal genome (with an additional 20% European Jewish DNA). I have as much European DNA as someone who has one African-descended parent and one European-descended parent. Only my results are an accumulation of 400 years of European, African, and Native American descended people producing children together. Regardless of how those unions happened. So what am I, and genealogy researchers like me, supposed to do? Ignore an entire part of our ancestry?

The chap who trolled that Facebook post didn’t really have a response. To be fair, he’d been taken to task by so many that he probably couldn’t bring himself to comment on any further.

Now for the other side of the coin.

I’ve been spoiled when it comes to meeting my less- melaninated cousins from the Sheffey and Roane sides of my family. It has been a pleasure getting to know them. I’m laughing as I write this next bit: it’s also been fun discovering that the family quirks which run within my family are universal, regardless of melanin levels.  We Sheffeys, for instance, are a political tribe. You’d think we ate politics for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There’s also a real “live and let live” commonality among the wider family. And we aren’t backwards at coming forwards either. The Roanes?  Well, that side of the family is a unique combination of being statesmanlike and fun-loving. The Roanes seems to have been that way for as far back as the first Roane to land on these shores back in the early 18th Century. The Roanes are  very convivial bunch.

My less-melaninated DNA cousins who share the same Quaker ancestry as myself have also, by and large, been great people to get to know. Not a day goes by when one or another of us post something on Facebook, whether it’s just to say hello or “hey, do you know anything about this Mendenhall family group I’ve just stumbled across in Chester County, Pennsylvania?”

That’s the way online genealogy ought to be. And, by and large, it is. 

Sure, I have a number of less-melaninated DNA cousins in the southern United States who don’t want to know they are related to anyone who isn’t from a majority European background. I have more than enough southern cousins who are happy and excited to work together for me to spend any time dwelling on those who don’t, merely because we have different amounts of melanin. Life, as the saying goes, is just too short.

The trolls, on the other hand, are something quite different.

Yesterday, I received a comment (now deleted) from a self-described white nationalist about an article I’d written ages ago when I’d discovered that I was related to former US Governors, Presidents, and the framers of the US Constitution. His comment was simple and straightforward: “You’ll go for a good price when President Trump puts you on the [slave] block. That’s all that [blood] is good for.”

That’s mild compared to other expletive-laced, n-bomb-laced, vitriolic comments I’ve read via my blog. I’m still mystified about what trolls like these hope to achieve. If they expect such comments will stop me in my tracks, they are sadly mistaken. I’m made of far tougher stuff that that.

As many of you know, I’ve lived most of my life in the UK. My early years there coincided with the counter-culture and counter-class movement of the late 1980s through the 1990s. This is when the rave culture, that great social class leveler, exploded across Britain. To say I met a wide-range of people from every walk of life would be an understatement. Many of my raving acquaintances became life-long friends, including the ‘blue blooded’ sons and daughters of aristos. I’ll tell you, it’s something of a shock when someone invites a group of tired and weary revelers back to their house only to discover that where they live is a manor house that’s been in their family pretty much forever.

You couldn’t guess that the scruffy tree hugger you shared a ciggie with was the son of an Earl. Or that the flower power girl with the mala beads and flowers in her hair, the one  you shared a bottle of water with and some laughs, was the daughter of a Duke.  Now imagine 20 odd years later you discover you’re (very) distantly related to some of the very same people you hung out with, partied with, and became friends with. When I rang them up to tell them the news, and went over exactly who our common ancestors were, and how we connected, they loved it. Some of these friends were even more excited about the news than I was.

I wonder how British aristocrats can be so accepting, nonplussed, and utterly chilled about being related to a person of colour…yet there are Americans who act like they have received the worst news ever in the entirety of their life. Or they find such a thing disgusting, something to be reviled.

So, far from being cowed, I’m working on a new project: The American Family Tree. The aim of the project is to show how Americans – regardless of ‘race’, religion, socio-economic background, geography, culture or any other ‘divisive’ factor – are related to one another; even if they have only a single Colonial-era family line.

There’s an interesting twist to both sides of this coin.  I’m a naturally inquisitive person. I also try to turn contentious situations into learning opportunities – as much for myself as anyone else. I want to know what makes people, and particularly Americans, tick.  So I asked some of the trolls I’ve come across a simple question: have you researched your own family or taken a DNA test. Of the 20 or so people I asked, the answer didn’t come as a surprise. 90% said they had not. Roughly half of those who said no went on to say they didn’t need to take a DNA test or research their own family; in short, they said they knew who they were and where they came from.

As for those who engaged in the form of trolling I’ve written about, and were also engaged in genealogy and DNA testing? Two-thirds had no interest in exploring any part of their genetic inheritance or history that came from any other ethnicity other than the one they identified with.

I’m fine with these two stances. To each his or her own. You’re free to choose as best suits you. However, don’t attack those who also choose for themselves, and wish to delve into the parts of their genetic and genealogical inheritance from all of their ancestors, whoever those ancestors might be and from whatever ethnic group they happen to come from. This blog amply demonstrates that I write about all of my known ancestry. I do my best to give each ethnicity equal time and weighting. Your right to choose not to explore your full heritage does not trump my right to explore and discuss my own. Our choices in this regard don’t make one or the other of us better than the other. Just different. Our journeys, and what we want to achieve for ourselves through our respective journeys, are different. You do you. And I’ll do me.

Genealogy is challenging enough without the added distraction and unpleasantness of trolling.

Genealogy can be, and perhaps should be, a unifying force. It can be a powerful and positive bridge to span the gap of discord as well as opening a powerful and productive channel of conversation.  That’s my aim at any rate. We’ll see.

Amy Roan of Halifax, North Carolina: a mystery with some answers

Last Wills and Testaments are an essential part of my ‘go to’ tool kit when researching ancestors. Amy Roan is the perfect reason why.

Amy was born approximately in 1752 in Halifax County, North Carolina. She is a member of the Roan family group who were resident in early-to-Mid 18th Century Halifax County as well as Yanceyville, Caswell County, North Carolina. This is a particularly difficult family group to research.  18th Century records are patchy at best for them. This makes it difficult to understand how the different Roan family groups in this region of colonial America are related to one another. DNA cousin matches and the use of specific family names within this group show there is a blood connection between these family groups. The progenitor of this line remains something of a mystery. However, a Will that I discovered yesterday might hold a clue as to who the founding member of the North Carolina family was.

Amy Roan would go on to marry Isham Hawkins and raise a family in Halifax, North Carolina.

Amy is a person of interest. My father, my sister and I match around a half dozen or so of her descendants on AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA and Gedmatch. So I know there is a connection between these North Carolina Roans, and my Lancaster, Pennsylvania Roan kin. The North Carolina Roans are also related to my Scots-Irish Virginia Roanes.

The trouble I’ve had, on AncestryDNA in particular, are the family trees of Amy’s descendants. Most of these trees cite Amy’s parents as Colonel William Roane and Sarah Upshaw (my 7th Great Grandparents). A handful cite Colonel William Upshaw Roane and Elizabeth “Betty” Judith Ball (my 6th great grandparents) as her parents. I understand the confusion. There is a proliferation of early 18th Century William Roan(e)s in colonial America.

However, the name Amy never appears in the two Wills associated with either of these Essex-Virginia based William Roanes. Amy was alive and well when both of these men passed.  Her name should appear in either of their Wills if either man was her father. The fact that it didn’t appear in either Will was a big, old, red flag for me.

Another red flag was there are no existing records that show that either Essex County, Virginia-based William Roane ever owned land in North Carolina. True, such records could have been destroyed in either the American Revolutionary War or the Civil War. However, once again, had either man owned land in North Carolina, such tracts would have definitely been part of their probate records and would have been mentioned in their respective Wills. While both men had huge land holdings, neither had land in North Carolina. To-date, no proof exists that they had any dealings or connections to North Carolina.

The last red flag was the implied wealth within the households of the Essex Country William Roanes and the very modest household of the William Roan from North Carolina. The Virginia Williams were very wealthy men. Amy’s father, judging by his Will, had a very modest estate when compared to the other two Williams.

In short, things just weren’t adding up.

The Will below is proof that neither of the above William’s were her father (click each image for a larger picture):

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Source Citation: Halifax County, North Carolina, wills; Author: North Carolina. County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions (Halifax County); Probate Place: Halifax, North Carolina
Source Information: Ancestry.com. North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
Original data: North Carolina County, District and Probate Courts.

This Will not only confirms the father of Amy, it also provides the names of her siblings. My father, sister and I also match a number of their descendants.

Of course, when it comes to genealogy, when one question is answered…more questions arise. So who is this William Roan, who owned land in both Halifax and Caswell Counties, North Carolina? I’m still working on that one. However, in the meantime, I believe the way he spelled his surname is a vital clue.

I’m going to take a quick, wee step back in time. The oldest known and proven Roane ancestor that I have is Archibald Gilbert Roan(e) of Grahsa, Antrim, northern Ireland (1680-1751).  Archibald had 5 children, all of whom emigrated to America:

  1. Col William Roane, Sr of Essex County, Virginia;
  2. James Roane of Essex County, Virginia;
  3. Andrew Roan of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania;
  4. Margaret Roan (married Captain John Barrett II) of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; and
  5. Reverend John Roan of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

While James and William adopted the Roane (with an ‘e’) spelling, their Pennsylvania-based siblings used the Roan (without an ‘e’) spelling. Roan, thus far, seems to be the consistent spelling variation used by the Pennsylvania branches of the family.  Which leads me to believe that Amy’s branch is linked to the Pennsylvania side of the family.

There is a William Roan within the Pennsylvania family who is the strongest, most likely candidate to be the same William Roan resident in North Carolina: one William Roan, born about 1736 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – the son of Andrew Roane (see #3 above) and Mary Margaret Walker (my 8x great uncle and aunt).

While the most likely answer, this remains speculative. As with many colonial-era American ancestors, I haven’t yet found records showing how William Roan went from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. Nor have I found any records that cite this William’s parents.

As for the William Roan who is known to be Andrew’s son? I haven’t found any records for him either other than a legacy left to him in Andrew Roan’s Will.

It’s my hope that now that I have identified who Amy’s father really is (and who he isn’t), that my North Carolina descended Roan cousins and I can focus on taking Amy’s father’s story further back in time.

I can’t stress enough how essential using Last Wills and Testaments are in genealogical research. The above example is the perfect example of why this is so.

Genetic Genealogy & Endogamy: Identifying the father of Cornelius White using DNA Triangulation

The paternity of my 2x great grandfather, Cornelius White, has been a mystery ever since I began my ancestral journey in 2010. All I had was the usual information that could be gleaned from online record sources. He was born about 1829 in Virginia, either in Wythe, Smyth or Augusta County. He married Ann St Clair, who was born in Tennessee. Together, they raised a small family in Wytheville, Wythe County, Virginia.

The only census return I could positively associate with him was the 1880 Census, where he, Ann, and their small family is listed. I had hoped to find him in the 1865 Cohabitation Records for Wythe County. Neither he nor anyone else from his immediate family were listed in this invaluable African American genealogy resource. Nor could I find them in Smyth County, another central location for my extensive extended family. Frustratingly, similar records for Pulaski and Augusta, additional counties that feature largely in my southwest Virginia family’s history, have either been lost, destroyed or undiscovered. So I put Cornelius on the back burner. I’d return to him from time to time – only to put him back on the back burner. I just couldn’t make any headway with him.

I continued my overall genealogy research, on a county-wide level, adding more extended families into my tree. At this point, I have most of late 18th Century to late 19th Century Wythe, Smyth, Pulaski and Augusta county family groups in my tree.

Thanks to endogamy (where groups of people marry amongst themselves, creating one large extended family group over time), I’m related to most of the people in these counties – black, white and Native American – with pre-1900 roots in these counties through a succession of cousin marriages from the early 1700s onwards.

This beautiful region of Virginia is nestled within the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s sparsely populated even to this day. Before the automobile, it would take a day or more to walk from town to town in this region. So you tended to marry who you knew, which was going to be someone in the same community. Which meant you either married a cousin of some description. Or you didn’t marry at all. I’d imagine that newcomers, who mixed the gene pool up a bit, were feted.  I went through something very similar when I moved to a fairly isolated part of Cornwall in southwest England. I was single at the time and invited to every manner of dinner party, church gathering, local dances, parties and saint festival days you could imagine…with single daughters, grand-daughters and nieces being introduced to me left, right, and centre for the first two years I lived there.

Around 18 months ago, an interesting picture was beginning to emerge where Cornelius was concerned.

Both Cornelius and his wife Ann had something to do with Colonel James Lowry White (1770 – 1838) of Staunton, Virginia. Ann, I believe, was owned by James White. James was the Rockerfeller or Vanderbilt of his day. He was one of the richest men in America with vast business enterprises, land holdings and slaves in Tennessee (Knox County, Ann’s place of birth), Alabama (Huntsville, Madison County), West Virginia and Virginia. For now, Ann’s trail has gone cold. A trip to Tennessee will hopefully reveal more information about her and her immediate family in Tennessee.

Cornelius was a different prospect. I just kept returning to the notion that Cornelius and James were blood relations.  James White fathered one known child by my enslaved 3x grandmother, Elsey George (wife of Jacob Sheffey).  Could he also be the father of Cornelius? I wouldn’t have been surprised. I kept looking at the year Cornelius was born (1829) and the year James was born (1770)…and a father-son relationship just didn’t seem likely. I shouldn’t assume that, I know.  I have distant relations who were still fathering children in their 60s, 70s and 80s. And looking at his family tree below, he was clearly still having children by his wife at the time Cornelius was born.

Could these two men be a grandfather and a grandson? That seemed the most likely prospect. I can’t explain it.  It felt right.

It was time to delve in to the DNA matches I had on Ancesty, FamilyTree DNA and Gedmatch.

Endogamy, endogamy, you will be the end of me!

The first hurdle I was face with was this:  a descendant of the old Quaker White family who had originally settled in Cumberland, Pennsylvania, James Lowry White was already my blood relation 3 different ways:

  1. My mother was a descendant of the same family via her Quaker Harlan lineage;
  2. My father’s maternal Roane ancestors shared common Parke, Dandridge, Henry and Carter ancestors with the James’s maternal Lowry ancestors; and
  3. A marriage between James’s half-sister Margaret and my 5x great uncle, Major Henry Lawrence Sheffey, meant an entire Sheffey line were also shared blood relations between us.

So, in his own right, James was already a cousin twice over – as well as my great uncle. He was also a relation through marriage. Let that one sink in for a minute. That is the joy of endogamy. So, no matter how I looked at it, all of his descendants were going to be my cousins. So how was I going to crack finding Cornelius’s father if James and all of his son were already my cousins?

All of their lines were going to be genetic matches to me.

DNA triangulation was going to be the key

DNA triangulation. So what’s that? In autosomal DNA testing, triangulation is the term used to describe the process of reviewing the pedigree charts of people who match on the same autosomal DNA segment(s) to see if a common ancestor can be found. The technique is best used in conjunction with chromosome mapping. It is a long, long process requiring meticulous attention to detail, care and copious notes.

Triangulation has helped me identify a number of white men who had children – and indeed whole second families- with enslaved as well as free women of colour in my family.

This time around, I knew I couldn’t look at any of the men in James’s tree because they were all already related to me.  I had to look at the women who married them and research their families.

First generation descendants of Colonel James Lowry White of Staunton, Virginia

First generation descendants of Colonel James Lowry White. Click for a larger image.

Looking at the abridged family tree above…there were quite a few sons with wives who required researching.  Triangulation was going to take some time. In this instance…18 months!

The reason why it has taken so long is I had to go back anywhere from 5 to 8 generations for each woman who married into the family in order to be certain that I wasn’t genetically connected to any of them. If I was related to any of these women, triangulation wouldn’t produce the result I needed. In other words, I’d get a false positive as a result.

So let’s start with James Lowry White II’s mother, Ann Marie Lowry.

I wanted to start with Ann Lowry to see if I had any matches on her maternal line. I couldn’t look at her paternal Lowrys. I already knew I shared their DNA.  I had to look at her maternal Boggs line.  As far as I am aware, I only have 1 line of Bloggs.  Sure enough, there they were in my DNA matches: Boggs from her mother’s side of the family. This put all of Ann Lowry’s sons, including James Lowry White, in the frame. The only way I could have a combination of White, Lowry and Boggs matches would be via a son, who would have passed DNA from both parents down to Cornelius, who passed enough of this DNA down to me for me to have strong autosomal DNA matches.

However, just to be certain that I should only be looking at the sons of James, I researched the families of Colonel James White’s sisters in law (James II’s aunts) and came up empty handed. I didn’t share any matches with the names in their trees. Now, that could be because none of their descendants have taken DNA tests – or at least not with AncestryDNA. That’s always an option. Or they haven’t uploaded their results to Gedmatch or FamilyTree DNA. Or not enough of this DNA has been inherited for a positive result.

However, thanks to being active on numerous Virginia genealogy-based Facebook groups, I know of descendants from these allied families who have taken DNA tests. Armed with Gedmatch kit numbers to compare, we quickly confirmed that we didn’t share any DNA. I feel safe to say that while I would be a distant relation to these people via marriage, we are not blood relations. Not through their maternal lines, at any rate.

At this stage, I was confident that I had eliminated Colonel James White’s nephews from the list of paternal candidates for Cornelius.

Next, I began looking at Colonel James White’s sons. One of them would be the strongest candidate to be the father of Cornelius.

I eliminated half of them almost immediately. William Young Conn White I died in infancy, so it wasn’t going to be him.

James Lowry White II was a strong candidate, as were his brothers William Young Conn White II, and Francis Smith White. All of the remaining brothers would have been too young to father a child in 1828/29.  Out of 9 brothers, I had whittled the list of candidates down to 3.

As soon as I began researching James Lowry White II, my heart sank. It was my worst nightmare. His wife, Margaret Rhea Preston, wasn’t just a cousin to me…she was a double cousin. I’m related to her on both her Rhea and her Preston lines.

Undaunted, I continued.

I began working on William Young Conn White II’s wife’s family. It wasn’t long before I hit shared families with her paternal and maternal lines in Pennsylvania, Ireland and Scotland. She was another double cousin. I remember looking out my window and muttering “Are you kidding me?” I was seriously ready to walk away from the whole thing at this point.

I turned to Francis Smith White. He presented another kind of difficulty.  I found very little information about him in the official records or the Virginia genealogy books that form the core of my trusted genealogy research resources. I wasn’t overly dismayed about a lack of results for Francis. Born in 1814, I felt that he to would have been quite young to have fathered a child in 1829. Not unheard of, but quite young nonetheless.

With two White family wives turning out to be my double cousins, I was going to have to tackle this from a different direction. I was going to have to compare degrees of genetic separation between me and the descendants of James White II and his brothers.

I began comparing degrees of estimated relatedness and the amounts and lengths of DNA segments that I shared between the descendants of James II and the descendants of his brothers. My matches are between 1 to 2 generations closer when it comes to James II’s descendants when compared to my matches with his brothers’ descendants.  I share more, and longer, DNA segments with James II’s descendants.

The long and short of it is that James Lowry White II is my prime candidate. However, I have to acknowledge that his brothers William and Francis could also be Cornelius’s father.

I know, it seems an awful amount of work to do to not arrive at a definitive answer.  Sometimes in genealogy – and especially genetic genealogy – there isn’t a clear cut answer.  Not when you have endogamy in just about every corner of your family tree.  All you can do is eliminate the impossible and/or improbable and keep chipping away at the probable until you arrive at what will be the most likely result.

That’s all I can do until a death certificate surfaces for Cornelius. That is, if one exists. If he died before the turn of the 20th Century, there most likely won’t be one. The other possibility is that if a death certificate does exist for him, it won’t necessarily follow that the names of his parents were provided. I could be facing my even older nemesis: ‘parents name unknown’. It’s always worth remembering that such records are only as insightful as the information an informant provided at the time.

At least AncestryDNA offered a kind of consolation prize: 2 shaky leaf hints related to Cornelius. These appeared 48 hours after I placed James White II as his father. One hint shows that James II is a common ancestor between me and another of his descendants. The second showing James II’s father, Colonel James Lowry White, is the shared ancestor between me and one of his daughter’s descendants.

That’s about as good as it’s going to get for now!

This exercise is adding more information about the names freed slaves took after Emancipation. So far, the majority of my formerly enslaved ancestors took the name of their  blood relations. They didn’t just adopt a name they liked. Or pull one from the galactic ether. Which, of course, makes we wonder about the handed down notion that freed slaves chose family names of owners they liked or felt had been kind to them. Or merely because they liked a name. If only a handful of my ancestors had randomly chosen names like that, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. My DNA results are suggesting something fundamentally different.

Interesting too are the minority of my ancestors who could have taken a surname based on a blood connection to a family who owned them – and didn’t. A small percentage of those we’re aware of didn’t simply because they either didn’t like, or didn’t want to be associated with, the paternal European-descended side of their family. Instead, they opted for another kinship-based surname.

It’s an interesting area of research.

 

 

Finding lost branches through obituaries

I’m a pretty active member on a number of family genealogy Facebook groups. These groups continue to be a source of pure gold. Even if I don’t immediately realize it sometimes.

 

The other day, a member of one of these groups shared the obituary on the left, which lead to a pretty exciting discovery. I was able to reconnect a lost branch of my Holloway family to my overall Edgefield County, South Carolina family tree.

 

Sometimes it’s easy and straightforward to peel back the generations to connect a newly found branch to my family tree.  This wasn’t one of those time. It was a pitched battle of wits going back in time, generation by generation. For whatever reason, this branch of the Holloways stubbornly tried to keep its secrets of how, exactly, I was related to this family group. I’m a Holloway in more ways than I care to think about thanks to endogamy. So I was like a dog with a beloved bone…there was no way I was letting this mystery go. I was going to find Willie’s place in my tree.

In this case, for whatever reason, there was a complicated rhythm to unravelling this mystery. I had to use a unique combination of Newspapers.com, Google Books, FindAGrave, FamilySearch, and AncestryDNA.  Umm hmm, I was that determined to crack this!

In broad strokes, these were the steps:

  1. For whatever reason I had to start with a search for an obituary on Newspapers.com. This provided vital information about:
    1. The date of death, an age (which you can estimate, if an exact birth date isn’t provided – e.g. 2010 (death date) – 69 (age at death) = an estimated birth year of 1941);
    2. Children, both living and deceased.  This is especially helpful when it comes to daughters, who usually appear under their married names. Marriages mean records and records will (hopefully!) have information like a mother’s maiden name…which helps you find a marriage certificate for a person’s parents.  It’s always easier if you have the mother’s correct maiden name along with the father’s name. These records will also have information about: A)  birth counties; B) County of Residence at the time of the record; C) names of parents and thier county of residence, etc. These are all vital research clues; and
    3. An ancestor’s siblings, which you can use to find birth, death and marriage certificates…which will also, hopefully, have information about parents.
  2. My next stop was FamilySearch. Armed with specific key ancestry dates, I found the vital records I needed.  I added these to each person’s page on Ancestry.com. This has to do with the database algorithms ancestry and FamilySearch use. Sometimes, it’s far easier for me to find the records I need on FamilySearch in the first instance. Once I enter the information in Ancestry, the same record usually appears afterwards. It is what it is and I have learned to live with this.
  3. Once I had specific vital information, then – and only then – did Ancestry begin to provide the records I needed. There are times, in my experience,  when Ancestry can be very awkward to work with.  This was one of those times. For whatever reasons, Ancestry was suggesting records for everyone and anyone other than the specific person I was initially researching.  It was only when I had exactly, precise information, that I was able to finally locate correct records on the service. This time around, the various Social Security records were the last records Ancestry provided.   I needed to all of the vital information possible in order for the correct social security record to finally appear in order to prove I was indeed making the right connections for the individuals in this family group.
  4. In a handful of instances, I had to surf over to FindAGrave and view the Liberty Springs Baptist Church cemetery records to find one or two additional pieces of information. In one instance, a family history book on Google Books providing the missing key to unlock records on Ancestry.

I knew I was on the right track from the beginning. Willie Thomas Holloway was buried at Liberty Springs Baptist Church Cemetery. This church and this cemetery has a long, long, long association with my Edgefield family. This was clue #1 that Willie was definitely a cousin. There were family names that immediately leapt out from the news clipping: Scott, Gaskin, and Quarles. I was related to these three Edgefield families in a number of ways.

I haven’t been able to connect Willie to my tree via his Holloway line. His grandfather, George Washington Holloway, is a stubborn brick wall. His grandmother, Annie Smith, is also a brick wall.  For now.

However, I was able to find Willie’s place in my tree via his mother, Susie Anna Scott. This was the exciting discovery bit.  It turns out that Susie Anna Scott was the great grand-daughter of my 4th great grand aunt, Anna Peterson.

Annie/Anna Peterson with her siblings and her parents. Click for larger image

Annie/Anna Peterson with her siblings and her parents. I am a direct descendant of her sister, Amanda.  Click for larger image

Anna Peterson has been a mystery and a brick wall for years.  Me, and a hard working core of Edgefield cousins, spent years trying to find Annie in official records. In the end, we gave up.  We simply couldn’t find her. There were simply too many Annie Petersons from Edgefield who were born around the same time as our great aunt Annie. We just couldn’t be 100% certain we’d found the right records for the right Annie Peterson. This was more than a little frustrating as we were able to trace the lines for all of her siblings.  Annie’s line was the only lineage we couldn’t find.  Until now.

Annie Peterson, her husband, Eldred Scott, and their children in Edgefield County, SC.

Annie Peterson, her husband, Eldred Scott, and their children in Edgefield County, SC.

willieholloway4

Reading from right to left: You will see Peter Peterson and his wife Violet on the right hand side of the image. From here, we can see their son, Eldred Scott, with his wife, Susie Reynolds, and their children. Moving to the next generation, You will see Willie Thomas Holloways, parents – Holland Scott and Pinkney Holloway. And everyone you see in the image above? They’re all cousins to each other – and to me. Please click for larger image

In the end, it was a series of marriage records, death certificates and obituaries which finally led back to our Annie.  Think of this like reverse engineering, genealogy style.  Sometimes, you have to take a shot in the dark and work backwards from a latter record in order to scroll back through the generations to get to where you need to be. Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn’t. And there were times when I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to crack this.

I was fortunate.  Due to location, family names and a family associated church, I knew this wouldn’t be a wasted research exercise.

Now it’s time to return to the drawing board to find Willie’s place in the family tree via his grandfather, George Washington Holloway!

 

How the term ‘Bantu’ tripped up my genetic genealogy journey

This post is the last in a series of issues, challenges, and barriers I’ve faced in understanding African Genetics and my autosomal, YDNA and mtDNA results.

The first post in this series, Can we really make assumptions about African American DNA admixtures? (https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2016/03/02/can-we-really-make-assumptions-about-african-american-dna-admixtures), covered how science and genealogy TV shows aren’t in a position to make generalizations about what is or isn’t typical/common when it comes to admixtures in African and African-descended people.

The second post, Why I struggle with ‘West Africa’ as a genetic classification (https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2016/03/04/why-i-struggle-with-west-africa-as-a-genetic-classification), covers why I think the ‘West African’ classification some DNA analysis tools provide is meaningless.

In this post, I’m going to outline how the term ‘Bantu’ really tripped me up when it came to understanding and interpreting parts of my DNA testing results.

I remember the first time I saw ‘Bantu’ as a genetic description. I was pretty excited to see it alongside some of the other African tribes I matched. I’d never heard of the Bantu before, so I duly added it to the list of tribes I wanted to research.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it? What followed was a week of utter confusion.

The problem was straightforward. I was looking for a Bantu tribe. It never occurred to me that Bantu was a language, or more actually, a family grouping of similar languages found in central and southern regions of the African continent. Now, you would think it would be easy to feet out the difference between a tribal name and the name of a language. And you would be 100% correct to think that. However, the reality of educating yourself online via a myriad of sources is bound to confuse.

At first, I kept coming up with articles and blog posts about ‘Bantus’ as though this was a tribe. And I couldn’t work it out because that would mean the Bantus would be one truly enormous tribe.  By tribe, I mean of group of people – a society – with shared customs, traditions, beliefs, history, etc. I also kept seeing sub-groups of this apparent tribe of people. These were tribes I was already familiar with. I knew they were distinctly different from one another. Indeed, they were in polar opposite parts of Africa. So how the heck could they be the same overall tribe? That’s the question I kept asking myself.

What was missing was a simple word…”speaking”. “Bantu-speaking”. That’s when the penny dropped. Bantus weren’t one people. This wasn’t a single tribe. This was a language.  The confusion didn’t stop here. Of course it wouldn’t!

The Bantu family of languages are spoken in a very large area of the African continent.

Map showing the distribution of Bantu vs. other African languages. The Bantu area is in orange.

Map showing the distribution of Bantu vs. other African languages. The Bantu area is in orange.

This area includes most of Africa from southern Cameroon, eastward to Kenya, and southward to the southernmost tip of the continent. Twelve Bantu languages are spoken by more than five million people, including Rundi, Rwanda, Shona, Xhosa, and Zulu. Nor is there is a single Bantu language. There are about 250 Bantu languages (Derek Nurse, 2006, Bantu Languages, in the Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics).

The approximate locations of the sixteen Guthrie Bantu zones, including the addition of a zone J around the Great Lakes.

The approximate locations of the sixteen Guthrie Bantu zones, including the addition of a zone J around the Great Lakes. You can read more about the Bantu languages via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bantu_languages

The Bantu languages descend from a common Proto-Bantu language, which is believed to have been spoken in what is now Cameroon in West Africa an estimated 2,500–3,000 years ago (1000 BC to 500 BC).

The spread of the Bantu language family in Africa:

The spread of the Bantu language family in Africa: 1 = 2000–1500 BC origin,  2 = ca.1500 BC first migrations, 2.a = Eastern Bantu, 2.b = Western Bantu,  3 = 1000–500 BC Urewe nucleus of Eastern Bantu, 4–7 = southward advance, 9 = 500 BC–0 Congo nucleus, 10 = 0–1000 AD last phase.         You can read more about this via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bantu_peoples

Other sources put the start of the Bantu Expansion closer to 3000 BC.  The speakers of the Proto-Bantu language began a series of migrations eastward and southward, carrying agriculture with them. This Bantu-speaking expansion came to dominate Sub-Saharan Africa east of Cameroon, an area where Bantu speaking peoples now constitute nearly the entire population.

The technical term Bantu, meaning “human beings” or simply “people”, was first used by Wilhelm Bleek (1827–1875), to reflect many of the languages of this group.

Defining cultures and people by language would be like defining a large group of Europeans by one language – Latin (otherwise referred to as Romance Languages). These Latin-based languages are referred to as “romance languages” because they originate from a language spoken by Romans. It’s a language family grouping, just like Bantu-speaking. Romance languages evolved from Latin. To give you an idea, the biggest Romance languages are: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian.

Could you imagine a DNA test returning the classification “Romantic or Romance-Language”? I’m smiling at this thought. And the answer is absolutely not.  Europeans would be in an uproar.

The more deeply I read about Bantu-speaking peoples, the more additional pennies began to drop.

niger-congo_map

There are Bantu-speaking tribes who are genetically closer to non-Bantu speaking tribes than they are to tribes who speak a form of Bantu.

Let’s take the Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda, for example. Both are bantu-speaking. The Hutu are generally recognized as the ethnic majority of Rwanda. The Hutu are a Bantu group that had arrived in the region earlier, during the Bantu expansion. The Tutsi, however were identified by the Hutu as originally being a foreign group that settled amongst and intermarried with the Hutu. The relationship between the two modern populations is, in many ways, derived from the perceived origins and claim to “Rwandan-ness”. A shared language didn’t stop the bloody conflicts and genocide in Rwanda. Clearly, while the Hutu and Tutsi speak the same Bantu language, they do not see themselves as a single people. 

In comparison to the Hutu, the Tutsi have three times as much genetic influence from Nilo-Saharan populations (14.9% ) as the Hutu (4.3% ) perhaps demonstrating a Nilo-Saharan (language classification) speaking origin that supports their nomadic herding past, as opposed to the Hutu who were primarily Bantu farmers.[1]  A more recent study (Trombetta et al. 2015) found 22.2% E1b1b in a Tutsi sample from Burundi, but 0% in the Hutu and Twa of Burundi.[2] Particularly with genetic markers associated with Southern Cushitic people and East African nomadic herding tribes.[3] To put it simply, while they share the same language, the Hutu and the Tutsi have a different genetic mix.

This makes sense. Imagine you’re from one of the Frankish (early French) Celtic  tribes conquered by the Roman army. You’re taken prison, made a slave and sent to Rome. You learn Latin. Learning to speak Latin doesn’t stop you from ethnically  being a Frankish Celt. You’re now just a Celt who speaks a different language than the one you did before your tribe was conquered. You might now be Roman, or at least Romanized…however, you are still ethnically a Frankish Celt.

This is an important aspect to keep in mind when trying to understand your African American DNA test results. I hope it saves you the week or so of confusion that I had to overcome in order to make sense of the whole ‘Bantu’ thing.

My best rule of thumb is this: when you see the word ‘Bantu’ on its own, automatically add the qualifier, -speaking’.

Bantu is a language, not a people. It really has no place as a genetic classification.

If this topic interests you, here are some excellent articles:

  1. The Bantu People, Melissa’s Anthropology Blog.  https://mathildasanthropologyblog.wordpress.com/2008/04/29/the-bantu-people

  2. Bantu peoples in South Africa, Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bantu_peoples_in_South_Africa
  3. The Bantu Expansion,  http://pages.ucsd.edu/~dkjordan/resources/clarifications/BantuExpansion.html

References:

  1. Luis, J. R.; Rowold, D.J.; Regueiro, M.; Caeiro, B.; Cinnioğlu, C.; Roseman, C.; Underhill, P.A.; Cavalli-Sforza, L.L.; Herrera, R.J. (2004).“The Levant versus the Horn of Africa: Evidence for Bidirectional Corridors of Human Migrations” (PDF). American Journal of Human Genetics 74 (3): 532–544. 
  2. Trombetta, Beniamino; D’Atanasio1, Eugenia; Massaia, Andrea; Ippoliti, Marco; Coppa, Alfredo; Candilio, Francesca; Coia, Valentina; Russo, Gianluca; Dugoujon, Jean-Michel; Mora, Pedro; Akar, Nejat; Sellitto, Daniele; Valesini, Guido; Novelletto, Andrea; Scozzari, Rosaria; Cruciani, Fulvio (2015). “Phylogeographic refinement and large scale genotyping of human Y chromosome haplogroup E provide new insights into the dispersal of early pastoralists in the African continent.”. Oxford Journals 7: 1940–1950.
  3.  Henn, Brenna M.; Gignoux, Christopher; Lin, Alice A.; Oefner, Peter J.; Shen, Peidong; Scozzari, Rosaria; Cruciani, Fulvio; Tishkoff, Sarah A.; Mountain, Joanna L.; Underhill, Peter A. (2008). “Y-chromosomal evidence of a pastoralist migration through Tanzania to southern Africa.”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105: 10693–8.

Why I struggle with ‘West Africa’ as a genetic classification

I’ve had fun playing around with some free autosomal DNA analysis tools via Gedmatch and DNA Land. While it’s all well and good to experiment with these tools and play around with them to see what information can be gleaned…ultimately, you’re going to want these tools to provide meaningful answers. This is where my frustration with some of these DNA analytical tools kicks in.

Both of your parents contribute to your autosomal DNA. I think of it like it’s a genetic stew – you get bits and pieces of this type of DNA from your parents’ collective ancestors. It’s a very hit or miss affair how much of this DNA you or your siblings inherit from any given ancestor. No set of siblings inherit the same amount either. This DNA is different from YDNA, which fathers pass to sons, and mtDNA which mothers pass to their daughters. YDNA and mtDNA change very slowly over time. Autosomal DNA mixtures differ from person to person within the same immediate family – and from generation to generation. This is a very simplified overview of how each of these types of DNA differ from each other.

When I first started to investigate some of these free autosomal DNA analytical tools, I didn’t really think anything when I saw the classification of ‘West African’. It’s only when I started to research what ‘West African’ actually meant that I began to have quite a few questions about the validity of this genetic classification. I’m now of the mind that it’s a pretty meaningless genetic qualifier.

Below you’ll see two different maps which illustrate the West African region. The first is from the United Nations. The second is a fairly common map, although I haven’t a clue about its origins.

UN map of West Africa: 

Map showing how the UN classifies the geo-political West African region, which includes north African Western Sahara, Morocco and Algeria.

Map showing how the UN classifies the geo-political West African region, which includes north African Western Sahara, Morocco and Algeria. 

There are maps that commonly depict West Africa, like the one shown below: 

west-africa-political-map

Since size seems to be a political meme for the moment – at least for Trump and Rubio – let’s start there! The UN-defined, geopolitical region classified as West Africa is huge. We’re talking some 5,112,903 km2. This makes this one region of Africa larger than Western, Northern, Central and Southern Europe combined. It’s also a heavily populated region of Africa with hundreds of different ethnic groups, cultures, languages, etc – all of the things that make one population of people quite distinct from others.

I’ll use an example. Imagine you’re a European descended person. You use a DNA analysis tool to explore your genetic admixtures. And all you see is ‘Eastern European’. Your first response would be along the lines of ‘duh, tell me something that I didn’t know already. What kind of Eastern European am I, exactly?’ And you’d be right to think that. Are you mostly Romanian? Ukrainian? Slovak? Polish? These are distinctly different peoples; with different customs, traditions, cultures, history and experiences. Each one has its own unique subset of ethnicities.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the many, many ethnic groups who call this part of Africa home:

Map showing the main ethnicities in Africa.

Map showing the main ethnicities in Africa, grouped by language. click for larger image

The various regions of Africa are just as complex, as the map above illustrates. You’d never guess just how diverse and complex the ethnic landscape of western Africa is when you simply see the genetic classification ‘West African’.

Take a look at the West African region. The major ethnic groups in West Africa are the Mandeng, Fulah, Yoruba, Haoussa, Ashanti and Cameron. These major ethnic groups (and that putting all of the smaller ethnic groups to one side) have produced several separate groups with cultural differences and minor linguistic variations. The Yoruba for example, encompasses twenty-five separate groups. Each one of these twenty-five groups is different from the next. Then there are the Berber and the Taureg, two groups that are found in the Sahara desert. Their language and culture has a strong Arabic influence. All of these cultures are lumped together under the classification of ‘West African’.

That’s just for starters. When you begin to drill down into the myriad of cultures in this one African region, it becomes more complex. The Yoruba example I gave in the paragraph above hints at just how complex a region this is.

So we’ve taken a quick look at just how ethnically complex ‘West Africa’, as a genetic classification, truly is. Now imagine you get an autosomal DNA result that says you’re 28% West African. Now you have a real sense of my frustration.

So what do I propose?  Two approaches. The gold standard would be a country-level analysis result. That’s the most meaningful and the most relevant to people. If my autosomal DNA is found in Ghana, or Cameroon or Burkina Faso, then that’s what a DNA analysis tool should say. Not simply ‘West African’.

Alternatively, there could be a complete re-working of how African cultures are defined and grouped together in terms of genetic classification. It needn’t be overly onerous. Northwest African, West African, West Central African and Southwest African. While not as precise as my first suggested option, at least this one would narrow the western African region people are actually genetically linked to.

‘West Africa’ is fine as a geopolitical definition. As a genetic description, it is truly meaningless.

The ladies of “The Real” DNA test results

The ladies of “The Real” took DNA tests to find out their ethnic identities, and the results are in. Take this journey with them on their road to discovery.

My voyage of discovery has certainly been an adventure. Check out their adventures below:

DNA reveal Part 1

DNA reveal Part 2

DNA reveal Part 3