Recognizing – and then understanding – how endogamy on a plantation or within other places where enslaved people were held and had families is an important aspect of African American genealogy research.
Today I am going to spend a little time discussing endogamy -the practice of generations of cousin marriages – within a specific context. Enslaved African-descended people toiled across every pre-industrialized sphere. While I have uncovered small numbers of enslaved kin who labored in mines, aboard paddle boats, were dock workers, or manufacturing; the vast majority were enslaved within an agricultural context. That is the sphere the majority of my research has focused upon. It’s what I know. Hence the somewhat narrow scope of this article.
Before I delve into the topic of this article, I’d like to paint a quick picture of what life was like on the farm or the plantation. I do so with the aim of illustrating the practical reality of how endogamy affected communities of enslaved people. For African Americans who have tested their DNA, this will be an important aspect of your ancestry that needs to be understood. Endogamy is a complicated factor that absolutely influences genetic cousin matches: the number of chromosome segments you will share with DNA cousins, and the amount of cMs you will share.
A farm or plantation (for convenience, I am going to use the term farm for both) was, for all intents and purposes, like a county, a state, or a country in microcosm. The boundaries that formed the property of an enslaved person’s (EP) enslavers acted like the border of a country. That’s not far-fetched. An EP needed a piece of paper from his or her enslaver in order to leave it, and safely return. God help the unfortunate EP who came across a slave patrol without that piece of paper, which acted like a type of passport.
Your life, and every aspect of your life, played out within the confines of the farm you were enslaved on. What you did, when you did it, and how you did it, was controlled. Typically, you did not have the freedom to come and go as you pleased. Typically, you did not have control over your own body…that belonged to someone else.
Did my enslaved ancestors and kin have a say in who they had children with? It looks like some did, and some did not. For every Venus Josey who chose for herself, I have a Louisa Hammond or an Elizabeth Henley who did not. No clear picture has emerged when it comes to reproduction among my ancestors’ enslaved EPs. What I can say with certainty is this: my ancestral EPs married within the same enslaved community in which they themselves were bound.
Let’s take a look at how such a community could be comprised.
The above image comes from my own ancestry. It illustrates the enslaved population held by Daniel Williams, Jr and his wife, Luanna “Anna” Henderson, my 6x great-grandparents. Daniel inherited EPs from both of his parents. Anna would have brought dowry slaves with her when she married him. She too inherited EPs from her parents. This is also a great example to work with. Anna and Daniel were first cousins – a prime example of endogamy within a family defined by a series of cousin marriages. Some of the EPs she brought with her from her mother, Elizabeth William’s, family – those who were biologically Williams, Petersons, Keelings, and Sheppards – were cousins to some of Daniel’s EPs who were biologically Williams, Sheppards, Keelings, and Petersons themselves.
My Williams family has been interesting to research. They had two types of EPs: those who were their kin, and those who were not. EPs who were kin were largely kept within the family for generations; going from parent to his or her children or grandchildren. EPs who weren’t kin were typically sold to whomever – unless the EP was a female who bore one or more mulatto children to her enslaver. Those who bore children to their enslaver were then classed as family.
Daniel’s ancestors weren’t coy or shy about marrying their cousins. Beginning in early colonial Virginia, then into North Carolina and South Carolina, Williams married Sheppards, Keelings, and Petersons over and over again. All of those names in Daniel’s paternal family box? They were cousins. Those cousins also produced enslaved mulatto children, some of whom came into Daniel’s sphere through subsequent inheritances…and had children by their enslaved Williams cousins. His mother’s enslaved Clark kin entered into this mix. As did his wife’s EPs, whether they were her kin or not.
Now, you’re an EP who has reached adulthood. The time has come for you to start a family of your own. You either have the chance to settle with a mate your enslavers approve of from within your own community….or you’re used as a breeder, mated with anyone your enslaver so pleases. For the purposes of this article, I am focussing on the former.
Using my ancestral EPs held by Daniel as an example, you would be a young adult with a high probability of settling down with a cousin from within your confined community. One way to avoid that would have been to form a union with an unrelated EP newly introduced to your community through a purchase. Or by settling down with a mistress’s dowry slave, or a child of someone who was a dowry EP. Your ability to avoid marrying another EP who was a cousin depended upon the number of non-related EPs introduced into your community via marriage or purchase.
The above image is taken from the book Slave Records of Edgefield County, South Carolina. The EPs I’ve highlighted with proven surnames link back to Daniel’s paternal family. It’s an image that perfectly illustrates endogamy within an enslaved population. You will see the Sheppard surname in the list of names in Daniel’s paternal family box.
Some of these families left the sphere of the Williams family to enter the sphere of the Sheppard family due to a Sheppard-Williams cousin marriage.
My cousin, the author Donya Williams, and I have spent years working together researching our Edgefield family. The information above, covering some of our common ancestral EPs, has been the result of years of research. Our research has shown that whether your surname was Harling, Hill, Peterson, Sheppard, or Stark – you were part of the same family that was white, black, and mulatto. You were part of the same family because your ancestors were held in bondage by the same extended enslaving family generation after generation. I’d even argue that, by 1800, none of my EPs needed to have a white father in order to pass European DNA to their children (although this was still occurring up to the dawning of the Civil War). That DNA was already within the enslaved population going all the way back into the early colonial period of Virginia.
Endogamy within the farm community meant shared ancestral European and African DNA becoming amplified. It’s the reason why Donya and I share a minimum of 6 or 7 sets of shared black and white ancestors. It’s why we share an unusual number of chromosomes, chromosomal segment lengths, and cMs.I have to laugh at this point because our white, black, and mixed cousins didn’t stop marrying each other after 1800. Heck, cousin marriages were still going strong in the 1900s!
Turning to Anna, all I know about her is within the context of being Daniel’s wife. I know nothing of her life prior to her marriage. If she is indeed a biological Henderson, then I know enough about the families the Hendersons married into to have enough of an insight into the biological inheritance of the EPs she brought with her into her marriage. Those bloodlines merged with those of Daniel’s EPs. Those surnames will begin to appear among some of the families listed in the second image above. I can’t confidently figure that out until I figure Anna and her family out. DNA has clues, as does the 1870 Census. However, to seal the deal, I would need to see probate records and deeds from her parents. In order to do that, I need to know who her parents were.
To summarize, in order to understand the genetic history of your EPs, you must understand the community of EPs your enslaved ancestors were part of. Who were the other families held by the same enslaving family…and for how long were they held in bondage together? The answer to this is one means of smashing the brick walls around your ancestral EPs.
For further insight into how endogamy affects your research, I invited you to read my previous article on the subject: Endogamy: Or how an entire county can be related via https://genealogyadventures.net/2017/12/07/endogamy-or-how-an-entire-county-can-be-related
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