I have spent the past few months doing a deep dive into the early colonial enslavement of my Varina, Henrico County, Virginia Bates line. My connection to this family is via my great grandmother, Julia Ella Bates Roane, the mother of my paternal grandmother, Susan Julia Roane Thomas Sheffey.
DNA tells a story of a genetic connection to many of the oldest enslaving families in Henrico – as well as up and down the James River: Bates, Bolling, Christian, Fleming, Jordan, Piersey, Pleasants, Price, and Woodson. Julia’s DNA also connects me to some of the known and unknown 20-and-odd Africans who were brought to this part of colonial Virginia in 1621 such as Cornish, Johnson, and Gowen/Goins/Goings. This makes sense through the prisms of time and location. My Bates and allied family lines were in Varina from the beginning of the colonial period of Virginia…and never left. Their DNA mixed with the DNA from the other old Varina and James River families down the centuries.
I know the where, how and the why behind my connections to these families: slavery. Centimorgans (cMs) and SNPs have provided a solid glimpse into when this DNA became part of my genetic makeup (mid-to-late 17th Century and early 18th Century).
In some instances, I even know who contributed this DNA to my genetic inheritance. Not enough, however. Too few instances, if I’m honest. Hence the past few months have been spent trying to unravel the story behind the forgotten individuals who form this part of my ancestry. This has meant delving into and stitching together a patchy paper trail of probate records for the enslaving families tied to this family history and ancestry, deeds of sale and deeds of gifts, letters, farm books, journals – any available puzzle piece that could shed light on this research.
You should expect a few detours when you do research of this nature. Detours are part and parcel of the work we do as genealogists and family historians. In my experience, I’ve rarely found these detours to be a waste of time. Typically, for me, they reveal something important. This is one of those instances.
There I was, chipping away at adding Bolling family enslaved people (EPs) to my tree when I came across deeds of sale between a John Bolling and Thomas Jefferson. John Bolling married Thomas’s sister, Martha. It made sense that EPs would pass between the two of them.
Again, the purpose of this article is how to apply different strategies in researching enslaved ancestors. It isn’t a commentary on the selling of human beings. If I use language that may seem insensitive, just know I don’t mean it to be. Trust me, I have plenty of skin in the game. I can only write about researching enslaved people because I have ancestors who were enslaved. So please, don’t get hung up on language. It’s the research methodology that’s the subject.
In order to understand the history of the EPs Thomas Jefferson sold to his brother-in-law, John Bolling, I needed to find out more about them while they were with Jefferson. I was able to achieve this via discovering a digitized copy of Jefferson’s Farm Book: a ledger where he noted all manner of things about the EPs held by him. It is genuinely a genealogical goldmine in terms of Jefferson EP family research.
Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, available through The Massachusetts Historical Society via
It was time to add Jefferson’s hundreds of EPs to my family tree. Their details came straight from his Farm Book. Sally Hemings’ immediate and extended family were already in my tree as they were a known family from our common Wayles link. She and her Fossett, Brown, Bell, and Colbert kin have been exceedingly well documented. There were no new revelations to be found there with regard to her family.
This time around, I was focused on Jefferson’s EPs who worked the land. These are the lesser known and researched of his EPs. Some of these EPs were my kin via transactions with other enslaving families who were my ancestors or kin. Families like Christian and Woodson.
The first thing I had to tackle where numerous EPs with the same first name. When you’re dealing with one name ancestors, this is a nightmare.
Take the name Suckey, for instance. There were around two dozen entries in Jefferson’s Farm Book for different Suckeys. Thankfully, Jefferson was pretty consistent in the details he provided for many of the Suckeys in this book. It appears there are at least 6 Suckeys covering three generations. There may be a seventh and an eigth Suckey – I’m still trying to work out if these last two Suckeys are different women from the 6 known Suckeys or just poorly notated Suckeys from the 6 who are known.
Were all of the known Suckeys related? Four of them were: mother, daughter, a grand-daughter and a niece. I suspect the other two Suckeys are related to this family group based on what they named their children. However, Jefferson didn’t provide information about either of these two Suckey’s parents or siblings. I suspect both are additional nieces to the eldest Suckey (“Old Suckey”) via unknown or undocumented siblings of Old Suckey.
When it comes to this kind of research, naming patterns matter.
I’ll give you another example. It’s an example I’m currently working on.
While reading about Jefferson and his EPs, I came across some accounts in history books about how the British stole a number of Jefferson’s EPs in Cumberland County, Virginia during the Revolutionary War. It turns out these EPs weren’t stolen. They actually fled to the British in a bid for freedom. But more on that at another time.
Once I entered the details of the EPs who fled to the British to my tree, the relationship between a number of them was immediately appraent. One of Jefferson’s enslaved families made a bid for freedom:
Emanuel and Patt’s bid for freedom, along with their children’s, did not end well. With the exception of Isabel and her brother Peter, the rest of the family died in the British encampment. Emanuel died of cholera – one of the hazards of military camps of the time. The other being typhus. I can only presume cholera is what killed Patt and most of the children.
Keep the names Sam and Sall in the back of your mind.
Two other family groups who lived among Emanuel and Patt’s family also fled to the British in Cumberland County at the same time. Note their names:
So…we have Sall (“Black Sall”) and a Sam who also fled to the British. Emanuel and Patt had children by these names. Is there a connection between these 3 family groups? My instincts say yes. What does the paper trail say? The jury is out. So far, nothing on paper proves or disproves a family connection.
Looking at this logically, fleeing to the British as an enslaved person wasn’t easy. Add the fact you were taking young children with you. On the one hand, Emanuel and Patt probably thought the disruption of war would provide the best chance of escape, and ultimately, freedom. They may have thought this was their only, best hope for freedom. So they planned. And planned some more. What they were planning, if they were caught planning it, would have landed them in a world of hurt. At the worst, if discovered, their entire family could have been split up and sold away from each other. My cousin Thomas Jefferson had form for this. So it was a genuine possibility and a reasonable fear.
With stakes this high, Emanuel and Patt wouldn’t have told just anyone. The risk of someone alerting Jefferson or the overseers was just too great. If you were bound to disclose such plans at all, you’d only do such a thing with people you trusted with your life, which would include family.
It’s for this reason I don’t believe that it’s a coincidence that Black Sall and Sam joined Emanuel and Patt when they fled their bondage. Little Sally and little Sam were named for an aunt and an uncle – a naming practice that is entrenched in this part of my ancestry.
The question remains who, precisely, Black Sall and Sam were related to. Were they Emanuel’s siblings or Patt’s. I don’t have an answer for that yet.
The elder Sall, Black Sall, may be the answer to a question that I have. Little Isabel and Peter lost their entire immediate family while encamped with the British. They were young, both under the age of 12. So how did they get back to Jefferson? I believe that the elder Sall brought them back along with her surviving children. Sall’s two youngest daughters died in the British army camp. Little Jamey was ill. Perhaps some of her surviving children were ill too. She was ill. Weighing her options, perhaps she believed returning to Jefferson was the best chance for the survival of her remaining children, and possible neice and nephew. At this stage, I have no doubts that she was the person who brought Isabel and Peter back to Monticello. Truly, Sall was faced with a dire choice.
Sall died of cholera herself shortly after her return. Her surviving children would all be passed to Jefferson’s son-in-law, John Wayles Eppes. I’m still researching them to find their descendants in order to see the surnames they went by. Seeing the surnames used by the descendants of her son, Billy Warny (I believe his surname was actually Warner, not Warny), if he had any, would shed some light on how this family group would have identified itself.
Emanuel and Patt’s surviving son, Peter, will also provide clues in this regard. His trail has been difficult to pick up once he returned to Jefferson. There are too many indistinguishable Peters for me to be certain if he’s the Peter who went to Thomas Mann Randolph, the one who went to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, or the one who went to John Wayles Eppes. Or the Peter who was sold outside the family. He may be one of these Peters – or none of them.
Researching EPs means working with limited information in more cases than I’d like to think about. It means working from the known to the unknown…and then using critical thinking to bridge gaps. Which this article illustrates.
So what are the next steps?:
Finding the estate inventory for Peter Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s father). I have his Will, which cites a scant few EPs. What I need is his complete estate inventory which would list all of his EPs, with possible ages and family relationships cited. This will hopefully show how Black Sall and Sam were related to either Emanuel or Patt;
Finding the estate inventories for Jane Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s mother, for the reasons provided in Point #1. Again, I have her Will, it’s the estate inventory that’s needed;
The 1823 estate inventory for John Wayles Eppes, to pick up the story of the EPs he received from Jefferson; and
The estate inventories for John Blair Bolling (aka John William Bolling), and his wife, Martha Jefferson, to pick up the trail of the EPs they received from Jefferson.
All this to figure out how, exactly, my Varina, Henrico County, Virginia family is genetically connected to some of the EP families coming from Jefferson’s various farms and properties. Deeds between Jefferson, the Bollings, the Christians, and the Woodsons are the hows. Now, it’s a matter of tackling the who.
It may be the mother of all detours, however, I see how it leads back to Varina. Time, perserverance, and patience will reveal the specifics. In that, I have absolute faith.
You’ve made it to the 1870 U.S. Federal Census…and now you have no idea of what to do or where to go to research your enslaved ancestors. “What do I do now?” is a question we continually see in countless Facebook African-American centric genealogy groups on Facebook, or letters to The Root.
We’re doing this broadcast with you in mind.
Join host Brian Sheffey and Donya Williams – with our special guest, librarian Sharon Rowe – as we share the tips, tricks, and research resources we’ve used to smash through slavery era brick walls.
Check out our recent broadcast about our groundbreaking project with Howard University’s Biology & Genomics Dept.
We chatted with our Sheila Hightower-Allen DNA Memorial Fund Project partners – Director of Biology, Dr. Fatima Jackson, and Geneticist, Jennifer Caldwell – about the intersection of science + technology + genetics + genetic genealogy + health screening + anthropology.
The show aired on June 17th.
Please share so we can get the word out about this special and historic project.
There are times when we only have an ancestor’s name to work with in the coyrse of our family research; especially if your ancestral history is filled with one name ancestors (e.g. enslaved ancestors).
Understanding your family’s naming conventions – among your different ancestral lines – can give you major clues to work with when it comes to pushing your family’s story back further.
For enslaved African-descended people in America, who were forbidden from reading and writing, the names they chose for their children were ladden with their family’s history…and clues you can work with.
Have you ever wondered how a person got their name? How about why there are so many Augustus, Carrie, Janie, and Alphonso in one family? With women in particular, if you only have a first name to go by, her first name can be a vital clue to her family connection.
In this article, I will be posting about another range sequence for my mum’s mtDNA. You will see a summary explanatory section about mtDNA at the bottom of this article.
To my fellow Old Ninety-Six County, South Carolina cousins, this is the female line this DNA covers:
My mum < Pauline Matthews < Gertrude Harling < Aurelia Holloway < Amanda Peterson < Violet Williams < Moses Williams, Sr’s unknown first wife (not Mariah Stallsworth).
My mum’s mtDNA: Range 16024 to 16519
Note: Please click each image to see a larger version.
Genebase uses an analytical comparison measurement called RMI,which you will see in the numbers provided in the bar graph images below. RMI (Relative Match Index) is a measure of how closely your Y-DNA and mtDNA haplotype matches those of a defined population group as compared to all other population groups in the comparison. For example, a RMI of 100 means that you are 100 times more likely to belong to that population set as compared to the rest of the populations.
Mutation = 0 is a perfect match / Mutation = 1 or more means a mutation has occurred in the comparison mtDNA matches.
So…there’s quite a bit to take in. And this only covers another short range of sequence ranges for my mum’s mtDNA! Feel free to ask questions! I appreciate this takes a while to wrap one’s head around. Dorothy, are definitely not in autosomal DNA territory any more!
A quick reminder about mtDNA
Just so we all know what we’re looking at, here are some illustrations of mtDNA:
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is the small circular chromosome found inside mitochondria. These organelles found in cells have often been called the powerhouse of the cell. The mitochondria, and thus mitochondrial DNA, are passed only from mother to offspring through the egg cell
As you can see, mtDNA looks very different from the 23 chromosomes that form autosomal DNA (the DNA you inherit from both parents).
I always enjoy genealogy research conference calls with my Edgefield-connected cousins Donya, Sheila, and Loretta. They are always illuminating. Nine times out of ten, we can solve whatever thorny genealogical conundrum we’re faced with at the time. During a recent call with our cousin Donya, Loretta reminded me of a research strategy I had used to employ regularly…and had simply fallen out the the habit of doing.
The research strategy Loretta reminded me of was doing very broad searches using Newspapers.com.
The first pulsecame quickly upon the heels of the Civil War, with groups of ancestral kin leaving South Carolina for Ohio (Elyria, Ohio in particular), North Carolina (Winston-Salem, Asheville, and Raleigh in particular, as well as Halifax, Wake, and Buncombe Counties in general), and Arkansas. Smaller groups rode out to Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee during the same time period.
The second migratory pulse occurred during the WWI era, with large groups of kin heading north to Michigan (mostly Detroit), Illinois (Cook County), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, as well as Chester County), Washington D.C., Maryland (Baltimore), Delaware, New York, and New Jersey. A second pulse into North Carolina also occurred during this period.
The third great movement of family occurred during WWII and continued through the 1950’s. Their ports of call mirrored those in the second pulse, with the addition of Massachusetts, Georgia, and, to a lesser extent, California, as places for relocation.
Newspapers.com has been a key resource in picking up the threads for many of my ancestral lines which left South Carolina. Using broad boolean search strings (permission granted to nerd out on that term!) on Newspapers.com has enabled me to find these lines; and follow up on what happened to them once they left South Carolina.
What is Boolean Search?
The SocialTalent.com website defines a Boolean Search as a way to organise your search parameters using a combination of keywords, and the 3 main Boolean operators (AND, OR and NOT), to produce more accurate and more relevant results for online searches.
The first important thing to appreciate about Boolean, is that there are only 5 elements of syntax to understand. These are:
AND OR NOT () “”
By applying these appropriately, along with the keywords you wish to consider, you can create a huge range of search operations. There is no limit to how often you can use any of these elements in a search, so you can create very specific search strings, which will save you a lot of time in filtering the results.
Think of this as fine-tuning or refining online searches to achieve better, more accurate, or more relevant online search results. For more in-depth explanations of Boolean searches and how to use them, please visit
I began my search using a simple, broad search string:
I wanted to focus on former Edgefieldians who lived and/or died in Pennsylvania with this search. I wanted to exclude any newspaper articles that mentioned Strom Thurman. The revelation that Strom had a natural born daughter with a black family servant was big news at the time. This wasn’t what I wanted to research. Using this boolean filter excluded some 100 or so articles from my Newspaper.com search. Which still left me with just over 3,000 articles to work through in Pennsylvania. In all, I found around 30 Pennsylvania newspaper articles, mostly obituaries and marriage\engagement announcements, that were very useful.
I repeated the same for Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and the District of Columbia. These were the main places I know my kinsmen removed to during the three migration pulses I outlined above.
I will rinse and repeat this process for the following terms:
These were significant places of origin connected to my South Carolina kinspeople. It only makes sense to use the same strategy to find kinspeople from these South Carolina areas in the various states I’ve listed above.
I will warn you in advance: this is a lengthy and time consuming research strategy. It casts the widest possible net. The rewards though outweigh the effort of sifting through each and every result.
So let’s take another look at the image I used above:
Take a look at the map image in column on the left side of the image. Anything jump out at you? It’s no surprise that South Carolina appears in a dark shade of the colour red. Edgefield is an old county in South Carolina. It stands to reason that there will be thousands of articles in South Carolina newspapers. So this isn’t significant in and of itself. You’d expect this to be the case.
No, what piqued my interest was why Tennessee appeared as a dark pink. I knew Edgefieldians had removed themselves to Tennessee. However, I thought these family groups were outliers. Newspapers.com was telling me there was far more going on than a handful of families moving from South Carolina to Tennessee. Something significant was happening.
I then found an important and very straightforward indication of what was going on:
Indeed, many of the early articles that formed the search results for Tennessee, that mentioned Edgefield, were dated between 1868 and 1890. This timeframe aligns with the first post Civil War pulse of migration I mentioned earlier. There was an interesting link between Nashville and Edgefield which requires far more in-depth research. Something was going on for this relationship between these two places to have happened. At the moment, I have no idea what that the underlying force was nor when this relationship between these two areas began.
If the relationship between Nashville and Edgefield was established earlier, in the slavery era, this will have implications for my research. The explanation could be, and probably is, that I will have enslaved kinspeople who were taken to Tennessee from Edgefield. Some of my missing Nineteen Century black ancestral lines will likely to be found in Tennessee, something I hadn’t considered in any great depth. Now, I have to consider this likelihood. Settle(s) / Suttle is one Edgefield surname I’ve seen in some of the Tennessee articles from the 1870’s time period. That is one of the significant surnames from my direct line. I’m looking forward to investigating this further.
I do have one caveat. I have exclusively referenced Newspapers.com. There are other online Newspaper repositories, such as Chronicling America https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov. I understand Newspapers.com simply because I have used it for years, and I understand how it works with a deeper understanding than I do with other similar newspaper repositories. It’s a personal preference. You might find another divital newspaper archive service better suited to how your research needs.
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 laboured 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 commnities 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, was like a county, or 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 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 to enter the sphere of the Sheppard’s 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 occuring 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.
The draft journal paper below was produced in answer to a general call for papers on the subject of Reparations in the US. Myself, and my cousin, Donya Williams, address the subject through the lens of genealogy.
The draft version of our paper is provided in two formats: an embedded PDF document and widget that you can either read online, or download. A text version follows beneath the embedded PDF widget.
Since the beginning of man’s life on earth, the family has served as the cornerstone of society. The integrity of the family set the standard for society from the beginning of time as the underpinning of our civilization, reflecting the beneficial differences between men and women and the complementarity of their hearts, minds, and bodies. Aristotle argued that the natural progression of human beings flowed from the family via small communities out to the polis. The state itself, then, as a natural extension of the family, mirrors this critical institution.”[i][ii]
The family is the entity that gives real meaning to life and to existence. The family is the cornerstone of the social system. The family is not a casual or spontaneous organization of people but a divinely ordained group. Marriage is noble and sacred, a social contract that confers mutual obligations on the couple and society. The progress and welfare of society, or its breakdown, can be traced to the strengths and unity, or the lack of it, in the family. This also applies to civilization…
The family has an important role in providing socialization and values for children and in providing social and economic security as well. Being part of a family motivates individuals, motivates us all, to work hard, sacrifice our well-being, and work for the welfare of the family.
In all faiths and religions, the family is the foundation of society. The peace and security offered by a stable family unit is greatly valued and considered central for the spiritual growth of its members, society, and humanity. The harmonious social order is created by the families and extended families in which all children are treasured, valued, and nurtured.[iii]
There are established arguments in support of, and against, descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States receiving reparations[iv]. The arguments in favor of reparations are based upon the economic advantage slavery provided the United States[v]; the brutal conditions of slavery[vi]; and the social, political, judicial, and economic disenfranchisement of African Americans. [vii]
A common argument against reparations cites the indigenous practice of slavery within the African continent. We acknowledge that the practice of slavery in Africa was ancient and well established by the Europeans began to export human beings from that continent. However, it differed greatly from the form of chattel slavery that existed with America with the arrival of Europeans.
In Africa, many societies recognized slaves merely as property, but others saw them as dependents who eventually might be integrated into the families of slave owners. Still other societies allowed slaves to attain positions of military or administrative power. Most often, both slave owners and slaves were black Africans, although they were frequently of different ethnic groups.[viii]
In the American system, slavery was a condition that was not only held for life, it was passed down through the generations via the status of the mother, codified by the laws of the individual states. It was a brutal birthright. This paper illustrates the profound and destructive force this peculiar form of slavery would have on the authors’ enslaved ancestors in Edgefield County, South Carolina. The authors will demonstrate the effects the American slavery system had upon the most fundamental aspect of the human experience – an attack on the fundamental building block of society – the family.
Lewis Matthews by Brian Sheffey
Image courtesy of Mr T. Dabney
My maternal 3x great grandfather, Lewis Matthews, was born in 1824 in the Blocker region of Edgefield County, South Carolina. He was the son of an unknown slave woman and her owner, Drury Cook Matthews (1760-1830). Born to a slave, he inherited his mother’s slave status from the moment he first drew breath. Despite being sired by his owner, he maintained the status of a slave until freed through the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
Apart from an oral tradition among the Matthews (including Mathis family members) still residing in Edgefield, little is known about Lewis’s life. What kind of man was he? What was his nature? What were the quirks and foibles that made him individual? These questions are part and parcel for any genealogist. When it comes to researching ancestors who were born into a lifetime of bondage and servitude, forbidden from learning how to read and write, each discovery made is akin to finding a sacred precious object. Each discovery for an enslaved ancestor is a hard fought for success. Something as basic as discovering even a first name for an enslaved ancestor is cause for celebration. This dynamic makes African American genealogy something unique. A people stripped of history, customs, traditions, family and ancestry have precious few clues to find their ancestors. This was by design. American slavery was designed and developed with this in mind to better control a people who chaffed at the slavery system. It also laid the foundations for the American expression of white supremacy.
Lewis Matthews was illiterate, born in a time when it was illegal for slaves to learn how to read and write. He was incapable of leaving any words to his descendants. Nor were his children capable of leaving a written account. All of his known 22 children were illiterate. What I have gleaned of his life has largely come from vital records and slave records. He was human property. He was first owned by his father, and then by his half-sister, Susannah Pope Matthews. Like a chair, a horse, a parcel of land, or a table; he had a dollar value. US$ 450 in 1831 ($US 12,500.00 in 2016 currency) and US$ 500 in 1847 (US$ 14,705.88 in 2016 currency). Where there is property, there are accounts.
There are no words that can describe first seeing a Dollar value placed against an ancestor’s name on a Deed of Sale. No matter how prepared I was to see such a thing, it nevertheless broke my heart. It was a visceral and raw experience. One I will never forget.
I cannot visit, much less share, Lewis’s history without touching upon the history of the place where he was enslaved. The history of Edgefield, South Carolina.
An overview of Edgefield’s history, including ITS founding families
Prior to its formation in 1785, Edgefield County was a part of Ninety-Six District.
Ninety-Six was divided into new counties, afterwards called districts, which included: Edgefield, Abbeville, Newberry, Laurens, Union, and Spartanburg. Augusta, now in Georgia, also formed part of this county.
Old Ninety-Six, as it’s now called, was an active and critical trading post since the 1690s. The trade was mainly in furs. Prior to the arrival of European settlers and African-descended slaves, these lands were part of the dominion of the Cherokee Nation and the Creek. It was, and remains, an isolated, rural, and wild part of South Carolina.
Families such as Abney, Brooks, Cloud, Park, Sim(p)kins, and Stuart/Stewart, all slave owning families, were among the earliest settlers. DNA tests taken by the authors reveal a genetic connection to these families. A latter wave of 18th Century arrivals from Virginia to Edgefield would include additional slave owning families such as Adams, Brunson, Dorn, Harlan/Harling, Ma(t)thews/Mathis, Ouzts, Peterson, Settles, Timmerman, Thurman, Utterback, Yeldell and White – all of whom are the authors’ ancestors. The link between their African American descendants and their white descendants has been confirmed through DNA.
A shattered family tree through 300 years of Matthews family enslavement
Traditional genealogy enabled me to glimpse key moments in Lewis Matthews’ history.
Researching post-Emancipation marriage and death certificates identified thirteen children born to Lewis and the woman he would come to marry once freed, Martha Bottom, also of Blocker, Edgefield, South Carolina. It is worth remembering that prior to Emancipation, the births, deaths and marriages of slaves were rarely recorded. This is one of the most fundamental voids in African American genealogical research.
An additional death record produced another child, a daughter, born to Lewis and a woman only identified as Janie.
Social Security Application records and death records produced a further eight children born to Lewis during the period of his enslavement. The mother, or mothers, of these children were cited as ‘not known’ by the respective informants. DNA testing through AncestryDNA, along with DNA matching through Gedmatch, strongly suggests he fathered at least a further nine children prior to the end of the Civil War. All of his known and suspected children resided throughout the area formerly known as Ninety-Six.
Numerous conversations with African American Matthews-descended family members in the Old Ninety-Six area boiled down to one hypothesis when it came to the sheer number of children Lewis sired. He was used by his owner-father and owner-half-sister as a breeding stud. In short, he sired a steady stream of slave children for the benefit of their slave owners either to increase that owner’s workforce or as the human equivalent of a cash crop. A young, healthy, handsome young man with a light complexion, and seemingly potent when it came to impregnating women, Lewis had the perfect attributes to produce a steady stream of children with a fair complexion and robust health – attributes which would have made these children valuable property with a significant dollar value.
While Lewis had what we, in this day and age, would class as a paternal relationship with the children he had with Martha Bottom, he had no involvement with the children he fathered with other enslaved women. Those other children were either formally or informally adopted by the men those other women married when they were freed at the close of the Civil War. To date, until they heard from me, the descendants of those unions had no idea of their Matthews origins. The reason for this is telling. This second group of children took the names of their step fathers, bar two who took the name Mathes, a seemingly deliberate corruption of the original Matthews/Mathis name.
A broken family tree
The arrows in the image above mark entries for my 3x great grandfather, Lewis Matthews. The peculiarities of how male slaves were classed as an adult or ‘boy’ varied widely. Although both entries are for my 3x great grandfather. The asterisks mark confirmed members of Lewis’s enslaved African American family. Sampson, Primus and Matthew were Lewis’s brothers. The stars in the image above note how Primus and Sampson were deeded to other white Matthews family members, who were also their relations. DNA testing will confirm how many others from the same image will prove to be members of Lewis’s immediate and extended family. Click for larger image
As you read Drury Cook Matthews’s Last Will and Testament below, remember that this is my 4x great grandfather discussing the disposal of his property, which included his son, my 3x great grandfather, Lewis Matthews. I include the disposal of his other enslaved sons, Lewis’s brothers, who were my great uncles. Many of the ‘negroes’ cited in this Will were members of Lewis’s immediate family. All of the whites who inherited these black human beings were also their blood relations. American slavery was indeed a singularly peculiar institution.
Please click each image below for the larger image version.
My prevailing question is a fairly simple one. If Drury Matthews didn’t overtly recognize his own bi-racial flesh and blood as a human being, as a man, what impact did that have on Lewis’s sense of self and his sense of worth as a human being? What did this teach him about the duties of a father for his children? For certainly some of the other slaves referenced in this Will were Lewis’s siblings and equally children of Drury Cook Matthews. And how would this dynamic play out and echo down the generations on the African American side of the Matthews/Mathis family?
That Lewis was a loving and dutiful father to the children he raised with Martha Bottom is not in doubt. There are a handful of family stories to testify to this. What of his other thirteen known children? Did their step-fathers make up for Lewis’s absence? And how did Lewis reconcile himself with their existence? My hypothesis is that he learned a fundamental lesson from his father, Drury. Perhaps he compartmentalized his life in a manner many men can relate to. There were his children by Martha who he had a duty of care to provide for. Just like his father-owner did with his white children. And then there were those he merely sired for other’s benefit – much like Drury’s actions towards his mulatto children borne by enslaved women: they were not his concern and, as such, were of no concern.
Magnify the ramifications of this dynamic by working back through time. The story, the legacy, and the history between my mulatto Matthews ancestors and their white owners-family members stretches back in time to my 9th great grandfather, Anthony Matthews (1611-1682), a slave owning immigrant from Kent, England who settled in Isle of Wight, Virginia. Anthony was the founding father, the scion, of a large slave owning family who passed slaves and enslaved family members down its various lines into the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.
240 years of one family splitting its slave family apart generation after generation after generation; to the extent that their African American family had no notion of who they were as a people, they had no knowledge of their history, no knowledge of their kin or their kin’s whereabouts. It was the annihilation of their family. My family. It was a form of brutal ethnic cleansing at its most fundamental level.
Only now, through advances in DNA testing, can we, their descendants, begin the task of finding the broken branches from a slavery shattered family tree. Finding these lost branches is the easy part. Determining their rightful and correct place in the family tree is a painstaking process with no guarantee of success. It is a painstaking process. Each familial line has varying degrees of knowledge about their immediate ancestral line. Some can trace their ancestry back only 4 generations while others have traced their line of descent through 5 or more generations. Progress has largely been steered by the tireless efforts of a dozen or so dedicated family genealogists who have made it their life’s work to reunite a family dispersed through, and torn apart by, slavery. Their efforts require a combination of traditional genealogy alongside genetic genealogy and DNA triangulation. The task is herculean.
That is the legacy of slavery. This is the reason why the argument around reparations is a valid one.
In terms of non-Native American peoples who arrived in America, no other people in the history of the continental United States has ever experienced anything remotely like this. Not in scale. Not in duration.
Implications and reparations
Nienstedt makes the argument that “The State itself, then, as a natural extension of the family, mirrors this critical institution”. If the State was the cause of the destruction of enslaved African American families during the slavery epoch, does it not have a duty, a duty of care, to redress the wrongs done to enslaved families through restitution?
If, in Nienstedt’s argument, the progress and welfare of society, or its breakdown, can be traced to the strengths and unity, or the lack of it, in the family – should we not argue that the State has a moral imperative to recompense African Americans for the lack of progress; the lack of physical, mental and spiritual welfare; and the lack of unity wrought upon the descendants of slaves?
Reparations has the capacity to not only acknowledge the impact that slavery has had on the African American descendants of slavery, it can inform how best the State can serve those that slavery harmed. It addresses the legacies of slavery in the aftermath of slavery cemented in the Jim Crow Era, and the forms of socio-economic subjugation used against African Americans which followed the Jim Crow Era up to, and including, the present day. This latter point forms the central part of Ms William’s argument.
The civil unrest that smolders in modern America doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Its roots lay in slavery. Its roots lay in Andrew Johnson’s refusal to provide reparations when the America of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was ready to provide it.
Any conversation on the subject of reparations requires a national conversation. However, by the very nature of the subject, it must be directed and led by those most affected by slavery – African Americans. For me, reparations would take a multitude of forms:
Financial: A national, minority-owned and managed, banking system with branches in urban areas as well as rural areas with large minority populations. Such a banking network would supply micro loans to support entrepreneurship and innovation, land ownership, and subsidized home ownership (e.g. housing co-ownership); and
Education: A national history curriculum would include truthful and accurate teaching about slavery as well as its impact – tracing the effects of the slavery to the presents day. Recent news commentary shows a complete ignorance about America and its history of slavery, as well as its’ aftermath that resonates to the present day[ix]; and
Land theft compensation: Where land was stolen from African Americans by coercion, threats of violence or actual violence (as was the case in Edgefield[x][xi] in the 1920s, of which my own Matthews family was a victim) – there should be financial restitution in line with established precedents with Native American tribes;
Remembrance: A day with an official moment of silence in remembrance of the victims of slavery, and its legacy.
Martha Brooks by Donya Williams
The topic of this paper is to give our point of view on why African Americans should receive reparations from slavery. As an African American myself, of course my first initial thought is yes I should receive reparations for what my ancestors endured. I should because it is the only right thing to do. That is the short answer for one who is not fully educated on the topic of slavery.
For example, history didn’t teach me that those who were enslaved had the option to 1) keep the surnames of those that enslaved them after Emancipation; or 2) simply choose another surname if they wanted to. In fact, the only thing that history taught me was that whites enslaved blacks and that it was bad. It wasn’t until I started to research my family that I understood the magnitude of this question which, in turn, allowed me to give a more informed answer.
Martha Brooks was born into slavery in or about 1834 in South Carolina. The 1880 census says her parents were born in Virginia, however, who they were and where they originated from remains unknown. Before I started my research, my uncle researched the family in the 1950s. All that I know of his research is by word of mouth. His research found that we were from Haiti and that we were direct descendants of Alexandre Dumas. I have yet to prove his theories. This prompted me to look at other options for researching and DNA testing was at the top of my list. When I decided to do DNA testing I did so because I was stalled at where I was with regular researching and I felt DNA testing would give me more. I already knew other researchers who had tested and were getting results. Because my mother was the baby of 14 children, and her parents were born in the late 1890s, she was just one generation removed from slavery. This made her a prime person to test even though I wouldn’t be able to get much DNA pertaining to her father.
That is where Autosomal DNA testing stepped in. Autosomal DNA is a term used in genetic genealogy to describe DNA which is inherited from the autosomal chromosomes. An autosome is any of the numbered chromosomes, as opposed to the sex chromosomes. Humans have 22 pairs of autosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes (the X chromosome and the Y chromosome). Autosomes are numbered roughly in relation to their sizes. That is, Chromosome 1 has approximately 2,800 genes, while chromosome 22 has approximately 750 genes.[xii] This meant that taking this test for my mom would get info from her mother and father. DNA taken from my mother has shown that in short she is 86.6% Sub-Saharan African, 11.9% European, .6% East Asian & Native American, .3% Middle Eastern & North African, .1% South Asian and .5% Unassigned. The picture below gives a bigger breakdown:
I uploaded my mother’s raw data to Gedmatch, a company that allows you to compare your DNA with other people who have tested with other companies such as AncestryDNA.com and FTDNA.com, and found there were even larger breakdowns. Those breakdowns connected her to the Mediterranean, North-AmerIndian and several other demographics (see picture below):
This DNA analysis result from Gedmatch is just one of many different DNA analysis tools that can be used to learn one’s DNA breakdown. These analytical tools enable a person to understand how he or she is connected to several different demographics. Testing my mother felt like I had just tested Eve herself. My mother’s DNA was extremely revealing. She was genetically connected to every well-known name in the Edgefield area.
Martha was enslaved by one of the first families of Edgefield, South Carolina. The Brooks family. Like those that take DNA test to prove paternity, or find birth parents, DNA for genealogical research does the same thing. My mother’s results proved she was related to the Brooks family. This family was not just active in the settling of Edgefield; they were also active in the settling of America. Zachariah, Whitfield, and Preston Brooks (respectively Grandfather, Son, and Grandson) were involved in at least two American wars prior to the Civil War.
The American Revolutionary War and the Mexican War both seemed to have family members of the Brooks involved. Zachariah was enlisted in Newberry District, S.C. shortly after the evacuation of Cambridge by Gen. Greene, and served six months as a private in Capt. John Wallace’s Company of S.C. Troops. He fought in several skirmishes against the British. He served in 1781 and 1782 in Capt. Joseph Towles, company, Col. Samuel Hammond’s S.C. regiment, was in a skirmish on the Edisto River, and was stationed about six weeks on the frontier guarding the incursions of the Indians. He was also enlisted as one of a corps called the Life Guard of Pickens, serving a six month’s term of service. He was afterwards appointed Col. of State Calvary, and was always known as Col. Brooks[xiii]. Whitfield and Preston were both lawyers, and involved in both state as well as national politics. Preston fought in the Mexican War with his brother Whitfield, Jr.
Both men were a part of the Palmetto Regiment of the South Carolina Volunteers where Preston served as Captain. Whitfield Brooks, Sr. carried the title of Colonel however, I don’t see what service branch he fought with or what war he fought in. My research shows that he may have been mistaken as his son. However, Both Whitfield and Preston were planters and strong supporters of slavery. Preston Brooks was probably the most outspoken of the three – he is certainly the most well-known – when it came to slavery. It is he who committed the horrendous crime against the abolitionist Charles Sumner; what historians know as ‘the caning’. Simply put, Senator Brooks walked up to Mr. Sumner, who was sitting at his desk on the senate floor, and said “You’ve libeled my state and slandered my white-haired old relative, Senator Butler, and I’ve come to punish you for it.[xiv] This to Mr. Preston was a legitimate reason to beat a man so badly that it took three years for Senator Sumner to return to some semblance of physical normalcy.
Preston believed, supported, and encouraged the succession of South Carolina. On 1 November 1856, the Meeting of the Secessionists of South Carolina at Ninety-Six held an event to honor Mr. Brooks for what he did to Mr. Sumner. The south supported his choice to brutally beat Mr. Sumner. This event was not the only event held in his honor. Directly after the beating, Mr. Brooks resigned his position from the Senate. In response to this, his fellow countrymen voted him back into his seat and sent him over 300 canes to show their support. This particular event presented the Honorable Preston S. Brooks with goblets of silver and gold, and replicas of the same cane he used to beat Mr. Charles Sumner. As a part of his acceptance speech he wrote the following:
I tell you, fellow citizens, from the bottom of my heart, that the only mode, which I think available for meeting it is just to tear the Constitution of the United States, trample it under foot, and form a southern confederacy, every state of which will be a slaveholding State. I believe it, as I stand in the face of my maker—I believe it on my responsibility you as your honored representative that the only available means of making that hope effective is to cut asunder the bonds that tie us together, and take our separate positions in the family of nations. These are my opinions. They have always been my opinions. I have been a disunionist from the time I could think.[xv]
Martha was sold for $1,205 dollars in 1857 when Preston died. This information was found in the Edgefield Archives as well as in the book Slave Records of Edgefield County by Gloria Lucas.[xvi] I found a chart explaining the worth of a slave during 1857, the same year Martha was sold to Lemuel Brooks. This chart compared the cost of a slave in 1857 to what a slave would cost if slavery still existed in 1998:[xvii]
Value in Dollars, 1857
Value in Dollars, 1998
Number 1 men
Best Boys (Age 15-18)
Best Boys (Age 10-14)
Number 1 Women
“Sell in their usual proportions”
Being sold for that amount, and finding the chart above, gave proof that Martha was in fact considered a prime breeding woman. Martha went through every atrocity that was heard of when it came to slavery for black women.
miscegenation – The interbreeding of individuals considered to be of different racial backgrounds;
fancy trade – Female slaves called “fancy maids” were sold at auction into concubinage or prostitution, which was termed the “fancy trade”; and
slave breeding – Slave breeding in the United States was a practice of slave ownership that aimed to encourage the reproduction of slaves in order to increase a slaveholder’s property and wealth.[xviii]
With my mother’s DNA showing that she was related to the Brooks family, I began to get a better understanding of things. I am politically knowledgeable and acutely aware of the things that are still happening to African Americans today. In some moments I can, and have, recited speeches similar to friends and family similar to the one you read above by Mr. Brooks himself. By reading and understanding his stance when it came to slavery, as well as finding the chart above, it was clear to me who I was. My mindset, my attitude and even how I can sometimes be hot-headed. It was like a light bulb was turned on and who I really am became clear to me. I was the product of my family; all of my family white and black and its surroundings. I am an American to the fullest extent of that word.
Defending the Case of Reparations
Genealogy has become very popular and the case of reparation is becoming more and more prevalent. Due to the use of DNA being added to genealogical research, it is becoming known that 151 years later, the descendants of slaves are still looking for their families.
I am a direct descendant of Martha Brooks. This topic raises the question of do I deserve reparations for everything that my 2nd great-grandmother, and her parents before her, went through? Answering honestly, I will say that reparations doesn’t entirely address the history of slavery and its aftermath in the United States.
I believe that I should have reparations on top of the acknowledgment of slavery. I believe that just like those who survived the Holocaust received monetary payments, and the recognition of an act that didn’t even happen on American soil, I should receive the same thing. European Jewry endured the horrific and the unimaginable during a 12-year period. Enslaved Africans, and their enslaved descendants, endured the horrific and the unimaginable for approximately 20 generations; nearly 400 years. In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to compensate more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. The legislation offered a formal apology and paid out $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim. The law won congressional approval only after a decade-long campaign by the Japanese-American community.[xix]
David Horowitz makes the claim that those asked to pay reparations have no liability because they didn’t do the enslaving, that their ancestors did. When truth be told, there were several different genocidal crimes committed against African Americans that could be attributed to the suppression of African Americans after slavery:
The bombing and burning of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma 1921;
The burning and lynching of Rosewood, FL 1923;
Moore’s Ford Bridge Massacre 1947;
Church burnings that took place from 1954-2015;
Illegal and unconstitutional arrests of Blacks during the Civil Rights movement;
Jim Crow laws enacted at the state and local levels and ignored at the federal level;
The implications of the CIA linked crack epidemic in Black communities; and
Disenfranchised Hurricane Katrina victims living below the poverty line.
I cite these examples to address an argument often used against the American government making reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans: the people who committed the crimes against the enslaved, and those who immediately survived the crime of slavery, are no longer alive, therefore, money being paid out is unnecessary. Boiled down, it is a statute of limitations argument. At its heart lays the profound denial that the cumulative psychological trauma of slavery had an end date. That the trauma that affected those who were enslaved wasn’t passed down the generations. An inheritance of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. [xx]
A disorder further heightened during the Jim Crow Era and the trauma endured during the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. It is also said that federally funded programs such as affirmative action, the welfare program, and similar initiatives were ways that reparations have been paid.
To state that the federally funded programs are the way reparations have been paid is a slap in the face. Why? Because not all African Americans have accessed, or utilized, the welfare program. It is a proven fact that more Caucasian Americans have utilized this program than African Americans. According to Statistics Brain, 38.8% of welfare recipients are white, while 39.8% of recipients are black. The remaining 21.4% is a combination of Hispanics, Asians and other nationalities. But when you look at the percentage of those receiving food stamps, White Americans receive a whopping 40.2% while African Americans are 25.7% the remaining makes up the other nationalities.
The bottom line is, however, the fact that a promise was made 151 years ago to give over 400,000 acres of land stretching from South Carolina to Florida to the freed slaves. This was a promise retracted by the then President of the United States, Andrew Johnson. Honoring this promise should make America at least want to keep its word. National honor should be reason enough.
[i] Thomas Aquinas, In Libros Ethicorum Aristotelis Expositio, Lib. I, lect. 1. “Man is by nature a social animal, since he stands in need of many vital things which he cannot come by through his own unaided effort (Avicenna). Hence he is naturally part of a group by which assistance is given him that he may live well. He needs this assistance with a view to life as well as to the good life.”
[v] Edward E. Baptist. “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” Basic Books, New York. 2014.
[vi] Octavia Victoria Rogers. “The house of bondage, or, Charlotte Brooks and other slaves, original and life like, as they appeared in their old plantation and city slave life: together with pen-pictures of the peculiar institution, with sights and insights into their new relations as freedmen, freemen, and citizens,” Hunt & Eaton, New York. 1890. Last accessed 17 June 2016 via http://digital.cincinnatilibrary.org/cdm/ref/collection/p16998coll17/id/9976.
I’ve spent the past week and a bit looking more closely at the YDNA I inherited from my father’s male line. It’s like returning to the original genealogical records you use in your research.You come back to them with more knowledge, a more seasoned eye and a better understanding of what you are looking at…and can usually pick up something new.
So, as I learn more about genetic inheritance and develop more finessed genetic genealogy working practices, I keep returning to my Genebase YDNA and mtDNA results. What I have learn along the way has enabled me to make better sense of my test results. It has also enabled me to make better informed, educated, theories (yes, that is a rather nice way of saying I’m guessing…even if it is an educated guess). And, of course, I’m deeply appreciative of the patience instruction and advice I’ve been given by my genetic genealogy mates.
I’ve made no secret of my love for the Genebase testing service. It was the right DNA tool choice for what I wanted to accomplish. It has been worth every bit of the 4-figure sum I have spent sequencing and analysing 90% of my YDNA and mtDNA sequence.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This isn’t a DNA testing service for everyone. There are no quick and easy pie charts that provide ethnic breakdown percentages. You have to work these out for yourself. Sometimes, with this service, you have to work hard in order to interpret the results this service provides. It’s part of what I really like about the service. When you’re forced to work with data of any kind, you have to understand what the data is, how it’s compiled, what it relates to…and ultimately what it means.
The image below gives you an idea of some of the information provided.
Image 1. Click for larger image
I’ll break the information contained in the image above:
This is a small fraction of the data returned by Genebase for my YDNA. The image shows results for a sliver of my YDA: Y-STR markers DYS19a, DYS389i, DYS389ii, DYS390, DYS391, DYS393. By themselves, Y-chromosomal DNA (Y-DNA) short tandem repeat (STR) markers from a Y-DNA test do not have any particular meaning. The value of testing YDNA STR markers comes from creating a YDNA signature (haplotype) with them and comparing that YDNA signature to others in a database. They are useful for genetic genealogy because your YDNA signature distinguishes your paternal lineage from others.
Like any other similar DNA testing service, Genebase compares markers to specific global populations. It groups these results by generational difference (the number of generations you’re likely to be distant from a genetic match). That’s a very over-simplified explanation. Hopefully, you get the picture.
In the image above, you can see the populations associated with the YDNA STR markers I’ve cited. The report lists matches from a Generational Distance (GD) of 1 to 5.
For transparency, I’m providing a longer abridged list of matches. Trust me, there is a long, long list for these particular markers spread of 6 degrees of genetic distance. That’s a whole lot of cousin action going on:
Image 2. A partial list of African genetic tribal matches with a Genetic Distance of 1, 2 and 3. Click for a larger image.
So back to Image 1 and what it represents:
I’ll get the most obvious one out of the way first – the Rappanui of Easter Island. No, I am not a direct descendant of these people. They are my genetic cousins. Some unknown male ancestor carried my father’s paternal YDNA from Africa (most probably eastern Africa) to Eastern Island. No one knows where the Easter Islander’s ancestors arrived from within the Pacific Region. That is still hotly debated. However, scientists estimate that humans arrived in Eastern Island around 400CE (Pioneers of Eastern Island http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/pioneers-of-easter-island.html). Basically, these YDNA markers that I carry left Africa en route to Easter Island an inconceivably long time ago.
“The middle of nowhere” pretty much sums up Easter Island’s location in the Pacific, marked by the “A” on this map. This beats my paternal grandmother’s mtDNA, which travelled from East Africa to the Aborigines of the Central Australian Desert.
What is pretty cool is the additional information that puts this result into context – something too few DNA testing services do. Genebase lets me know that there were 30 Rappanui tested. I match 2 of those 30 people at a GD of 1. These are my closet matches among the Rappanui. Scoot down to a GD of 2 and the number of Rappanui that share a genetic match with me for these Y-DNA markers jumps to 11 people from the 30 people tested.
Added to this information are research papers, scientific papers that cover the sample pool of DNA testers per region/county, etc. Sometimes, there is additional profile information about the the DNA tester – like which part of a country they resided in at the time they took the test.
For instance, here’s a study that came as part of my Rappanui results:
Ghiani ME1, Moral P, Mitchell RJ, Hernández M, García-Moro C, Vona G. 2006. Y-chromosome-Specific STR haplotype data on the Rapanui population (Easter Island). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17506287
I’d provide a link to one of the African tribes in my match list. There isn’t one.Not in the match results for these markers at any rate.
So…back to Africa.
You can see the African tribes that share the same YDNA markers with me. Like the Rappanui, the greater the GD, the more people I match. When you begin to understand the large scale movements of people across the globe over eons of time, you begin to build a picture of how your YDNA or mtDNA has also travelled around the globe.
Looking at my GD1 results for this set of markers, the information about my African results are the same as my Rappnui results. I have more dataset matches with every increase in Generation Distance. At a GD of 1, I only have a handful of matches. A GD of 2 trebled the number of matching tribes and ethnicities.
Not all of these matches will be direct ancestors. Most, like the Rappanui, will be genetic cousins. Others will be direct ancestors. Given the number of times the Akele, the Puni and the Omani appear in a number of my YDNA markers, my team and I are very confident that I’m directly descended from all 3.
The next step was to build a map to indicate how my YDNA spread through Africa. Again, I’ve only been looking at the African part of my YDNA in this exercise. It’s the part of my identity I know the least about. So it make sense. I have an excellent understanding on the European parts of my YDA. My Near Asian, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Southern Asian and Chinese results simply defy understanding. They are anybody’s guess at this point. From a personal as well as time and productivity standpoint, it makes sense to focus on the African parts of my YDNA at this point.
A working hypothesis on how my YDNA travelled through Africa
Let’s start with the blue region on the right hand side of the map. This is the origins of, well, me, in terms of my YDA. It all begins in the Horn of Africa. Like every other human being. At some point in the dim past, my YDNA left Africa and arrived in Yemen and Oman. Now you’d think that it would be found in the Arab populations in both places. Nope. Not a bit of it. In modern day Yemen, it’s only found in the Yemini Jewish population (so far). It’s found within the Arab population of Oman.
At a further point in time, that YDNA returned to Africa. The team is presuming it returned to the eastern part of Africa before heading north to Egypt and then across northern Africa (the pink region on the map). This journey is represented by the arrow marked “1”.
We think my YDNA travelled southeast – shown by arrow 2 – around the time as the same YDNA began making its journey northwards (arrow 1). This southern journey seems to have stopped in Zambia. At the moment, I have no DNA matches with any of the data sets associated with countries to the south of Zambia on Genebase. Again, this is at the moment of writing this post.
My markers are indicating that something pretty interesting happened after the journeys shown by arrows 1 and 2.My YDNA flowed from northern Africa southwards into the African interior, terminating in Gabon and Zambia (the green and yellow arrows marked by ‘3’). The tribes I match indicate the route this journey took. These tribal cousins can be found in modern day Guinea-Bissau, Burkina-Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The 4th arrow shows a small journey from Gabon to Angola, home to more genetic cousins (at a GD of 3).
This seems to be as far south as my YDA has travelled within Africa. As science tests and studies the DNA from more African tribes, perhaps a fuller picture will emerge.
For now? I’m getting a pretty good grounding of the overall picture of my African DNA…and the tribes and cultures it connects me to on that continent.
This is the value of this genetic testing service for me, personally. I know how much of my DNA sequences have been tested. I have crucial additional and contextual information about the data sets this service uses and population pool information. I know how many of these testers I match – and the degree of genetic difference between our matches – for all of the markers in the 90% of my genome that I’ve had tested. In some instances, I have general information about their geo-locations. For what I aim to do, this is all invaluable information. And worth every penny.
The more commercial DNA testing services I’ve used don’t provide this level of information. I have no idea how much of my genome any of the big 3 testers have sequenced. Nor do I know the size of the dataset pools they have used to provide information about indigenous people tested (this is what gives you your ethnicity percentages). Nor do I have any idea how many people I match within those different indigenous data set pools to contextualize the percentages they give.
To be 100% fair, the big 3 commercial DNA testing companies are very upfront about what they do and do not provide when it comes to this level of information. I also don’t mind because I didn’t test with these services to receive this level of information. I used them to do deep work on my family tree via DNA matches on these services. I also use these testing services to meet and work with newly discovered cousins. So they have more than fulfilled their purpose. They too have been worth every penny…just for a very different reason.
It’s worth remembering that DNA testing services are tools. No one tool can do everything. Some are more suitable for certain jobs than others. I’m just grateful that each of them – each in its own way – has given me more than my money’s worth.
When it comes to African American genealogy, finding an African ancestor seems like a pipe-dream. It’s like winning the lottery jackpot. It’s the holy grail. The idea of it seems so impossible, it brings to mind an image of Don Quixote fighting windmills – well, it does to my literary mind at any rate.
Thanks to three Rich Square, Northampton County, North Carolina Josey family cousins…I have my ancestral lottery mega millions win. I have my first direct ancestor who was born in Africa.
I have found African progenitors for other ancestral lines like Goins/Gowen, Christian, Cumbo, Barbour and Munzingo. I was pretty excited to find them too. However, these were families that my various ancestral lines married into. Finding my own African ancestor…well, I’m still somewhere circling Cloud 9.
So who is this ancestor? One of my maternal 4x great grandmothers, Venus. Venus “The Elder” would go on to take the last name Josey, the name of family who owned her. It’s also the surname of James Henry Josey, the man who fathered the four children of her daughter, Venus Josey “The Younger”. To distinguish between the two Venuses, I’ll refer to the elder Venus as “Venus” and the younger Venus as Venus Josey.
I’ve spent a few hours chatting with 3 newly discovered cousins from the wider Josey family. While they didn’t have many stories about Venus, what they did tell me shed some interesting light on her life.
Born around 1806, Venus arrived in South Carolina around the age of 13. That is a very useful, seemingly insignificant factoid. It will (hopefully!) help me identify the slave ship she arrived on. I can start researching slave ships that left the west coast of Africa for the southern states between 1817 and 1822. This 5 year spread takes into account her age – she might not have been 13 when she made that Trans-Atlantic slave ship voyage. And 1806 is only an estimated year of birth, given in 1870. Her first child was born in Rich Square, Northampton, NC in 1825. 1824, the year her daughter Venus Josey was conceived, would be the uppermost limit for the slave voyage search range.
mtDNA tests suggest Venus either came from Gabon or Cameroon.
Now that all seems rather straightforward in terms of research parameters. However, looks can be deceiving. The US Congress passed the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves on 2 March 1807. Thomas Jefferson promptly signed it and it came into effect on 1 January 1808. This was about a decade before Venus’s transportation from Africa to South Carolina. And this is where things will get murky. This means she was illegally transported across the Atlantic and sold. Like any illegal activity, the chances of any documentation is slim. Very slim.
Then there’s the question of what port this ship arrived in. Wilmington was an established slave port before the importation of slaves was outlawed. South Carolina, particularly Charleston, seems a more likely port prospect. Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana are just as likely in terms of ports of arrival. However, my instinct tells me that she arrived somewhere in South Carolina, where many of the North Carolina slave owning Joseys had purchased slaves previously.
That’s the historical aspect of this discovery.There is a human element too. I try to think of that 13 year old child crammed into the dark, dank hull of a slave ship for approximately a month with all the foul smells and filth that journey entailed. I can’t. I try to touch upon the fear she felt. I can’t do that either. It’s unimaginable. There are no family stories of any family members accompanying her on that journey. Presumably, she made that journey alone, leaving everything and everyone she knew behind. That she survived is a testament to her fortitude. There’s a glimpse into that fortitude in one last story about her.
Another family tale is that Venus was a princess or, at the very least, a younger daughter of an African chieftain. While it would be a sensational find, I’m remaining sceptical. Like the many tales in my family of Native American ancestry – which DNA testing has over-ruled – I’m not going to get too excited by this claim 😉
There is one history sliver that my white and black Josey cousins have relayed to me. James Henry Josey freed Venus “The Younger” and her mother when Venus “The Younger” gave birth to the first of their four children. He freed their children too. James’s mother was, by all accounts, very fond of her mulatto grandchildren. She paid for their education and ensured that the money her husband had bequeathed to their grandchildren and Venus “The Younger” was safeguarded and duly handed over. In short, she ensured her grandchildren’s future prospects.
There is one story that I absolutely love. Venus came to understand English. However, she refused to speak it. Nothing could compel her to do it. That snippet of her history speaks volumes to me.