Tapping Our Family Trees
When I was a child, I remember my mother bragging that we had “Indian blood.”
She based her assertion on nothing more substantial than an old family photo of a woman who had high cheekbones. Her maternal family tree had been professionally researched; it went back to 1742 when Nathaniel Wetherell arrived in New York from the other York—in England. He was, supposedly, a ship captain (but I’ve since learned that everyone thinks their York ancestors were ship captains).
Native Americans are conspicuous by their absence in the written account of her maternal line.
As near as I can tell, my paternal line has never been researched by a genealogist. That side of the family is in Texas, but I knew my grandfather moved there from Alabama in a buckboard, and my grandmother’s family moved to Texas from Tennessee, by wagon train.
Colorful stories, no doubt, but remarkably thin on details. In recent years, my wife and I began researching our family histories. We both learned things we never imagined.
I traced my father’s line all the way back to Jamestown. My ninth great-uncle was one of the first settlers there. Unfortunately, he was among those who died in the terrible first winter of 1609-10. I am descended from his younger brother, who arrived in Virginia a couple of years later. I found that another part of my father’s line arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. In fact, my eighth great-grandfather, Peregrine White, was born on the Mayflower, in what is now Provincetown harbor.
My mother, who was incredibly proud of being an American, and loved reading about American History, would have been very jealous of her husband’s family history.
When the paper trails began to run out, we went to DNA for more information about the roots of our family trees. That’s when the surprises appeared.
Karen and I are both white. I mean profoundly caucasian. We could only be whiter if we were albinos. But that’s not what our DNA revealed.
My DNA showed 1% of me came from Benin and Togo—with perhaps a little from Ghana and Niger.
Karen’s was more impressive. She had 3% from Nigeria, 1% from Senegal, 1% from Mali, and 1% from Cameroon, Congo, and Western Bantu.
While neither of our parents ever imagined that they carried African genes, when we thought about it, having even a little “African blood” began to make sense. Parts of both of our families had spent centuries in the American south. The history of that region was marked by—and is still tarred by—the “peculiar institution” of slavery.
People, being what they are, have always had their way with whoever was available. While master-slave liaisons were usually non-consensual, they were not necessarily so. We tend to picture masters forcing their illicit intentions on unwilling female slaves, but there was also—sometimes—actual love between the races. There are written accounts of white masters freeing their black lovers and their half-black children (albeit, usually in their wills). Not often enough, perhaps, but the fact that any accounts of such emancipations exist says something about the nature of their relations.
On the other hand, there must have been times when the masters’ white wives cast longing glances in the direction of the slaves’ quarters. As there is no written record of the affairs, I suspect that the latter case was likely in my family.
Either way, the DNA doesn’t lie.
Digging back into the written records, I found the 1830 Census for Anson County, in North Carolina. Julius Allen, my third great-grandfather, lived in a household of eleven people. Five of them were slaves. He owned three male slaves who were between the ages of ten and twenty-three that year. I can never know if it was one of those young men who tapped my family tree, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I may be an old man—now—but I can still remember what it was like being a young man—once—and being driven by a young man’s urges.
While my mother boasted about her imaginary Native American ancestor, I am proud to know that I have at least one real African ancestor. At the same time, I deeply regret that it was because a white ancestor owned my African ancestor. As Shakespeare almost wrote, “The sins of the father—or mother—are to be laid upon the children.”
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Excellent piece, Gary.