Successfully Researching Slaveholding Ancestors

Authors note: This blog was published in Granville Connections, The Journal of the Granville County Genealogical Society in 2017.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” — W.E. Hickson

African Americans face many challenges in advancing our family histories. One key challenge is successfully tracing back to slaveholding ancestors.

Most African Americans have European ancestry. Additionally a third of all black men have European paternal haplotypes which are DNA markers a father passes down to his son through the Y chromosome which can be analyzed to identify ancestral origins. Much of my European DNA comes from enslaved ancestors who were the results of successive generations of offspring between white men and enslaved women prior to the Civil War.

I have researched multiple ancestors in my family tree who fit in this category. What I’ve uncovered through research are source documents such as marriage and death certificates that leave a blank in the spot where the form asks for a father’s name. It’s probably because my ancestors didn’t know for sure who their father even was. And if they did it was probably dangerous to list the connection.

Here are the questions about this type of research that I’m asked most often.

Why would you want to trace back to slaveholding male ancestors who raped your female enslaved ancestors?

This is true. My enslaved ancestors were raped. This history makes me sad and angry. With this said, genealogy offers us an opportunity to uncover our complete family history, the good, bad and ugly. I approach it objectively and document as much as I can and as completely as I can for future generations. It will be up to them whether they want to know it or not. I see it as my job to preserve their choice.

How have you done it?

Luckily there is a record written in our DNA which can be accessed through DNA testing for us to fully leverage. I’ve had some success leveraging DNA testing coupled with robust records research based on what’s available to trace back to slave holding ancestors. This all works even better when you have the cooperation from the descendants of your white ancestors.

Here are examples of the ups and downs I’ve experienced tracking back to slaveholding ancestors:

My great-great grandfather Gus Kerns was born enslaved around 1861 and lived his life in Long Creek Township, Mecklenburg County, NC. According to family history his father was a white plantation owner named Kerns. Gus changed his last name to Kerns (from Graham) as a young man likely based on this belief. His marriage certificate to his wife Gussy and his 1939 death certificate leave the spot for his father’s name blank. The patriarch for the Long Creek Township plantation owning Kerns family was a man named William “Billy” Kerns (1769–1840) who emigrated from Cork Ireland to Mecklenburg County as a young man. Unfortunately my family has generated few DNA matches to his descendants. Additionally my Y DNA results came back with a surname match list full of Murrays and Morrows descendants from Scotland. My results predict that my closest y dna match and I share a common ancestor within 10–20 generations. I hope one day a closer match will emerge so my search can continue with more direction.

My great great grandfather Gus Kerns

My great-great grandfather Edward Biggs was born around 1870 to a mixed race woman who’d been formerly enslaved in Bertie County, North Carolina. According to family history his father was a prosperous Bertie County plantation owner named Kader Biggs. In fact, Edward Biggs’ 1951 death record lists his father as “Cator [Kader] Biggs”. However his 1890 marriage certificate to my great-great grandmother Florence Cumbo lists his father as “unknown” which for me calls into question the accuracy of his death record. My Biggs cousin, a direct paternal descendant of Edward Biggs agreed to Y DNA test. No Biggs showed up in my cousin’s resulting match list. Based on this, I no longer believe that Kader Biggs was Edward Biggs father. My cousin’s results included many matches with the last name West. His results in fact predict a 65% chance that he shares a common West ancestor with his top DNA West matches within 4 generations. So this is the direction I’m now following in my research.

My great-great grandfather Edward Biggs

My great — great grandmother Caroline Henderson Harvell was born enslaved around 1862 to a mixed race woman in Mecklenburg, North Carolina. Her 1941 death record lists her father as John Stinson. Unfortunately my family has generated no DNA matches to Stinson descendants. Additionally I don’t know if my great-great grandmother had blood siblings or who their descendants are, so it limits the opportunity to identify a direct male Henderson descendant to approach about y dna testing. What I have discovered is that this branch of my family generate lots of matches who descend from Linas Sanford (1774–1865) a plantation owner in Haywood County, NC. My hypothesis is that perhaps Sanford became Stinson over time and telling. I continue to research for validation.

My great-great grandmother Caroline Henderson Harvell

My 3x great grandfather James (Henry) Johnson was born enslaved in the 1830s on the Smyre Plantation in Lincoln NC. According to family history his father was “Master Smyre” and his mother was an enslaved woman named Martha. I believe his father was a son of John Smyre (1752–1846) and Matilda Bost (1764–1831) of Lincoln, North Carolina. My family has generated 25+ autosomal Ancestry DNA matches across the descendants of the Smyre children. Additionally, my cousin who is a direct paternal descendant of James Henry Johnson Y DNA tested to validate a match to the Smyres (Haplogroup J). His results came back recently — he is indeed Haplogroup J. His top two matches have the last name Smyers and Smoyer. I’m so excited that I was finally able to see this one all the way through!

Top matches from my Johnson cousin’s Y DNA test results.

What have been your experiences tracing back to slave holding ancestors?

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