Category Archives: Genetic Genealogy

Why African American and POC Genealogists and DNA Small Segments Matter!!!!

I have been busy writing my book, The DNA Trail from Madagascar to the Americas.  However, I had to take a break from writing to respond to two of Roberta Estes’ blogposts which were written in the last 2 weeks that angered many as well as Ancestry’s decision to eliminate <8 cM DNA cousin matches.

Please read my blogpost Listening to Our Ancestors This Time: M23 is NOT a Native American Mitochrondrial Haplogroup written 6 years ago as it shows Roberta Estes’ modus operandi is still the same then as it is now. I was dismissed by her even though I have been co-admin of FTDNA’s Malagasy Roots Project with CeCe Moore , descend from Malagasy ancestors, and help people discover their Malagasy Roots. What could I possibly know? It’s Estes’s refusal to address things in private and disregard the contributions of African-Americans and POC genealogists, within the larger genetic genealogy field, that make some of us go public in order to correct her genealogy ignorance, however “benign” Estes considers it to be. Not giving credit where credit is due is also a MAJOR problem for us. I don’t even know Roberta Estes personally so is not “Roberta bashing” to offer VALID, CONSTRUCTIVE criticism which she would get in any peer reviewed scenario.  We say ENOUGH is ENOUGH because African American and POC Genealogists Matter!!!!

While African American genealogists can appreciate Roberta Estes speaking out in favor of AncestryDNA keeping small segments, we DON’T appreciate the manner in which she went about it. Making outrageous statements like the one below is indicative of her lack of experience with African American genealogy and history. Given her blog audience, it is critically important for African American and POC genealogists to correct gross MISINFORMATION like this.

 

She is still very dismissive of African American genealogists whom I appreciate for calling her out for her inaccuracies immediately. As of this morning, she has still failed to issue a retraction or delete the inaccuracies she is perpetuating.

 

 

 

By the way, did I mention that Nicka Smith is Roberta Estes’s DNA cousin???? Did I mention that Family Tree Magazine voted BlackProGen LIVE one of their 10 Best YouTube Genealogy and History Channels? Did I mention that Megan Smolyenak  awarded Nicka Smith and BlackProGEn LIVE a 2020 Seton Shield’s Genealogy Grant? I encourage everyone to check out my BlackProGen LIVE page to see all of our panel’s genealogy credentials and blogs. While you are also on my website, Please check out my AfricanAmerican/African Descent Genealogy Blogs as well as my LatinX, Caribbean, and Cape Verdean Blogs. Mind you, African American genealogy has made quantum leaps and bounds since Roots. We have been here for more than a quick minute. No amount of clicking your heels three times, wishing us goodbye, and twirling around will make us disappear. We have always been part of the larger genealogy community even if that community has failed to recognize us. We SEE you! The question is, “Can you see US now?” We truly hope so!

As many people know from reading my blog, I have been a panelist on BlackProGen LIVE the past few years. BlackProGen LIVE , Midwest African American Genealogy Insitute (MAAGI)  and the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS) have classes that are taught by qualified African American genealogists (and others) who consistently break down pre-1870 brickwalls — some of those walls go back to the 17th-18th century. It also goes without saying that WE ARE experts in searching for our own ancestors and the communities they lived in across space and time. In fact, I have gone further and believe it is our moral obligation, as descendants, to be the voice of our ancestors in our lifetimes. #FactsMatter

On Using Small DNA Segments

As an African American AND Puerto Rican genealogist with Native American family and ancestral ties to many nations up and down the East Coast due to my deep colonial roots, I believe in the inherent value of small segments in certain situations and always in conjunction with traditional genealogy methods. Because my family has tested 30+ family members, if any or some of them match an individual between 8-20+ cMs, then chances are that my 6 cM or 7 cM match may not be just “noise.” It may be indeed “real.” I am not alone in believing that eliminating <8 cMs will be devastating for us. Fonte Felipe, a Cape Verdean Dutch genealogist/genetic genealogist, published a blogpost this week that describes in depth why Afro-Descendants are rightly concerned with losing their matches. He calculates that 50-75% of our matches will disappear. Fonte’s research also shows how people in the African and Native Diaspora use AncestryDNA matches in creative ways. His breakdown analyses of various African regions at the micro-level per country is one GREAT example. Shannon Christmas, a well-known and respected African American genealogist/genetic genealogist, has also published a blogpost titled What Genetic Genealogy Needs Now —Priorities, Problems, Solutions” That gives a great overview of the issues facing African American Genetic Genealogy with all DNA testing companies.

For many of us, DNA testing has allowed us to finally discover some of our ancestral truths by revealing these 5th-8th DNA cousin matches. For someone like me, just knowing that an ancestor was Lenni-Lenape, Ewe, Nipmuc, Fante, Pamunkey, Malagasy, etc. is something I want to know because I consider it to be my birthright!  That being said, as long as I have my African – and Native American DNA cousin matches, I have peace of mind knowing that I found something that was supposed to be lost forever due to all aspects of slavery. The existence of  my ancestors’ lives, in the archival records and elsewhere, is a testament to the fact that my Black, Brown, and Red ancestors were consummate survivors of a global capitalist system of slavery that devalued them for centuries. Their “soul value,” as Daina Ramey Berry has written, however, has always been incalcuable to me.

Below are some blogposts that African- and Native American descended genealogists/genetic genealogists have written that highlight how genetic genealogy has been a godsend for people with African, Native, and Asian ancestry.

 

Dutch Woman in Search of West African Forefather 1

Dutch Woman in Search of West African Forefather 2

Dutch Woman in Search of West African Forefather 3

Discovering Igbo Roots Through Genealogy and DNA

A Puerto Rican Look at: Y-111 (Correa)

Using DNA Painter to Verify Igbo Origins

Decolonzing My Family Tree: Revisiting Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo

Got Roots in Madagascar?

Confirming African Matches: Abuelo’s Peul (Fula) Relatives

Finding Your Wakanda Africa With DNA Testing

Ghana, Kassena: Finding Safiah’s Diaspora Relatives

Slavery Freedom and the Babilonias of Puerto Rico: Re-visioning a Family History: Part 1

Slavery Freedom and the Babilonias of Puerto Rico: Re-visioning a Family History: Part 2

 

On Using Full Sequence mtDNA and Autosomal DNA to Discover Enslaved Malagasy Global Migration Dispersals

Slavery, colonialism, and genocide were never designed for Black and Native family reunification. On the contrary, it was meant to obliterate the ties that bind FOREVER. While many people know that 12 Million people of African descent were forcibly imported into what became the United States during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, many are unaware of the fact that between 2-4 Million Native Americans, primarily  men, were forcibly exported from their Turtle Island homeland and they were the first people to be enslaved by British colonizer settlers. Ships that sailed from ports laden with colonial merchandise from the American colonies transported shackled enslaved Indigenous Americans around the world. On these same ships returning from the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, West and East Africa, were enslaved Africans who occupied the same hellish spots that many Indigenous Americans previously occupied only months before. As a descendant of Native American, North/South/West/East African, and Malagasy people, any one of these enslaved people who were forcibly removed from their homelands could have very well been my own ancestors.

Any discussions of African- and Native American genetic genealogy must be viewed within the lens of slavery and capitalism. Commodities like gold, silver, coffee, sugar, tobacco, spices, timber, cotton, wine, and enslaved people were traded between the 15th and 19th centuries by the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, British, and American colonial powers. The wealth of nations was literally made off the extraction of forced enslaved labor. The disposibility of enslaved Black, Brown, and Red bodies has always been calculated for maximum profit with losses always taken into account. It was the overall exchange of merchandise that allowed colonial empires to prosper and which has led to repeated calls for reparations today (and yesterday) by the descendants of those who were formerly enslaved.

Looking at global macro-histories allows us to see the conditions which led to our ancestors forced migrations. Likewise, a mtDNA analysis of Full Sequences matches, along with autosomal DNA matches, gives a “micro-history” of how slavery dispersed enslaved people around the globe. Using my extended M23 DNA family as a case study, my 1st book,The DNA Trail From Madagascar to the Americas, will discuss how genetic genealogy can be used to flesh out the silences of our ancestral pasts. I will be updating and expanding on my four blogposts below. In addition, I will be discussing the micro-histories of many of our ancestors in the locations where they ended up with the sole intention of inserting them into the historical record and adding to the growing literature witinh the subfield of history that is focused on the historiography of enslaved people.

 

As of today, Andrea and I have been able link a majority of our M23 Malagasy matches to the NY/NJ Hudson River Valley Region going back to the mid-1600s and a subset of that group to VA, AL, LA, and MS. Three of our M23 cohort members are connected to the French Hugeunot Devoe Family of Uslter County, NY, Middlesex County, NJ, and Pennsylvania. They are also descendants of Rose Fortune, a Black Loyalist, who ended up in Nova Scotia at the end of the Revolutionary War along with 5 Thompson women —possibly our own ancestors— from Newark, NJ.  Another member traces his ancestry to St. Helena Island in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, an island that received thousands of enslaved Malagasy. As part of the Islamic Slave Trade, 1 cohort member’s family ended up in Antigua, before moving to  St. Croix via India and another member’s Malagasy ancestors ended up in Yeman.  Three members, and possibly a 4th depending on mtDNA test results,  are the descendants of NY/NJ ancestors who were kidnapped and sold South to enslavers in AL, LA, MS via the illegal Van Wickle Slave Ring to work on sugar and cotton plantations. Like many Malagasy women who ended up as concubines, another of our M23 cohort member is linked to the Ragland and Merriweather Families of Colonial Virginia whose descendants migrated to KY, TN, and TX.  Moreover, four other cohort members are linked to the African American Timbrook/Ten Broeck Family who were enslaved by the Buckelew Family of Middlesex County, NJ. Lastly, our own family is tied to the Dutch Blauvelt, Haring, Schmidt, Demarest, Mabie, DeWitt and Ackerman families of Bergen County, NJ who left New Amsterdam and settled the Tappan Patent in 1678. Though a mtDNA test will never help us identify our common M23 ancestor, we are still able to learn “micro-histories” about the lives of our Malagasy-descended DNA cousins by finding more about their family origins.

Her Name Is Sophie/Sophia Legars Henry (1805-1868) : A Malagasy Migration Micro-History in Small DNA Segments

When categorizing our small DNA segment matches on Ancestry, several of my family  members shared DNA  with K.W. When Andrea reached out to K.W. inquiring about her Malagasy ancestor Sophie/ Sophia Lizard Henry.  Andrea was told that, “Sophie was born in Madagascar and was sold into slavery. She was sentenced to death in Mauritius but it was overturned and she was sent to Australia with her son.” There was nothing else known about her parents or siblings. We had so many questions as to what Sophie did to get a death sentance. How did she end up in Australia? Was Sophie related to us? Possibly. We hope this  DNA cousin will take a mtDNA test since Sophie is her maternal ancestor and may also have a M23 haplogroup.

 

 

Sophie was sent to New South Wales,  Australia on the Ship Ann, as a convict in 1825. She was described as being – 5’2″ tall with copper skin and black eyes, black lips, a broad nose, and stout. Her migration micro-history definitely caught our attention.

National Archivrs of Mauritius., Court of Assizes Procceedings, April 1823

 

After a bit of deep digging to see what I could find on Sophie, I came across a University of Tasmania dissertation by Eilin Friis Hordvik titled “Mauritius Caught in the Web of Empire: the legal system, crime, punishment a nd labour 1825  that described all the events that led to Sophie’s banishment to New South Wales, Australia.  Sophie had been a personal child slave to Madame Francoise Legars (not Lizard) before her marriage to Amedee Bonsergent, a Medical Officer in Mauritius, in 1818. At 18 years old, Sophie was in a relationship with Jean Gombault, a Free Black Creole and was pregnant with their son Jean, Jr. Below describes the events as they were reported at the time.

 

Hordvik, p.85
Hordvik, p.86

For his receiving of stolen money, which was returned, JeanGombault received 8 years in iron chains.

The Bonsergents wanted to  be compensated 300 piastres for Sophia and her son’s transportation to Australia as well as damages to their other property. At the time, the French IndoChinese piastre,  was the currency used in the Indian Ocean and Far East commercial trade. When the British took over Mauritius in 1810, they continued to use piastres. According to Hordvik, “The average price for a female slave at the time was 250 piastres. Negotiations between Bonsergent and the local government in the end settled on the sum of 80 piastres (including the child), which was the price fixed for a male slave in similar circumstaces. substantially less than the open market price. The Mauritian authorities were not prepared to pay extra for Sophie’s son.”  For the record, Sophie was the first Mauritian to be banished to Australia and her son Jean, Jr. was the only child to follow a parent to Australia when it was just a penal colony.

Sophie was probably assigned to work as a domestic for a free settler or assigned to work at the Perramatta Female Factory as a majority of female convicts had to do. Though Sophie and her son would technically be freed upon arrival in Australia, one has to question what degree of freedom (i.e., “unfreedom”) she actually obtained if she worked under the same harsh conditions as before her arrival. That she was female also opens up the question as to what, if any, sexual abuse she may have been subjected to during her banishment.

Three years after she arrived, Sophie, now  known by the English version of her name Sophia, married John Henry, another convict of color who arrived in New South Wales onboard the Earl St. Vincent in 1818. Of the 160 men who boarded in Cork, Ireland on August 7, 1818, he was one of 157 survivors who landed on December 16, 1818. He was born in Suriname which was then part of British Guiana and was mostly likely from a mixed-race background.  We don’t know when or how she met John Henry, but he was sent to Parramatta where worked on a Farm Factory until his term expired. These two convicts were married in St. James Church  with a marriage bann with the consent of the Governor on March 21, 1828.

 

John Henry later adopted Jean Gombault,Jr. after he married Sophie and together they also had a daughter named Sophia Emma Henry. In September of 1833, both John Henry and Sofia Emma were baptized together in St. James Church in Sidney.

Sofia Emma Henry (1833-1905), K.W.’s ancestor, married John Hemson (1814-1887), a convict from Suffolk, England who arrived on  Ship The England in 1835. They had the following children: John, T., Sophia, Louisa, Emily, Agnes, Walter, Alice, Eva, and Lenard. John was able to purchase land after completing his sentence and later became a police constable.

At this time, we know little regarding Jean Gombault Henry, but this may change in the future.

Louisa Hemson Atkins (1855-1943), daughter of Sophia Emma and John Hemson, and granddaughter of Sophie/Sophia Legars Henry

Conclusion: Will the loss of Our <8 cM DNA matches result in a Genetic Paper Genocide?

As a family historian and genealogist, I constantly remind others that they need to dig deep. By that, I mean that we MUST explore all avenues of research to locate our ancestral stories which are buried and submerged leading to the mistaken belief that everything about our ancestors’ lives have been erased when, in fact, their histories have been just waiting to be found.  Genealogical research on African and Native American ancestors is not easy because of the historic trauma they were subjected to as enslaved human beings and the dearth of documentation. However, our duty as descedants also requires us to muster up  the strength to soldier on and not get discouraged. Our ancestral stories EXIST!

With Ancestry doing away with <8 cM DNA matches, African and Native American descendants will lose, not only DNA cousins who may, in fact, be related to us via slavery, but we also could lose thousands of  “micro-histories” in the process. Sophie’s life story is just one exmple of what could be lost to people who share DNA matches o they no longer have access to because they have been subjected to a genetic paper genocide. I define  “genetic paper genocide” as a deliberate and systematic erasure of DNA matches that results in the obliteration of ancestors’ and family history. I understand that Ancestry’s decision was made to increase the accuracy of DNA cousin matches. However, it is clear from their decision that they did not consult with the very people who would be disproporiately impacted. It makes you wonder if Ancestry realizes that they are in fact telling us that OUR ANCESTORS DON’T MATTER!  Given their public statement in support of Black Lives Matter, it would be a major blow if they allow it to become just a corporate slogan and performative action with no real value other than the optics behind it

.To prevent genetic paper genocide, I recommend the following:

  1. That Ancestry reach out to well-known African American and Native American genealogists who have a large number of followers, like the genealogists on BlackProGen LIVE, AAHGS, Shannon Christmas, Fonte Felipe, Ellen Fernandez-Sacco, Terry Ligon, Bernice Bennett,  Angela-Walton-Raji, Melvin Collier,  Andre Kearns, Colleen Robledo Greene, Luis Ariel Rivera, among others to get advice on how to move forward.
  2. That Ancestry either rescind their decision to remove any <8 cM matches immediately or extend the time period for people to group their low matches for at least 6 months due to the pandemic.
  3. That Ancestry seriously consider that they are preventing family reunification not only due to slavery, but also due to adoption, genocide, famine, etc.
  4. That ancestry fix their Timber algorithm so that it does not treat all “pile-up” cMs as IBS and thus already limit the amount of small DNA segments that could in fact be IBD.
  5. That Ancestry find other ways to fix any broken systems they have presently.