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I'm Part African! Who Knew?

A few years ago, Patrick and I took Ancestry DNA tests as a Christmas gift for Patrick's mom who is really into genealogy. My results were not a surprise at all. They said that I was from the British Isles and western Europe. That matched with all the family stories which said that I'm Irish on my dad's side and English and Scottish on my mom's side.

When I was a kid, my cousin (who is my parents' age) did a whole bunch of genealogy on my dad's side. He traced the Cavanaugh family back and found that, surprise! we are from Ireland. The three Cavanaugh brothers came from Ireland to the southern US in the 19th century. Our branch ended up in southwestern Louisiana. My cousin and his wife went and visited our relatives in Ireland. And, my blue eyes and fair skin also go along with my Irish heritage. (As does my dad's melanoma. Yes, I get my skin checked every year.)

More recently, one of my cousins on my mom's side has done a bunch of genealogy. She traced the Hamilton line back and found some interesting things. I expected that she'd find that the Hamiltons were always poor whites back into the British Isles. Well, we are from the British Isles, Scotland to be exact. And, no she didn't find a link to Alexander Hamilton. They came over the US pretty early - 1700's, I think.

But, there is one strain of the family (and I don't remember the last name) that was quite well off before the Civil War. How do I know they were well off? Because they "owned" thirty enslaved persons. It was actually pretty emotionally distressing for me to learn that. I had always assumed that my family was free of the taint of slavery because of poverty. But, actually, no. There are no stories passed on about that bit of the family. All I know is from the census, which shows a couple of generations "owning" slaves. Several generations had just a couple of enslaved persons, but one generation appeared to be rather wealthy with 30 enslaved persons. I assume that the Civil War was part of what made them lose their financial stability. Interesting? Yes. Distressing? Yes.

I got some more information today from Ancestry. They redid my DNA with more sophisticated technology and found that I have 1% contribution from Benin and Togo, an area along the west coast of Africa that was the source of many African enslaved people. Since it's such a small part of my DNA, it means that my African ancestor is pretty far back. From what I know of my ancestry and genetics, I suspect that it was an enslaved person from the 17th or 18th century. Yes, that's just a suspicion. The Cavanaughs and Evans (my dad's family) came to the US in the 19th century which is a little late to get this small amount of DNA into my genes. The Hamiltons were here earlier. Also, slavery provided lots of opportunities for DNA mixing.

Have you seen "Finding Your Roots" on PBS? It's a wonderful TV show that does ancestry and DNA of famous people. One of the really interesting things is that almost all of the African Americans have some European DNA, suggesting that there was a lot of mixing of African and European genetics during slavery. I have to wonder if that's what happened in my genetic past. I don't think I'll ever know for sure. When I go back to my mom's, I'll look through the genealogy book again, but I don't recall seeing anything in the census records about a racially mixed child.

This is a great reminder that race is mostly a social fiction. My two ancestors, one with European ancestry and one with African heritage, teamed up to make a racially mixed child. I'm sure there was lots of social and emotional distress about this, given the time and place. But, genetically, it was no big deal. Yes, there are some things that tend to be linked by racial genes, like sickle trait and other illness risks, but those are just links on pieces of DNA. The fact is that the DNA combines just fine. Biologically, we're just one big, happy family.

Nonetheless, I wish I knew more about this. Sociologically, this is a great mystery? Was this a story of two people who loved each other? Was one person "owned" by the other? Or was the person of African descent actually a free person? These molecules have opened a box a little crack and I want to know more!!

Do you have any interesting stories in your family? Do share!

Catherine

 

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