(The Root) — Our readers are endlessly fascinated with the possibility of Native American roots. This one wonders if her lineage is legendary.
“I have been told that I had great-great-grandparents who were black slaves; that I was a direct descendant of Pocahontas on my mother’s side; and that my father’s family was Dutch, Irish and also Native American. In recent years I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with my great-grandmother’s relatives, who have traced our heritage to the Powhatan tribe. The annual family reunion includes trips to the Powhatan reservation in Virginia. I wish to know the truth behind the stories of my relationship to Pocahontas. How do I proceed?” –Melanie Crabb-Murphy
Undoubtedly you know that Pocahontas (a nickname meaning “playful one”; her given name was “Amonute”) was a daughter of the chief of the Powhatan people and an important mediator between her people and English settlers of Jamestown, Va. According to Sarah Stebbins, writing for the National Park Service, Pocahontas was captured by the English in 1613. While in captivity, she converted to Christianity, changed her name to “Rebecca” and married English tobacco grower John Rolfe (she might have been previously married to a Powhatan man named Kocoum). The Rolfes went to England in 1616, and the following year Pocahontas died aboard a ship returning to America.
Pocahontas did have one child with Rolfe, a son named Thomas (President Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, was a direct descendant). Since your family has traced your genealogy, it might be possible to determine if you are a direct descendant by using published sources. As with all published genealogies, the best ones to use are those that cite the sources they used for their research. A description of several biographies can be found in the article “Notable Kin: Some Descendants and Kinsmen of Descendants of Pocahontas: An Excursion Into Southern Genealogy,” on the American Ancestors site of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
However, since you have found family members who have traced your ancestry to the Powhatan Nation, there may be published information about those family members connecting you to the Powhatan or their descendants that will state their relationship to Pocahontas.
The Library of Virginia has posted a guide to resources on Native Americans (pdf) in Virginia, which includes a bibliography of some of the books in its collection. If you do not live in Virginia, you may be able to locate some of the books in surrounding libraries by searching on WorldCat. The library has also created the guide “Using Native American History Sources” (pdf), which covers state records, census records and more. The guide also includes suggested material that can be looked at for information on Native Americans in Virginia, as well as some historical information on their nations.
Finally, you should have your autosomal DNA tested to determine if you have any Native American ancestry in your genetic admixture. These four organizations offer the test: 23andMe, AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA and the Genographic Project.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.