How Do I Research My Fulani Roots?

Tracing Your Roots: Advice for picking up the paper trail when DNA tests pinpoint African heritage.

Horse riders at Shehu Kangiwa Square (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)
Horse riders at Shehu Kangiwa Square (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

(The Root) —

“I have both maternal and paternal DNA test done by African The two tribes indicated in the results point to my maternal roots being Fulani and my paternal roots Ibo, both from Nigeria. Can you suggest which records/archives I can continue my search?

“My mother had a middle name she did not like and never used, but I found it on some early records: Malthida. To my surprise,  when I did a Google search on Fulani, an image of a female was displayed showing the some physical features of these people and under the picture was her name: Malthida. I am trying to do a genealogy search, as well, to see if I am related to this Malthida.

“I dont have much information about my ancestors, but my maternal grandfather, Walter Champ Carter, was born in 1884, according to what is written in a family Bible, in Washington, D.C. (he died in 1941). My maternal grandmother, Lily Miller, was from Lynchburg, Va. My paternal grandparents may have been from Northern Virginia.” —Linda E. Newman

Your search is a common one for African Americans, many whose paper trail back to their ancestral origins hits a wall once they reach the slavery era, due to the way that records were kept (or not kept) on the enslaved. It sounds like you don’t have a lot of clues that reach back before 1884, which will hinder your search for documentation of your African roots (a search, I must stress, that is all but impossible for most African Americans, beyond having a DNA test). I encourage you to work first on pinning down any birth dates and places of residence you can for your other grandparents, your great-grandparents, and even their parents, first. My previous columns, “How Do I Trace My Former-Slave Ancestor?” and “How Do I Decode Slave Records?” could be helpful in that search.

Specifically, you’ll want to trace your African-American ancestry back to 1870, if at all possible, when all the former slaves appeared in the federal census for the first time with two names. Then try to find the white people who owned your ancestors in the 1860 Slave Schedule in the same county in which their black ancestors appeared in that 1870 census. Search for white people with the same last name, then see if they owned slaves 10 years younger than their ancestors appear on the 1870 census. Sometimes this technique yields a positive identification.

If — and this is a very big “if”! — you can find the area in which your slave ancestors arrived, you can search the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database for the names of ships that came to that area of the United States. This will not yield any names of your ancestors, but it can help to reaffirm the DNA results, since each voyage of each slave ship that arrived legally is documented in that database.

All that being said, the results you received for DNA testing are not surprising. In the case of the Ibo (also known as Igbo), we know through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database that about 16 percent of our ancestors who arrived in the U.S. were shipped from the Bight of Biafra, which is Igboland. So a significant number of African Americans, such as Bishop T.D. Jakes, who was a guest in our PBS series, African American Lives, descended from the Igbo, as he guessed when I asked him before revealing the results to him on camera.

Both the Ibo and Fulani ethnic groups both have vibrant histories and beliefs, the understanding of which might help shed more light on your heritage and how your ancestors came to these shores.