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)

Elders memorize the clan’s history, lineages and wisdom and passed it on as oral history. If you can learn at least the names of the ancestor(s) who first left the area, you may still be able to hear more about your own family history directly by visiting with an elder Fulani. For more about these (and other) Fulani traditions, you may be interested in reading the articles at Jamtan Fulani. A blog dedicated to African ancestral genealogy, Roots Revealed, could also prove motivating to you.

The Igbo

The Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria actually have an oral tradition that they have always been in “Igboland.” Archaeological evidence shows that similar pottery has been found in the area dating back as far as 4500 B.C., and the Igbo language seems to be directly linked to two of the earliest, Akkadian and Canaanite.

The Igbo are primarily agricultural and were not inclined to have overarching rulers (like chiefs) until British colonization in the mid-19th century. It is more likely to find the Igbo in village kinship groups in which children were often raised communally.

Similarly to the Fulbe, the Igbo have a patriarchal society, celebrate the naming of infants, and revere ancestors by reusing ancestral names. The leaders are the eldest from each lineage, and councils make the decisions. In naming children, some names come from the progenitor who was believed to have been reincarnated, and sometimes the names for first-born are derived from paternal grandparents.

They, too, practiced oral tradition, rather than having written records. Since colonization, the Igbo have predominantly become Christians (especially Roman Catholic) so it is possible that ancestors can be found in surviving church records from that era forward.

There have been quite a few books written about the Igbo history and culture which could deepen your understanding of your roots. Examples of these include: Elizabeth Isichei’s A History of the Igbo People (London: Macmillan, 1976); Edmund Ilogu’s Christianity and Ibo Culture (Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1974); and Catherine Acholonu’s They Lived Before Adam: Prehistoric Origins of the Igbo, the Never-Been-Ruled (Owerri, Nigeria: Flyann Limited, 2009).

One way to learn about Nigerian family members is to post a query to a genealogical forum like this one at Genealogy.com. These can be viewed around the world, so not only might you get a reply from someone else doing similar research, but you may also receive a response from someone living in Nigeria who knows living members of the line or who has access to onsite resources.

The Virginians

As for linking these heritages to your own family tree: If we assume your ancestors did come from Northern Virginia, as you have told us, Heywood and Thornton say it’s likely that your Fulbe female ancestor came to America in the 18th century, when Senegambians were being imported into the upper Potomac region (now Northern Virginia). The Igbos were concentrated in Norfolk and other regions deeper in Virginia. The historians suggests consulting the William and Mary Quarterly article by Lorena Walsh, “The Chesapeake Slave Trade,” for more information. Walsh has a lot to say about the African origins of the Virginia population and where different ethnicities were concentrated.

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 editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with researcher Kyle Hurst from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.

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