How Do I Research My Gullah Heritage?

Tracing Your Roots: A reader hopes to document ties to a unique African-American subculture.

Screenshot from
Screenshot from

(The Root) —

“I have an insatiable appetite for history and so does my father. He was born on Cherokee Plantation in Yemassee, S.C. (the Lowcountry), and that area still has a very rich Gullah heritage. 

“I have been able to go back to the 1880 census, but a lot of records in South Carolina were destroyed during the burning of Columbia. I would love your help on how to continue my journey. I have traced my father’s side back to a slave born in 1840, who I believe to be my great-great-great-grandfather. There was also a record of his wife.” Nikki (Francis) Fleming

Most of us don’t realize that about 40 percent of all of our ancestors who survived the Middle Passage arrived in this country through Charleston, S.C. Many of the Gullah people, who hail from the Lowcountry region in South Carolina and Georgia, descend from Africans taken to America from the “Rice Coast” in West Africa (Sierra Leone and the Windward Coast) to work on rice plantations.

But not all do. In fact, according to the historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood, who looked at the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database to ascertain the origins of the enslaved Africans who came into South Carolina, the largest portion of slaves (31 percent) came from West Central Africa and nearly 22 percent came from the Rice Coast, with lesser numbers coming from the Gold Coast and the Niger Delta region. What this means, they conclude, is that “this is hardly grounds for making the Gullah people’s origins an exclusive provenance of the Rice Coast,” a mistaken assumption that many of us commonly make.

So to ascertain where in Africa your maternal line derives (as closely as genetic evidence allows), you should get a DNA test of your ancestry to see if you have roots in any of these regions. provides its clients with the most definite estimates of their African ethnic ancestry, through their mother’s mother’s line or their father’s father’s line. (As a woman, you would have to have your father, a brother or a male cousin descended from your father’s father take the y-DNA test, since females don’t have this chromosome.)

In other words, tracing your ancestors to South Carolina or even to a Gullah community doesn’t necessarily mean that your ancestors originated in Sierra Leone or the Windward Coast. So take the test! More information about the types of testing available can be found in my article “How Mixed Are African Americans?” on The Root.

Thanks to the work of several scholars, such as Peter Wood, we do know quite a lot about slavery in the Lowcountry. Because of the nature of rice growing, the slaves on these Lowcountry plantations lived apart from the owners and had less contact with them than other Southern slaves. After the Civil War these former slaves became wageworkers, until the rice business crashed at the end of the 19th century. This economic change made the Gullah more isolated than ever. For that reason, these former slaves from South Carolina and Georgia still maintain an active community based on African culture and practices.

You can trace Gullah ancestry by following the same basic genealogical methods mentioned in previous articles. A great resource for researching your Lowcountry ancestors is Lowcountry Africana, which offers advice and links to useful sources regarding South Carolina slaveholders.