High Cheekbones and Straight Black Hair?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Why most black people aren’t “part Indian,” despite family lore.

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Bottom line? Those high cheekbones and that straight black hair derive from our high proportion of white ancestors and not, for most of us, at least, from our mythical Cherokee great-great- grandmother. Sorry, folks, but DNA don’t lie.

Despite these averages, however, some African Americans do have significant amounts of Native American ancestry, though almost no black American person today has as much Native American ancestry as they do European ancestry, by quite a long shot. (This does not include black people of Hispanic origin, in that Hispanic Americans tend to have far more Native American ancestry than African Americans do.) 

Again, here are the statistics: Whereas virtually all African Americans have a considerable amount of European ancestry in their genomes, only 19 percent have at least 1 percent Native American ancestry, and only 5 percent of African American people carry more than 2 percent Native American ancestry. How do these percentages translate into ancestry? Well, if you have 5 percent Native American ancestry in your admixture result, that means you had one Native American ancestor four to five generations back (120 to 150 years ago). If you have 2 percent Native American ancestry, you had one such ancestor on your family tree five to nine generations back (150 to 270 years ago). One percent of Native American ancestry means that this ancestor entered your bloodline six to 10 generations back (180 to 300 years ago).

So, Why Do We Have Little Native American Ancestry?

Well, let’s start with the obvious: In order to mate in significant numbers to be statistically significant, a sufficient number of Native Americans and African Americans had to have been living near each other. I decided to ask several historians specializing in Native American and African-American contact when those times and places might have been. Surprisingly, they told me there were only a few periods in American history—and only a few circumstances—when this could have been possible, since the average slave and the average Native American never even crossed paths. As Claudio Saunt of the University of Georgia told me, “This has to be, given geography. Most Indians did not live on the margins of the slave states.” This is a simple but telling fact of American history, one that makes it quite impossible for significant numbers of Native Americans to have interacted with significant numbers of African-American slaves.

According to Saunt, “One [period in which they could have interacted] was certainly before 1715. In that early period, by one estimate, fully one-third of all slaves in South Carolina were Indian, but of course the absolute numbers were small. Indian slavery declined rapidly after that period, so contact would have occurred only when fugitive slaves ended up in Indian country—which they did in small numbers—or when Indians went to the [British or Spanish] colonies to trade,” but, as he concludes, “of course, the absolute numbers were small.” Ira Berlin of the University of Maryland concurs with Saunt, informing me that “the chances of mixing were greatest in the 17th and early-18th century, especially before the American Revolution.”  

Eric Foner of Columbia University agrees that opportunities for mixing most likely would have occurred very early in American history: “Presumably, blacks and Native Americans would be in proximity to one another during the Colonial era—before Indians were pushed further inland. Some slaves escaped to find refuge with Indian tribes, especially the Seminoles.” Foner points to 17th-century New England, Virginia and Upstate New York as where mixing might have happened, because “many slaves were said to escape to Indian nations [located at these places] during the 17th and 18th centuries.”

David Eltis of Emory University suggests “early 18th century South Carolina as a strong possibility with Indian slaves sold into the Caribbean (and New England earlier) as well as African slaves coming into Charleston (and New England) first from the Caribbean and, beginning in 1701, directly from the Gambia. There must have been Indians and Africans working on those early rice plantations together.”

Eltis also points out that Katherine Hayes’ recent book Slavery Before Race “has fascinating evidence of Indian and African slaves working together in 1660s and 1670s Long Island.” These historians all pinpoint these few locales, home to a small number of Indians and Africans, within a very early American historical timeframe as places where black people and Native Americans lived close enough to form family bonds. Each also points out a much later period when mixing no doubt occurred—during and after the Trail of Tears—which I shall discuss below.

This timeframe, however, presents a problem for explaining Native American ancestry in blacks. I promised to return to the date of 1714, and Saunt’s answer affords me the opportunity to do so. By 1715, few Africans had arrived in North America through the slave trade. In fact, according to Eltis’ Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, only about 29,800 Africans had disembarked from slave ships by 1714 (half before 1700 and half after)—a very small part of the 388,000 or so Africans who would eventually arrive here and from whom most of us are descended. The first of three large waves of Africans would surface in this country only after 1714. By 1750, for instance, some 145,970 had arrived. But most of these, as we can see, arrived after 1714. Therefore, for most of us, the odds of being descended from an African who arrived in North America before 1700 and mated with a Native American, although possible, are very small.