Help Me Find My Hidden Black Ancestor!

Tracing Your Roots: DNA testing shows African ancestry, but the paper trail does not. What’s next?

Generic image
Generic image Thinkstock  

Dear Professor Gates:

I am white, but DNA testing at both 23andMe and Family Tree DNA has turned up a small amount of African ancestry. So far, my attempts to find a black ancestor have failed.

Family Tree DNA is showing that I’m 1 percent sub-Saharan African, and 23andMe is showing between 1.2 percent and 1.4 percent sub-Saharan African DNA (depending on the filter selected). My mother, who also took a 23andMe test, is showing 3 percent sub-Saharan African. I believe the percentages suggest I should be looking for a fourth-great-grandparent; this puts me around the time of the Civil War. However, I have looked at all available documents, and every ancestor is listed as white.

I even broadened my search to include all ancestors who were alive at any point during the 1800s. I then went two generations back where I could, just in case somebody living in the 1800s was able to “pass.” My goal was to find somebody who would be clearly black, and couldn’t possibly be listed as anything less than mulatto. I’m still coming up with nothing but white.

I’ve read all of the articles on your website, checked the 1870 census for everybody, gone back to the 1860 and 1850 census records, etc., and nobody disappears from the paper trail, as one might expect with an enslaved ancestor. I can’t find anything that would even suggest looking at slave schedules for evidence of slave ownership or enslavement.

I’m almost positive that the sub-Saharan African DNA is from my maternal grandfather’s side of the family. My mother found a third cousin who shares a segment on chromosome 2, which is where the sub-Saharan African DNA is located. Their common ancestor is my third-great-grandfather (on my maternal grandfather’s mother’s side). There is also a story about my maternal grandfather’s sister being stopped in a store once to be asked by a black gentleman if she was black. Apparently, she had “black features.” Yet I have no idea what to do now to find this elusive ancestor. Is there anything more I can do? —James

Additional DNA Testing Options

We applaud you for your tenacity. As it turns out, your situation is far from unique. As Professor Gates has reported before, about 4 percent of American whites have hidden black ancestry.

We consulted genetic genealogist CeCe Moore about your search. She noted that based on your results of 1.2 percent sub-Saharan African admixture alone, your black ancestry “could have originated much further back than fourth- or even sixth-great-grandparent, since autosomal DNA is not inherited in a predictable manner at that level.” However, she added, the fact that your mother has about 3 percent sub-Saharan African ancestry indicates that you have a fairly close black ancestor who should be one of your mother’s third-great-grandparents.

Moore continues: “With that in mind and the apparent thoroughness of his research, I would conclude that the most likely explanation is that one or more of his ancestors on paper is not his genetic ancestor. As careful as a genealogist may be with their research, documents do sometimes lie—but DNA doesn’t. There may have been an unrecorded adoption or some other situation where the parent(s) of one of his ancestors is not who they appear to be on paper.”