Painting by Karl Bodmer of a Blackfoot warrior, circa 1840-1843
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

My family oral history is adamant about my great-great-great-grandfather Joe Wheaton (also spelled Weeden, Whedon, Wheedon and Wheadon) being one-half Blackfeet Indian and never enslaved. Joe Wheaton (born circa 1833) and his brothers, Monday, John and Henry, arrived in Midway, Madison County, Texas, in 1848, per the 1867 voter-registration list for Madison County. It may still have been either Walker or Leon County back in 1848. The 1870 census does, in fact, contain my ancestor Joe (surname spelled Wheadon), age 38, on Page 3; his brother Henry (age 25) on Page 1; and one other brother, John (age 34), on Page 25.

There is no family oral history that parents or caretakers were with the brothers when they came from Arkansas. Joe was the oldest and would have been only 16 at the time, while Henry would have been 3. I find it hard to believe that they would have made the trip alone. Were they possibly escaped slaves and just told anyone who asked that they were free people of color? Or are these events close enough to the Trail of Tears (1830s) that, in fact, they were part of that migration and slipped away? I’ve spent quite a bit of time checking records in “Indian territories” and can find no Wheatons. I’ve also checked census data throughout Arkansas and find no Wheatons (except the ones from Hope, and the dates do not jibe with my ancestors). —Helen M. Ross

There are a number of ways you can try to determine whether there is any truth to your family lore. First you will need to address the issue that your ancestor Joe Wheaton originated in Arkansas even though the family lore identifies him as half Blackfeet.

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Is Blackfeet Heritage Possible?

The Blackfeet Nation, both historically and today, is located in the northern United States and Canada and did not settle in the American South. Similar to the Cherokee, however, the Blackfeet seem to be a popular group from which to claim descent in the South. There also seems to be a regional phenomenon of individuals claiming dual Cherokee-Blackfeet heritage, even though the nations’ homelands are about 2,000 miles apart.

Such claims are often unfounded, however. A 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro column on The Root noted that according to geneticists Joanna Mountain and Kasia Bryc at 23andMe, The average African American is 73 percent sub-Saharan, 24 percent European and only 0.7 percent Native American. In the column, Professor Gates remarked, “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.” Still, such family lore persists because the reality of how European ancestry often entered African bloodlines—the rape or coercion of a black enslaved female by a white male enslaver—frequently resulted in shame, denial and emotional pain that lasted generations. You may want to keep this possibility in mind while researching your family.

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This does not preclude the possibility that your Joe Wheaton had American Indian ancestry. If he was Blackfeet, he would likely have been born or migrated from a northern region of the country, but we know your Joe moved to Texas from Arkansas. It is possible that he actually was a member of another Native nation in Arkansas.

You posed the possibility that he migrated to Texas as part of the Trail of Tears. The five tribes that were forcibly removed from their homelands in that exodus were the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole. They all traveled through Arkansas to get to the newly designated “Indian Territory,” or modern-day Oklahoma.

It is possible that Joe Wheaton and his brothers somehow made contact with one of these tribes as they passed through the state, though it seems unlikely, since he would have been a very small child at the time. Perhaps he was born in Arkansas during removal, although the fact that his brothers were also born in Arkansas suggests that the family was there a number of years, rather than just moving through the state.

Before you explore these possibilities further, it would make sense for you to take a DNA test. Companies such as 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA and Ancestry.com provide autosomal DNA tests that could tell you the percentage of Native American ancestry in your DNA. If the DNA results show that you do have Native ancestry, then you know that there is some truth to your family lore, suggesting that further research might prove fruitful in finding a connection. In that case we suggest taking a look at the previous columns “Seeking Proof of Native American Roots?” and “How Do I Legally Prove Native American Ancestry?” on how to proceed.

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If, however, the DNA results show that you do not have Native American ancestry, you can redirect your research to finding out more about your ancestors as men of African descent.

Were the Wheaton Brothers Actually “Never Enslaved”?

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Since you know that Joe Wheaton lived in Madison County, Texas, you will likely have the most luck finding more records there that could help you work backward. Understanding the laws in the state may also help you determine the best places to search for records of your ancestors. In particular, in 1836 Texas passed a law that prevented free blacks from entering the state and gave the right to sell free blacks back into slavery.

While a proclamation in 1842 reduced penalties against free blacks living in the state, it clearly was not a state friendly to free blacks. In fact, when we checked the University of Virginia Library’s Historical Census Browser, we found that in 1850, Texas recorded only 397 free blacks in the U.S. census, versus 58,161 enslaved black people.

Because of these conditions, if your ancestors were free prior to the end of slavery, they may have been involved in court cases to defend their right to live in the state. You may want to turn to court records in the area. Court records in Texas are arranged on the county level, so you can use FamilySearch to look through the parent counties of Madison County for records of the Wheaton family, such as those for Leon County or Walker County.

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Given the attitude toward free blacks in Texas, it may be that your ancestors were actually enslaved when they entered Texas. In this case they may be included in Texas’ Freedmen's Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1870. Sometimes these records include information about relatives or former residences that may help you make a connection to other individuals in Arkansas.

With this possibility in mind, there are a few avenues that you can explore moving forward. One option is to explore the probability that Joe Wheaton was a former slave and had migrated to Texas with his former slave owner. You have already been able to locate Joe in the 1870 U.S. census in Madison County, Texas. A search of the surname Wheaton in the 1860 United States Census Slave Schedules in Texas (via Ancestry.com; subscription required) reveals a J.P. Wheaton in Harris, Texas, with three male slaves in his household.

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Harris and Madison counties are separated by about 100 miles, and it is not out of the question that Joe Wheaton and his brothers moved to Madison County from Harris County after emancipation. It may be worth investigating J.P. Wheaton further to see if there is a connection to your Joe Wheaton.

You should also consider other locations where Joe Wheaton’s former slave owners may have resided. Joe Wheaton claims in the 1880 census that his mother was born in Louisiana. His brother Henry, living directly next to him, also claims that his mother was born in Louisiana. Perhaps Joe inherited or took the name Wheaton based on a slave owner associated with his mother rather than his father. Searching the 1850 Slave Schedules on Ancestry.com for the surname shows a W.H. Wheaton in Louisiana.

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While it does not seem that the household contains anyone matching your Joe Wheaton’s description, it is possible that his mother was the 55-year-old female in the household. It may be worth investigating this family further, if only to rule out the connection as a possibility.

Good luck!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a researcher from the 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 about researching African-American roots.