A 'White' Grandma With Black Roots?

Rita Desmond (Diane Neill)
Rita Desmond (Diane Neill)

(The Root) — Black people aren't the only ones whose Native American ancestry evaporates in the face of a DNA test. This questioner already has her suspicions about family lore.


"My 96-year-old grandmother tells me that her mother (my great-grandmother) came from Three Rivers (Trois-Rivières), Quebec, which I understand is home to the Yamaska Indians. I'm biracial, with black and white parents, but this is the grandmother on my white side. Except, for my entire life, people have been telling me she looks like she might have some black heritage. Any chance this might be true, based on where her mother was from, or is this probably just the Native American heritage people are seeing?" —Jenée Desmond-Harris

The quickest way to determine if there is any African in your ancestry would be to have your grandmother take a DNA test. Specifically, you would be looking to have a test done of her autosomal DNA to determine her admixture. Autosomal tests can be used to figure out how much of one's ancestry traces to each of the world's ancestral populations (people who lived in a particular geographical region in centuries past), thereby giving a breakdown of one's genetic ancestry.

Family Tree DNA's Family Finder Test can take your grandmother's DNA and compare it against the DNA of known genetic populations and then determine the closest match. A test provided by 23andMe can compare her autosomal DNA to that of known populations to estimate how much of her ancestry traces to Africa, Europe, the Americas, etc.

There are also two other tests that can be performed to look at your ancestry though DNA. They are a mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test and a Y-DNA test. The only one that you can do yourself, being female, is the mitochondrial DNA test. There are certain genetic markers that are passed down only on the female line. Male members of the family also inherit these markers but do not pass them on.

From this test, you will learn to which haplogroup your ancient female ancestor belonged. Often, the haplogroup relates to a certain geographic location, and depending on the results, it might be possible to say that your female lineage is Native American or African.

The Y-DNA will provide you with the same information on one line of your ancient male ancestry (father's, father's father, father's father's father, etc.). Because you are interested in whether your great-grandmother had Native American or African ancestry, you would need to find a male relative who is a direct male descendant from your great-great-grandfather. If there are no known relatives, try doing traditional genealogical research (via records instead of DNA) to locate some relatives who are willing to help. It also might be possible to find a record of Native American or African ancestry. Doing research will also allow you to determine from where in your family the DNA may have come.


Here's how to start: First ask family members for any and all information on your family, including names, dates and places for everyone. Even family stories, such as the claim that your great-grandmother was Native American, are important to your research. Often, there is a nugget of truth to stories in family lore. Depending on what information your family knows about its ancestry, it would then be necessary to look at records from Trois-Rivières, Quebec, Canada.

Ancestry.com has many collections available on their website that relate to Canadian genealogy. Some free sources are available from the Family History Library, which have been digitized and made available on FamilySearch.org. They have Quebec Notarial Records, 1800-1900, which often include marriage contracts, wills, deeds, inventories and other legal documents. They also have Quebec, Births and Baptisms, 1662-1898; however, they do not include all records for every place and time period. They have also made parish records available in Quebec, Catholic Parish Registers, 1621-1979 and the Quebec, Non-Catholic Parish Registers, 1763-1967.


The Bibliotheque Archives Nationales Du Quebec has also made some collections available on their website that may be useful to your genealogy.

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 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.


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