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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.

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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.

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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."

In other words: Since interracial marriage was illegal in most states, one of your ancestors may have been the result of an illicit affair between a black person and a white person, with the resulting child being raised with the white birth parent and a white adoptive parent.

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Also, we agree with you that based on the DNA testing you have done thus far, it seems likely that your African-American ancestry probably came from your maternal grandfather’s mother’s side of your family. However, you will want to double-check that your mother and the third cousin you mentioned share both of their second-great-grandparents, not just the second-great-grandfather.

If so, says, Moore, "My advice is for him to track down a direct maternal-line descendant of his maternal grandfather's mother, such as a child of his great-aunt or a child of his great-aunt's daughter, and ask him or her to take a mitochondrial DNA test. Mitochondrial DNA (which should not be confused with X-chromosome DNA) is passed from mother to child. Both males and females inherit it from their mother, but only females pass it on to their children. If the mitochondrial DNA comes back with an African haplogroup, then you know specifically which line he should be focused on. If it doesn't, then he can rule every one in that direct maternal line out. He can repeat this for the various ancestral lines until he hits on one that has an African haplogroup."

Moore also suggests using a testing service to see if anyone else in its database matches your mother on one of the segments of autosomal DNA that is predicted to be of African origin. 23andMe is one of the companies providing this service. She adds, "If he can find additional matches that cluster on that segment, then he should try to find a common ancestor between those matches." There is a very good chance that you would share that ancestral line with any individuals who match.

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Armed with the new information you uncover from additional DNA testing, you can then refocus your record search for your elusive African-American ancestor.

As Moore stated, sometimes documents can be misleading. Perhaps one of your ancestors was raised by people who weren’t his or her birth parents. Another possibility is that your ancestor was born outside of a marriage, as interracial marriage was once illegal in most states. It may be difficult to determine what exactly happened, but a thorough search of different documents may help you find more possibilities and rule out others.

Researching an Unrecorded Adoption

Let’s first look at the possibility that a white person or couple adopted one of your ancestors. The earliest adoption legislation was created in the 1850s. Even then, some places were much slower to implement any formal laws on the guardianship of children. The adoption process, as we know it today, didn’t really start until the early to mid-20th century. Before this time, adoptions were less-formal arrangements by which a family would assume the responsibility of a child who was not their own. As such, if your ancestor was raised by someone who was not his or her biological parents, there probably isn’t a record of it in any court.

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Although there may not be an adoption record in the court records, you still might want to consider searching for probate and will documents for your ancestors in your direct line who you believe have the African-American history. Probate documents deal with the division of a person's estate after his or her death. They can sometimes shed light on family dynamics that aren't apparent in census and vital records. If your ancestor owned any real estate or had a personal estate of value (this information is often listed in census records), try searching for them in the probate court where he or she died.

If you are able to find a will or probate record for an ancestor in the line you are researching, you will want to look at it closely to see if anything doesn't make sense or seems odd. For example, is there any child still living, but not listed in the will? Is one child given a much smaller portion of the estate than the others? The FamilySearch research wiki can help direct you on how to find probate court records in the area and time period you are researching by typing in the place you are researching along with the words "probate records."

One thing to keep in mind as you research probate documents is that you may see the word "guardian" used often. This term doesn't always have the same meaning as it is used today, by which someone becomes responsible for raising a child who is not his or her own. Instead, it could refer to someone who is appointed as the steward of the minor child's inheritance after one parent is deceased. In other words, it is referring to a financial guardianship, rather than someone who actually cared for the child.

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Searching Vital Records 

The types of records that will probably be most useful in identifying where your African-American ancestry comes from are birth, marriage and death records. These records can give you an indication as to whether your ancestor was raised by people who weren't his or her birth parents or was born out of wedlock.

First, you'll want to verify the births of all of your ancestors on your maternal grandfather's mother's side by finding birth records for each person in the line (if possible). As we have mentioned in previous articles, the ability to find these vital records depends on the time period and place you are researching. Also, the further you go back, the harder it is to find these documents and the less complete they can be.

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In this case, it might also be a good idea to look into church and parish records of the families because these can fill in information that town and state records are missing. Obituaries, cemetery and church records are also good sources. For this type of record search you might need to go beyond what is available online through genealogy websites. If records aren't available online, you can request information from a town records office or a church parish to find a record of your ancestor.

As you try to verify the births of each of your direct ancestors, you'll also want to look for birth records of their siblings, since they can give you a more complete view of the family. Start by researching one generation at a time and try to find birth records for each child in the family. Death and marriage records are also useful, since these can sometimes list information about parents.

Vital records will also be useful for determining whether or not a child was born outside of a marriage. If you are able to find a marriage record for each set of parents in the line you are researching before the births of any of their children were recorded, you'll know it's less likely that they had a child born out of wedlock. Also, some birth records specifically list if a child was illegitimate.

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There will probably be some people in the line for whom you are unable to find a birth record; therefore, finding a death record will be especially important. Death records can contain useful information, such as listing the deceased's parents' names and places of birth. Keep in mind that although these records are official, they can sometimes contain incorrect information, which makes the search even harder.

Once you have compiled the documentation for each person in every generation, look at the documents as a whole. Does all the information on the records make sense? Does anything seem out of place? Maybe you found two birth records for siblings that were born six months apart. Or let's say you found someone who was born in 1848, but wasn't listed with his or her family until the 1860 U.S. census. Perhaps you can find birth or baptismal records for all but one child. These are the types of "red flags" that can be a good indicator that maybe one of the children wasn't born to the parents who raised him or her or if there was a child born outside of marriage.

Using Family Stories to Guide Your Research

As you contact your more distant relatives to see if they would agree to a DNA test, you'll also want to ask them what they know about their family's history. Perhaps they have heard stories of African-American ancestry in their family as well. Talking to your distant relatives may reveal some information about a common ancestor that you never knew. Even objects that were passed down from generation to generation, such as letters or a family Bible might give you some clues about your ancestry that may not appear in typical genealogical documents.

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Finding the source of your African-American ancestry may take a lot of searching of records where you don't find anything out of the ordinary. Fortunately, with the help of DNA testing, you can narrow down the line in your family where your African-American ancestry came from. Once you are able to do this you can do an intensive search of documents and share information with distant relatives to hopefully pinpoint your African-American ancestor.

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 editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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

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This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, 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.

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