Editor’s note: This article was originally published April 21, 2014. For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 76: What’s the truth behind the legend in many African-American families about having a Native American ancestor?
Zora Neale Hurston once wrote with characteristic irony that she thought she was “the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief.” Like most African Americans I’ve interviewed, I was raised believing that one of my great-great-grandmothers was all or part Native American, with “high cheekbones and straight black hair.”
In my family, this was gospel. No one even thought about the possibility that it might not be true, since—sure enough—there were plenty of people on my family tree, as family photos attested about those who had passed, who did in fact have those proverbial and much-valued cheekbones and some variation of that long and silky straight black hair. What struck me about our mysterious Native American ancestry, even as a child, was how very important it was to my mother’s 11 siblings, and how just as important it was to my dozens of cousins.
Being “part Indian” was a much discussed and much bragged about aspect of the Coleman family’s collective identity, even if no one was certain when or how these American Indians had entered our family tree, where they had mated with our black ancestors or from what tribe they hailed. I once asked my Uncle David, our meticulous family historian, what tribe we should tell people we were part of. “Cherokee,” he replied, as if self-evident. When I pointed out that the Cherokee lived in what is now Georgia, the Carolinas and East Tennessee, my uncle responded, unflappably, “That’s right—it was the Iroquois.”
I admire a person who can improvise on his feet. But the problem with that answer is that we happen to be able to trace the various branches of the Coleman family to the middle of the 18th century, and since those ancestors all lived in a 30-mile radius of my hometown of Piedmont, W.Va., the likelihood of one of them being an Iroquois was about as likely as her being a Cherokee (in other words, zip!). Well, we might not know what tribe we came from, but we had ancestors who possessed those cheekbones and that hair, and that—and the strength of family lore—was quite enough.
I wish you could have seen my inbox the morning after the episode of African American Lives aired in 2008, in which we revealed my genetic admixture. To my own surprise, I have to confess, the results showed that I had a surprisingly high amount of European ancestry (50.5 percent) but only 0.8 percent Native American ancestry. (I am 48.2 percent sub-Saharan African.) No one seemed to mind all that white ancestry, but the low level of Native American ancestry caused something of a family crisis. I thought my computer was going to explode. I didn’t realize I had so many cousins who were so deeply committed to being “part Indian.” And the venom those emails contained! These were some very angry cousins.
“Skippy, how could you embarrass our family like that, in front of the nation?” ran one line of attack, while another questioned the accuracy of the tests. “That test is one big fat lie.” After all, Big Mom herself had told us all about her Indian ancestry, and how could “science” be more authoritative than Big Mom, your own grandmother. Boy. Then followed the mountain of photographs of our ancestors that my cousins sent, demonstrating, prima facie, that all you had to do was to look at those faces and that hair to know that that test wasn’t worth a bucket of spit, the same spit geneticists used to analyze your DNA in the first place. You need to correct these aspersions you have cast on our family, Skippy. Right now.
I would soon learn that my cousins’ reactions were typical of the reactions I get all across the country when I lecture about our people’s genetic composition. When I ask black people to raise their hands if they believe they have significant amounts of Native American ancestry, almost everyone raises their hands. Here are the facts, 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.
So most of us have quite a lot of European ancestry and very, very little Native American ancestry. And if this Native American DNA came from exactly one ancestor, it surfaced in our family trees quite a long time ago—on average, perhaps as many as 10 generations, or 300 years, ago, which means about 1714. (This date is very important in terms of the numbers of Africans who had even arrived in the United States by then, and I will return to this point when I try to explain why most of us don’t have much Native American ancestry.)
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.
Barbara Krauthamer of the University of Massachusetts has identified Martha’s Vineyard and Louisiana as rare places “where people have documented biological and family connections from the 18th century through the early 20th century,” an extended period.
The real major exception in American history to the absence of contact between Native Americans and African Americans, as I mentioned above, was with the so-called Five Civilized Tribes—the Creek, the Choctaw, the Cherokee, the Chickasaw and the Seminole. They were located in the Southeast, in parts of what are now Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, until they were forcibly moved to Indian Territory, which became the state of Oklahoma in 1907, in the dreadful Trail of Tears during the 1830s. They were known as “civilized,” in part, because they owned black slaves. (The actor Don Cheadle is descended from ancestors owned by the Chickasaw, for example.)
As Krauthamer (author of the recently published Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South), told me, while “in the aggregate, most Native Americans and African Americans, free and enslaved, most likely had little contact over the 18th and 19th centuries,” the major exception to this involved these five tribes. “There is an abundance of evidence,” she said, “that documents ‘family’ and biological ties among African Americans and Native Americans in the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole nations. The Choctaw, Chickasaw and Cherokees were slaveholding nations; so much that contact occurred in the context of slavery—i.e., sexual abuse of enslaved women.
“In the Creek nation, there is evidence of forced contact and childbearing but also of more consensual relationships, when Creeks incorporated runaway slave women from the southern states into their own communities and families. Among the Seminoles [of Florida], similarly, the evidence of more consensual relationships is quite solid,” an assertion confirmed by the 1860 U.S. census, which stated, “The small tribe of Seminoles, although like the tribes above mentioned, transplanted from slaveholding States, holds no slaves, but intermarry with the colored population.”
But even in these tribes, the number of slaves was quite small: According to the 1860 census, four of these tribes (the largest being the Cherokee) owned 7,369 slaves, compared to a total of 3.9 million slaves in the United States that same year. Nevertheless, black slaves made up about 12.5 percent of the total population in Indian Territory in 1860, a sufficient ratio within a recent enough period to mate rather broadly and leave a significant genetic legacy among African Americans today. Claudio Saunt stresses that these figures are undercounts, but the total numbers are tiny, even if we double them (404 free black people also were living in Indian Territory that same year).
In other words, if you can trace your ancestry, as Don Cheadle can, to black ancestors living in what is now Oklahoma between 1840 and 1908, your chances of being among the “genetic 5 percenters” is much higher than for any other African Americans. And chances are you probably do have a significant amount of Native American ancestry. If you don’t descend from ancestors who lived with these Native American tribes or in Oklahoma, the odds are much greater you have very little Native American ancestry.
Did My Native American Ancestry Disappear From My Genome?
Many black people ask me this, when they’re horrified to discover that their family stories about Native American ancestors aren’t confirmed by their admixture tests. Well, in fact, DNA inherited from our very distant ancestors does virtually “disappear” over time, becoming extremely difficult to measure if inherited long enough ago. After all, 50,000 years ago, we were all Africans, as any scientist can affirm. Yet when I test white people for the show Finding Your Roots, few have any measurable African ancestry, because admixture tests are reliable only a few hundred years back.
Could the low percentages of Native American ancestry be explained by its disappearance? According to Kasia Bryc, if a person believes that “somehow we do not see their Native American ancestry, even though it is there, this is very unlikely, and we have no reason to believe that the Native American signal would be lost in the population as a whole.” In fact, all of this has been computed by Graham Coop, a professor of population biology at the University of California, Davis. According to Coop, the percent probability of an ancestor not passing on any DNA to you is basically zero back 180 years (assuming each generation is 30 years), and is only about 5 percent back 210 years or seven generations ago, to 1814. However, if you had one Native American ancestor who joined your lineage about 300 years ago, again in or before 1714, there is a 54 percent chance you would not have inherited any of his or her DNA.
“In other words,” Bryc told me, “the number of genealogical ancestors you have from 10 generations ago is, in theory, 1,024 people, but in fact you probably only have DNA from about 500 of them.” However, because so few Africans had arrived in this country by 1714, as we have seen, this would not be a common scenario. The amount of Native American DNA that we may have inherited from a putative Native American ancestor wouldn’t have disappeared from our genomes, since most likely that ancestor would have appeared many years later, within what we might think of as the window of inheritability.
Why Does It Matter So Much to Us?
In response to the vehement questioning and protests that the small amount (if any) of Native American ancestry generates among black people who take admixture tests, I’ve thought long and hard about the answer to this question. Barbara Krauthamer sums up her thinking this way: “Of course the myths about Indian ancestors endure for so many reasons, from a glimmer of truth to a desire to distance from Blackness to romanticized notions about Indians.” Add to this that at least since Thomas Jefferson compared Native Americans and African Americans in his infamously racist Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-1785), commentators have been valorizing Native Americans as America’s original “noble savage” and contrasting their nobility against the supposed inferiority of America’s “ignoble savages,” our black ancestors. Who wants to be thought of as ignoble or distinctly inferior?
Then, too, there are those of us who love the idea that the people of color—the Indians and the escaped slaves—were sitting around campfires smoking peace pipes and plotting revenge against white settlers. But, by and large, that didn’t happen, unless your ancestor made it into the ranks of the Seminoles down in Florida.
So how about those “high cheekbones and straight black hair?” As anthropologist Nina Jablonski, author of Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color, explains it, “Everyone wants to feel good about their ancestors. Having a Native American in one's background is ennobling and elevating, but having physical traits associated with European subjugation is not.
“The appearance of high cheekbones and straight hair in some African Americans is not because of partial Native American ancestry, but because of admixture with Europeans. When Africans with generally broad faces and Europeans with generally narrow faces have children, the effect is an anatomical compromise—a more prominent middle face and the appearance of high cheekbones. Many African Americans have relatively straight hair and freckles, too, because of part-European ancestry.”
If it’s any comfort, genealogists say that white Americans have the same Cherokee great-great-grandmother fantasy that many black Americans share. But here’s the difference between white and black claims of Indian ancestry: Ultimately, I think it was much easier for black people to invent a putative Native American ancestor to explain mixed-race features and hair textures than to confront the terrible fact that we have so much European ancestry because of forced or cajoled sexuality during slavery, “especially the sexual violence that established those ties of ancestry” in the first place, as Krauthamer put it to me. The fact that so much of our genetic admixture arose from rape is one of the most dreadful, and most visible, legacies of “the peculiar institution” called American slavery.
You can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root.
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.