How Do I Research My Fulani Roots?

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and NEHGS Researcher Meaghan Siekman, Kyle Hurst
Horse riders at Shehu Kangiwa Square (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

(The Root) —

"I have both maternal and paternal DNA test done by African The two tribes indicated in the results point to my maternal roots being Fulani and my paternal roots Ibo, both from Nigeria. Can you suggest which records/archives I can continue my search?


"My mother had a middle name she did not like and never used, but I found it on some early records: Malthida. To my surprise,  when I did a Google search on Fulani, an image of a female was displayed showing the some physical features of these people and under the picture was her name: Malthida. I am trying to do a genealogy search, as well, to see if I am related to this Malthida.

"I don't have much information about my ancestors, but my maternal grandfather, Walter Champ Carter, was born in 1884, according to what is written in a family Bible, in Washington, D.C. (he died in 1941). My maternal grandmother, Lily Miller, was from Lynchburg, Va. My paternal grandparents may have been from Northern Virginia." —Linda E. Newman

Your search is a common one for African Americans, many whose paper trail back to their ancestral origins hits a wall once they reach the slavery era, due to the way that records were kept (or not kept) on the enslaved. It sounds like you don't have a lot of clues that reach back before 1884, which will hinder your search for documentation of your African roots (a search, I must stress, that is all but impossible for most African Americans, beyond having a DNA test). I encourage you to work first on pinning down any birth dates and places of residence you can for your other grandparents, your great-grandparents, and even their parents, first. My previous columns, "How Do I Trace My Former-Slave Ancestor?" and "How Do I Decode Slave Records?" could be helpful in that search.

Specifically, you'll want to trace your African-American ancestry back to 1870, if at all possible, when all the former slaves appeared in the federal census for the first time with two names. Then try to find the white people who owned your ancestors in the 1860 Slave Schedule in the same county in which their black ancestors appeared in that 1870 census. Search for white people with the same last name, then see if they owned slaves 10 years younger than their ancestors appear on the 1870 census. Sometimes this technique yields a positive identification.


If — and this is a very big "if"! — you can find the area in which your slave ancestors arrived, you can search the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database for the names of ships that came to that area of the United States. This will not yield any names of your ancestors, but it can help to reaffirm the DNA results, since each voyage of each slave ship that arrived legally is documented in that database.

All that being said, the results you received for DNA testing are not surprising. In the case of the Ibo (also known as Igbo), we know through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database that about 16 percent of our ancestors who arrived in the U.S. were shipped from the Bight of Biafra, which is Igboland. So a significant number of African Americans, such as Bishop T.D. Jakes, who was a guest in our PBS series, African American Lives, descended from the Igbo, as he guessed when I asked him before revealing the results to him on camera.


Both the Ibo and Fulani ethnic groups both have vibrant histories and beliefs, the understanding of which might help shed more light on your heritage and how your ancestors came to these shores.

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The Fulani

Traditionally, the Fulani (or Fulbe, Fula people, Peul or Hausa-Fulani) were nomadic herders across West Africa from the Senegal River Valley. Their adventure begins in the Tagant section of Mauritania, more or less in the Sahara desert-Sahel border, according to the historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton. Originating there explains why so many Fulbe are lighter-skinned, with straighter hair than most Africans in the same region. In the areas further south, they stand out, often having been described as "mulattoes" by visitors from Europe, say the historians. These features also led Colonial-era researchers to think of them as a mixed-race group, giving the Fulbe "a high place" in Europeans' estimation.


Fulbe communities were divided into two groups: an elite who were strongly Muslim, many of whom were scholars of the Torodbe group; and the non-Muslim commoners, who specialized in raising cattle and fighting.

In the 1460s the rulers of Mali invited the Fulbe to settle within their lands, describe Heywood and Thornton. As they specialized in raising cattle, the Fulbe often cared for the cattle of neighboring people in exchange for payment. The leader, Temala (1464-1512), led these Fulbe on military adventures as the Empire of Mali declined, and the Fulbe made attacks south as far as Sierra Leone and deep into Senegal, as well as into the central bend of the Niger.  Temala was killed in action against the famed military leader Askia Muhammad of Songhay, as Songhay tried to retake former Malian territory beyond Timbuktu. Temala's son, Coli (1512-1537), continued the military campaigns, out of which emerged the Empire of the Great Fulo, which dominated the Senegal valley at the end of the 16th century and controlled much of the west end of West Africa.


Fulbe communities were established during this time in Futa Jallon, Futa Tooro and Bundu, as well as "fulakundas," or self-contained and self-governing villages scattered all along the Gambia River. It was tensions between the Fulbe communities and their ruling groups that led to the jihads of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, in which Fulbe consolidated their rule, according to Heywood and Thornton.

In the 16th century they began expansion to the west, reaching Hausaland around 1650, where they began adopting Hausa customs and language and were known as Hausa-Fulani. They remained there for a long time, before beginning their own jihad movement under Usuman dan Fodio at the end of the 18th century that would result in the foundation of the empire of the Sokoto Caliphate. The Hausa-Fulani held a dominant position in Northern Nigeria until British colonization around the turn of the 20th century.


Today the Fulbe are dispersed from the Senegambian region, across the Sahel and Northern Savanna of West Africa to Cameroon, with significant concentrations in Nigeria. They also live in Senegal, Cameroon, Mali, Niger and Guinea. Their language is Fulfude. According Heywood and Thornton, it's unlikely that your Fulbe ancestry comes from Nigeria, because the Fulbe from Northern Nigeria didn't really enter the slave trade until the jihad of Usuman dan Fodio, which began in 1804. That trade had a major role in Cuba and Brazil (especially Brazil) in the early 19th century, but by then the slave trade to Virginia "was history," they explained in an email.

It's much more likely that your ancestors came from Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry or Sierra Leone — what is often called Upper Guinea in the old literature, say the historians. The Fulbe were concentrated in those regions, in areas called Futa Tooro, Bundu, Futa Jallon, in particular, but also scattered in between.


Beginning in the 1720s they became involved in a series of wars and/or jihads that increased the slave trade dramatically. After 1760, Sierra Leone, in particular, was affected by the major jihad in Futa Jallon. The Fulbe did not win all the wars waged during the period, and many ended up being sold as slaves across the Atlantic (while in the years in which they won, they sold many slaves).

As for finding out where your mother's middle name came from, know that the Fulani have a patriarchal society that greatly values family relationships and ancestry. On every level, names are very important, and the first event in any child's life is the infant-naming ceremony. The last name comes from the father's surname, but the child will have a first name chosen by the father and another chosen by the mother. These names most often come from current or ancient family members, so that middle name of Malthida could indeed go back much further than your mother may have thought!


Elders memorize the clan's history, lineages and wisdom and passed it on as oral history. If you can learn at least the names of the ancestor(s) who first left the area, you may still be able to hear more about your own family history directly by visiting with an elder Fulani. For more about these (and other) Fulani traditions, you may be interested in reading the articles at Jamtan Fulani. A blog dedicated to African ancestral genealogy, Roots Revealed, could also prove motivating to you.

The Igbo

The Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria actually have an oral tradition that they have always been in "Igboland." Archaeological evidence shows that similar pottery has been found in the area dating back as far as 4500 B.C., and the Igbo language seems to be directly linked to two of the earliest, Akkadian and Canaanite.


The Igbo are primarily agricultural and were not inclined to have overarching rulers (like chiefs) until British colonization in the mid-19th century. It is more likely to find the Igbo in village kinship groups in which children were often raised communally.

Similarly to the Fulbe, the Igbo have a patriarchal society, celebrate the naming of infants, and revere ancestors by reusing ancestral names. The leaders are the eldest from each lineage, and councils make the decisions. In naming children, some names come from the progenitor who was believed to have been reincarnated, and sometimes the names for first-born are derived from paternal grandparents.


They, too, practiced oral tradition, rather than having written records. Since colonization, the Igbo have predominantly become Christians (especially Roman Catholic) so it is possible that ancestors can be found in surviving church records from that era forward.

There have been quite a few books written about the Igbo history and culture which could deepen your understanding of your roots. Examples of these include: Elizabeth Isichei's A History of the Igbo People (London: Macmillan, 1976); Edmund Ilogu's Christianity and Ibo Culture (Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1974); and Catherine Acholonu's They Lived Before Adam: Prehistoric Origins of the Igbo, the Never-Been-Ruled (Owerri, Nigeria: Flyann Limited, 2009).


One way to learn about Nigerian family members is to post a query to a genealogical forum like this one at These can be viewed around the world, so not only might you get a reply from someone else doing similar research, but you may also receive a response from someone living in Nigeria who knows living members of the line or who has access to onsite resources.

The Virginians

As for linking these heritages to your own family tree: If we assume your ancestors did come from Northern Virginia, as you have told us, Heywood and Thornton say it's likely that your Fulbe female ancestor came to America in the 18th century, when Senegambians were being imported into the upper Potomac region (now Northern Virginia). The Igbos were concentrated in Norfolk and other regions deeper in Virginia. The historians suggests consulting the William and Mary Quarterly article by Lorena Walsh, "The Chesapeake Slave Trade," for more information. Walsh has a lot to say about the African origins of the Virginia population and where different ethnicities were concentrated.


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


This answer was provided in consultation with researcher Kyle Hurst from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country's leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, 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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