How to Trace Your Roots

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(The Root) — How exciting it is to me that we at The Root are kicking off Black History Month by inaugurating our new genealogy column, "Tracing Your Roots"! Researching my own family's roots has been a passion of mine ever since my father showed my brother and me an obituary for (and a photograph of) our oldest ancestor whom we can trace on my father's family line, Jane Gates.


Jane was a slave born in 1819, and she died in 1888. My father showed us an obituary dated Jan. 6, 1888, just after we had buried his father on July 3, 1960. The next day I bought a composition book and interviewed my parents to learn the details of what I would later learn was called our family tree. I have been obsessed with genealogy ever since that day. I was 9 years old.

This passion for genealogy has manifested itself in four PBS series, including African American Lives 1 and 2, Faces of America and Finding Your Roots. Our producers and I are busy selecting the guests for the second season of Finding Your Roots. Genealogy has given me and the guests of my PBS series such enormous satisfacton that we at The Root wanted to perform a public service and help the readers find their roots as well. To help other people discover their own ancestors, I'll answer two or three of your questions about how to trace your own roots. Answers will be provided in consultation with a board of genealogy experts that includes experts from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Send your questions to

First up, Remell Sanders Jennings asks:

I was told my grandfather was Creek Indian, one of a set of twins. His mom lived on a reservation in Tennessee. Because he was the second to be born, they believed he was of the devil, so he was given to a traveling preacher and brought to Ohio. How do I find information on this?

To begin with, if you are black I should tell you at the outset that most African Americans have very little measurable Native American ancestry, contrary to common family lore. That being said, some African Americans do indeed descend from Native Americans.

To determine if your grandfather was, in fact, a Creek Native American brought to Ohio, you might want to try looking for a formal court record in which his name is mentioned. You would first need to know to which county your grandfather was brought in Ohio. This would allow you to search for adoption or guardianship records relating to him.


If you do not know the county in Ohio, you might try to locate him in the U.S. Census in Ohio, looking in the household of a minister, since you were told he was given to a preacher. You don't say in your question when all of this took place, but it might help to know that Census records after 1850 list the names of other people living at a specific location, in addition to the head of household.

It may interest you to know that prior to the 1830s some Creek people did live in Eastern and Southern Tennessee, along the borders with Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. After that period most of the Creek people had left Tennessee. In fact, most of the Creek people did not live in Tennessee after 1800. For more about them, take a look at Family Search and Nostalgiaville.


Still, the fact that your family identified the Creek specifically — who actually had some history in the state of Tennessee — is a good sign that there may be some validity to the story that you've been told. You might want to take a DNA test as well. DNA testing companies such as, and, among others, offer a test that measures one's admixture. This test will reveal the percentage of your genome that you have inherited over the past 500 years from European, Sub-Saharan African and Native American ancestors. If you have a significant percentage of Native American ancestry, according to this test, then it is likely that the story that you have heard bears some truth, although the ancestor for whom you are searching may be a great- or a great-great grandfather, someone located more distantly on your family tree. Good luck in your quest, and please write to me each week with a progress report.

I look forward to more of your questions!

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 the editor-in-chief of The Root.


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