Test results show unexpected Ashkenazi heritage and raise the possibility that a family legend is true.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published Jan. 22, 2016.
Dear Professor Gates:
I’m African American, but about a year ago I received the results of genetic testing, which indicated that I’m 5 percent Ashkenazi Jew. My European genetic makeup is around 15 percent.
Family lore (which, of course, can be notoriously unreliable) shared stories about possible Native American ancestry, but Native American ancestry wasn’t part of my genetic makeup. I was, however, rather blown away to find that I was, in small part, Ashkenazi Jew. No one in my family, on either side, is able to account for it.
On my mother’s side, I’ve discovered a story of a European ancestor who was married to who I believe was my great-great-great-grandmother Hannah Simmons. Hannah was born around 1820. The name of her husband (the rumored ancestor of European descent) was Jack or John, I believe. I’m unsure. Some folks in the family suggest that she married twice (remarrying after her first white husband died).
Via Mocavo, I found a record of Hannah in the 1900 census; she was listed as the mother of a head of household, Jake Green. Although the family lore is that Hannah’s husband was European, I don’t quite buy this story. One of Hannah’s sons, Ransom, never mentioned having a white or mulatto father. We have a picture of Ransom, and to simply eyeball him, he doesn’t look phenotypically European-African biracial. He’s quite dark.
My questions: Is it possible that the Jewish ancestry comes from a husband of Hannah’s? If so, what was his name and where was he from? Finally, how can I find out more about her, such as which plantation she lived on in South Carolina and who her parents were? —Schlese
What Do Your Ashkenazi Results Mean?
First, to your question about where your Jewish ancestry comes from: We consulted genetic genealogist CeCe Moore about it. She told us in an email that indeed, if Hannah’s husband was white, he could have been the ancestor who contributed the Ashkenazi DNA to your genetic makeup:
If this man were indeed your third great-grandfather, then you would expect to inherit about 3 percent of your total autosomal DNA from him. Since autosomal-DNA inheritance is random, it is theoretically possible that you inherited as much as 5 percent of your DNA from him. It is also possible that her husband could have been biracial and each of his parents contributed some of that Ashkenazi Jewish DNA or that Hannah Simmons herself had some European Jewish ancestry.
Since you have the Ashkenazi DNA present in your results, there is no doubt that some of your ancestors were descended from a small isolated population who are genetically similar to one another. You can read more about the genetic closeness of individuals with Ashkenazi autosomal DNA in this article by Moore: “Ashkenazi Jewish DNA and the Potential to Piece Together Shattered Family Branches.” This could help you understand how to work with the matches you have to distant cousins through your DNA results to shed light on your Jewish roots.
Since we know the possibilities, the question then becomes: Can we confirm your family by identifying Hannah Simmons’ husband of European descent? Unfortunately, we were not able to locate the husband you describe, but we did find some clues that can help you trace the family backward.
Looking at the Simmons Family in Mississippi
You have been able to locate Hannah Simmons in the 1900 U.S. census, which shows her residing in Jasper County, Miss. According to the census, Hannah was born about 1820 in South Carolina. We noted that her relation to the head of the household, Jake Green, was “mother,” although Jake’s parents were both born in Mississippi, as were his wives. Keep in mind, when you’re reading census records, that relationships may not be entirely specific, and “mother” could mean that she was Jake Green’s mother or his mother-in-law. Based on the ages of the individuals, Hannah was actually likely Jake’s grandmother, since she would have been 53 years old when Jake was born.
We noted this possibility when looking at the household directly next door, that of Lewis Green, whose wife, Jane, said that both of her parents were born in South Carolina. Based on this, it seemed possible that Hannah Simmons was actually the mother of Jane Green. According to the record, Jane was born about 1854 in Mississippi and had been married for 27 years.
This means that she would not yet have been married to Lewis Green in 1870, and since we were having difficulty locating any other records for Hannah Simmons, we searched for a Jane Simmons in the 1870 census, hoping that information on Hannah’s relatives might help us locate more information about her. We did not locate a record that matched this Jane in 1870, but we did locate a Jane Simmons residing in Jasper County, Miss. (the same location of the family in 1900), who was born about 1854, according to the 1880 U.S. census (via Ancestry.com; subscription required).
This does not appear to be a record for the same Jane we noted in 1900, but this one was married to Elbert Simmons. We wondered whether he might be some relation to your Hannah Simmons, since they were residing in the same county. According to the census, both of Elbert Simmons’ parents were born in South Carolina, which would align with what we know about your Hannah.
Because Hannah is difficult to locate in census records, you may want to expand your search to just the surname in Jasper County, since you know that is where the family was residing. This will help you cast a wider net that may reveal other relatives and can help you narrow your search. Anytime you locate a similarity such as this, note and compare it with other records to determine whether or not the individual might be related. Records for your ancestor’s relations can often lead to more information about the ancestor you are trying to research.
Finding Where Hannah Might Have Been Enslaved
When we performed a search of just the surname Simmons in Jasper County, Miss., using Ancestry.com, we noted that there were a number of white families living there in 1850. A few of them even claim on census records that they were born in South Carolina. One of your questions related to how to find information about where Hannah came from and whether you could identify a plantation or location where she lived during slavery. Keep in mind that it is possible Hannah Simmons was a slave when she arrived in Mississippi and that perhaps she arrived with one of these families. It is also possible that she was not enslaved by any of these individuals but was associated with them in some way that accounts for her surname.
If she did arrive in Mississippi as a slave from South Carolina, this would place her historically right in the middle of what is referred to as “the Second Middle Passage.” Different from the Middle Passage of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, this forced migration of slaves occurred within the U.S. between the end of the Revolutionary War and the start of the Civil War. The reason was business—specifically the cotton trade, which flourished in Deep South states like Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.
In Mississippi alone, the slave population soared from 69,064 in 1820, the year your ancestor Hannah was born, to 436,631 in 1860—a staggering 532 percent increase—when she turned 40. Along with this spike came an increase in the price of slaves. There’s a reason cotton was “king” in 19th-century America, something you can read more about in Sven Beckert’s prize-winning history, Empire of Cotton: A Global History.
With all of that in mind, we checked the 1860 United States Census Slave Schedule on Ancestry.com to see whether any of the white Simmons families in Jasper County, Miss., owned slaves. We did not locate any records in Jasper County, but there were a few Simmonses who owned slaves in Lauderdale County. After examining a county map, we learned that Lauderdale and Jasper counties are in close proximity, making it possible that Hannah Simmons was connected to one of these families and then removed a short distance to Jasper County.
We noted one, E.W. Simmons of Lauderdale, who owned slaves in Lauderdale County, Miss., according to the 1860 Slave Schedule via Ancestry.com. We looked for him in the 1860 census (available via FamilySearch), to learn more about him and his family, and discovered that his wife, Mary, was born in South Carolina. It is entirely possible that Mary brought slaves with her into the marriage and that they, too, were born in South Carolina. Further research on this family may help you determine whether Hannah was connected to them in any way.
Based on your DNA results, you at least know that you have European ancestors. It is possible that this DNA came through your ancestor Hannah Simmons, although finding documentation to prove the family lore may prove challenging because Hannah herself is difficult to locate in records. Your best option in examining paper sources would be to expand your search to include any records that seem to align with what you know about the family.
Another great option would be to contact your DNA matches, the list of individuals with whom you share autosomal DNA (specifically those who have European or Ashkenazi DNA), via your testing service. They may have information about their families that you could compare with what you know about your family to come up with a likely scenario of how you inherited your Ashkenazi DNA.
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 chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior 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 1 billion 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 about researching African American roots.