As we celebrate #BlackHistoryMonth this October, I am sharing my journey of finding out my own ancestry. A few years ago I turned 50, this also coincided with me being diagnosed with an autoimmune condition. The condition is hereditary, yet no one in my family knew of any ancestors who had Graves Thyroid Disease. I was quite upset, how could nothing be known. I asked myself, what did I really know about myself and my heritage…….?
Lots of Cousins
With it being lockdown and a bit of time on my hands, I ordered a DNA testing kit from ancestry.com to find out more about my family. A few weeks later, the results were in…..
I had thousands of cousins. Of about five thousand DNA matches, I recognised 3 names! I was surprised. I called my parents and started to ask LOTS of questions. They had zero to few answers. I spoke with a cousin in Guyana, South America. He too was on a curious quest and did a DNA test. It yielded much the same thing!
Thus, began, weekly zoom chats with him. We then started reaching out to our closest shared DNA matches. We wrote lots of messages. Most people didn’t respond. But then replies started coming back. For the better part of a year, we met with a group of other cousins, who also had no idea, how we matched. Every Sunday at 5pm for a few hours. We were and remain committed to unravelling our ancestry.
What did we find out
The very first thing we realised is that as a DNA family we are all spread across the world. North America, South America, The Caribbean, Europe, Africa, Australia and Asia. Not a continent untouched. We are truly a multi ethnic global family.
The ancestry results, also give you a breakdown of your ethnicity estimates (this changes are more people test). My DNA showed, mainly West African and some European DNA. As someone with enslaved ancestors, I was even more curious now.
Conversations and Mapping
The very first zoom calls, were a roundtable of each of us introducing ourselves and explaining what had led us to do a DNA test. Then began the painstaking work of who links us together. The starting point was myself and cousin Robin. We knew we both shared a common ancestor – Papa Hope, our great grandfather.
Our first task was to map out a family tree. We were still somewhat stumped. I then remembered conversations that I had with Papa Hope’s daughter, one of my grandmothers. She had told me the family was large, and many of the men were gold and diamond seekers. This little gold nugget was to prove very helpful.
Resources and Success
As a group we started seeking records to help corroborate oral history. This is where most of us hit a barrier. As people of Caribbean origin and of an ancestral past in which Trans-Atlantic slavery featured, we discovered that records were few and far between.
Looking for census records, we came across the British Guiana 1948 census. Amazon must have had a flood of sales that day as we all ordered copies and started reading census records. We came across people with the surname of Hope. But that means nothing, unless you are DNA connected. The little gold nugget of “gold and diamond seekers” came back…we found Hope’s who were gold and diamond seekers. These were our family. From this we were able to start making good progress.
This is just one line of my family. Next I returned to my parents and asked for copies of grandparents birth, marriage and death certificates. I got hold of two sets only. But this was helpful.
One grandfather’s birth certificate, showed the names of his parents (another set of great grandparents for me) and who was in attendance at his home birth. The woman in attendance at the birth was one of the sisters of one of my great grandmothers – Isabella. Through the power of DNA, one of my DNA matches, was able to identify this sibling as her great grandmother, so we then had a tree.
Testing the family
I needed more people to be tested. I asked my parents to test. This yielded more and better results, with them being a generation higher. My Zoom group of DNA relatives was also doing the same. We were recalling and recording every snippet of oral history that we had.
Cousin Caroline (who I found through DNA) in the US, then found a letter, from an elderly relative in Barbados. On this particular branch of the family it gave us detail to identify the names of our earliest known relatives. These were two formerly enslaved people who married on the day of emancipation. Many of my DNA matches can trace them as our ancestors.
Let me go back to records. One of my family lines has a very unique name. I searched the slave registers for this name. There was only one slave owner with this name. Additionally, it showed the enslaved people being moved from Demerara (Guyana, was previously in three parts, Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice) to Barbados. Through painstaking record searching I now have a line from 1775 with the first recorded African ancestor up to a death in 1923 in Barbados. I also have the start of a new line in Guyana in 1923. These are connected. I am still working out how. In this case, it is all in a name and also DNA evidence.
Along this journey, I am hitting many roadblocks which I am sharing below, in case you are considering a genealogical journey now or in the future.
- Women being identified as Mrs X and not by their birth names. Also, if a woman was married more than once, she took the name of the new husband. Unless you share DNA with the new husband, you are most likely not DNA related.
- People being adopted and having different names
- Ancestors having affairs and children not having the correct parent named on the birth certificate
- Use of nicknames and not actual registered names
- Your ancestors being of an ethnic origin of which you were unaware. Also be mindful, that your parents will carry different DNA from you, in the same way you will carry different DNA to your siblings. We are all VERY different and VERY unique.
- Birth certificates not listing the name of a father
- Family members not wishing to talk about the past
Books to read
In improving my knowledge on my ancestry, I read as much as I can consume, of particular interest, right now are the following books which I highly recommend
- White Debt – this tells the story of the Demerara uprising in Guyana. The enslaved fought at every turn for their freedom. This book uses diaries of colonists and some of the previously unheard voices of those involved in the uprising. It is a shocking read of brutality by colonial oppressors. In 2022, I was able to visit the land of my birth. I stood in front of the Cuffy and Quamina statues. Without their heroic efforts, we might well be looking at a very different story.
- Slaves and Highlanders – this book by David Alston has been a revelation to me. He has spent twenty years researching the link between the Scottish Highlands and Demerara. His work is very insightful. I love Scotland and have visited seven times. First from my student days and over the past five years, I have driven “Scotland by coast road” and also visited the inner and outer Hebrides. I always felt that somehow I was connected to Scotland.
Guess what, my DNA revealed some Scottish DNA, yet no one knows of a Scottish ancestor. I had a most insightful chat with a DNA match, who had traced the Clarke line from two brothers who left Perth to journey to the Caribbean in the late 1700s.
My challenge with finding out our common ancestor is that colonists/enslavers had their “white families” and then families with “African women”. I suspect this is where the connection lies.
Seeking out older relatives
I am on a quest to seek out any remaining relatives older than age 75 (the current ages of my parents). Some of these have proven to be fruitful, for example, my recent chat with an 83 year old now living in the US, has revealed an Australian connection. A highly influential individual from England, involved in the navy, who travelled to Australia. There are many places named after him. Family oral history notes him as one of my ancestors. He “took a local woman” and had a few children of mixed origins. At the time of emancipation, two of these children travelled to British Guiana. I am descended from one of the brothers, the other brother went to Venezuela. You can see how the DNA is now spreading!
The journey continues
I think I will be on this ancestral journey for the rest of my life, since there are a lot of people to track down! But let me leave you with a few tips to get started on your our journey of ancestry:
- Test on as many platforms as possible. I am tested on Ancestry, 23 and Me and My Heritage, they all reveal something slightly different. I also want to know the minute any new relative appears!
- Read books, these are a goldmine of information and help to capture the feel of the time
- Keep a notepad and record EVERY snippet of information that you hear in oral history
- Read obituaries, they are a treasure trove
- Visit cemeteries and read headstones
- Search slave registers (regardless of ethnic origins)
- Keep asking questions! Oral history is vital especially in my case.
The Painful truth
Building my family tree, has revealed a few things. People in Africa travelled the continent quite a lot before they were kidnapped and taken to the “new world”. Most of my ancestors were enslaved. Some were also enslavers. Most people in the Caribbean have this shared history.
My DNA is spread across the world because people were kidnapped, separated from their parents and families at birth and throughout life, compounded by being bought, sold and dehumanised. I have accepted that in the majority of cases, I will never solve the mystery…but I will keep trying!
Overall, doing my DNA has been a positive thing. I feel enlightened. I feel connected. I feel whole. I have now met relatives in person, who a few years ago I did not even know existed. It has been quite a journey. I thank everyone who has been involved in the struggle for freedom then and I thank everyone who is involved in working and advocating for a free and fair world today.
If you would like to speak with me about my ancestral journey, please do reach out. Outside of this very absorbing hobby, I am a consultant, coach and author.