Tag Archives: African American genealogy

Genealogy Pt 2: Ancestry DNA tests

I’ve been meaning to update my blog about my recent genealogy efforts.   For my birthday this year I purchased myself an Ancestry.com DNA test. The results came back a lot faster than I expected.  One thing with ancestry.com versus other websites is that it links your DNA with your family tree on ancestry.com.  It also will show people who are related to you in their system.  When I got my results, the first person on my list was labeled as a potential first or second cousin.  Well after speaking with her I discovered that she was my dad’s first cousin.  I knew nothing about her, had nothing about her family on my tree and yet ancestry.com connected her correctly to me. That gave me confidence that it was pretty accurate.


My genetic break down was 77% West African, 13% British and 7% Finnish initially (the rest was unknown), it has since changed as Ancestry.com updated their system.  I loved that my African ancestry was so strong. So often in the black community people assume that more European features or lighter skin means that you have a higher percentage of European ancestry.  I’ve studied my family’s genealogy enough to know that outward appearance is not always a strong reflection of genetic makeup.  Or when you think about African Americans who descended from slaves, we know that all of us have some white ancestry somewhere down the line so complexion and features may not always be a good indicator.


My main goal for doing my DNA was the genealogy connections it could provide. I initially did my own and connected with people who showed up as third or fourth cousins.  The problem is I had no clue what side of the family they were on. To help isolate who was who, I also tested my mother and grandmother.  That was a huge help! From there I was able to tell who was from my father’s side and my maternal grandfather’s side as well without even testing them. It definitely has helped narrow down how I am connected to some people and thus enabled us to find our common ancestors.  I have yet to find any for sure common ancestors yet with those who are more distant cousins, but that has not stopped me from trying.  I think eventually some of us will find the connection and if not, it’s cool knowing we are related.


This month Ancestry.com update their DNA profiles and provided more details and more breakdowns. Before it would just say West African, now it gives you more specific regions and the modern day country.  I also now have more details on my European Ancestry. Whereas before it only showed British and Finnish, now it’s showing those two plus, Irish, Italian, Scandinavia and Iberian Peninsula. 


I remember as a child my dad telling me that there was an Italian ancestor and low and behold a less than one percent of Italian showed up on my DNA profile today with the extended profile. It did not show up on my mother and grandmother’s profile, so I assume that falls in line with the story my dad told me when I was a little girl.  It was great to see that the oral history that has been passed down for generations appears to be supported by DNA.


Oh and what you are not going to see is a large percentages of  “Native American”. Contrary to popular belief African Americans do not have the percentages of Native American that we’ve been led to believe.  On my dad’s side, they have pretty well documented Native American ancestry.  I do have small percentages of Asian ancestry, less than one percent, which may be account for the Native American ancestry.  Some theories are that Native Americans in North America came over from Asia forever ago so it’s very possible that is where it comes from.  You hear so many people claim to be a quarter Native American and I can say from the three profiles I’ve done and the others African American profiles I’ve seen on ancestry.com, I’ve yet to see anyone with a  large percentage of anything that can be linked back to Native Americans so I’m going to call that a myth.  


I plan on doing one of the more expensive DNA tests through National Geographic or another company eventually.  I will post to my blog when I do.  I also plan on testing a few other family members to see what we find. For example I have a cousin who has African American and Vietnamese ancestry so I will be interested to see if the test picks up on that accurately.   Overall I would say I think it’s worth it.  It may not be as accurate as they claim it is but it’s interesting for a person like myself. 

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Researching my Family History this Black History Month

As I have said in many of my previous posts I love History! One of first adventures with History was researching my own family tree beginning when I was about fourteen.  Working with my mother we started the process that I would later pick up about ten years later.  As an African American the information out there is limited but there is still a lot of information that is worth discovering.  For about the last two years I have researched primarily using ancestry.com my family history off and on.  I picked up my research again this month, ironically black history month.  The experience has hands down been my favorite research project.

My favorite genealogy moment was finding out that my great great great great  grandfather, a farmer, lived in Boone County, Missouri, the same county that is home to my alma mater University of Missouri.  Before I found a census record with his name John Barnes, I was unaware that my family lived in Boone County in the 1800s.  It was such a wow moment for me! Although I was born in Kansas City, I grew up in Houston but for some reason I decided to venture back to Missouri to attend college and stayed for law school.  It was like coming full circle for me!  Mizzou was founded in 1839 and my 4x grandfather was born in 1849.  I wondered if he was aware of the nearby college that young white students were matriculating to every year.   Was it even fathomable to him that some day blacks would be able to attend this institution?  Could my 4x grandfather even imagine that he would have two 4x great grandchildren graduate from this institution about 150 years after he was born?  I walked across a stage in a county where my ancestors were farmers and marginalized.  That honestly made my degrees from the University of Missouri mean even more to me.

This is a picture of my great grandfather Homer with his father Willie Sims.  Before this picture Homer had not seen his father since he was seven years old and believed that he was deceased.  Finding anything else on Willie Sims including his parents names has been difficult and one of my biggest frustrations in my research.  Researching your family history is a rewarding and a frustrating experience at the same time but I will say that it is totally worth it! Here are a few tips that I learned over the years.  I do not consider myself an expert in genealogy but I have found quite a bit so far.

1.  People did not use their “government names”

You are going to find varying spellings of your ancestor’s names.  Do not discount a record because the name is a little different, or a nickname. For example my grandmother told me that she had an Aunt Gussie and Uncle Babe.  I found a census record with those exact names, so I thought wow they really named this man Babe! Well then I found another census record that matched up with birthdates but the name was Isaiah.  Another example is my great grandfather.  His name was likely James Monroe Harrison but I constantly see the name flipped as Monroe James.  It could be that everyone called him by his middle name. The changing names makes for very frustrating researching, but the birth dates or years helps cut down the confusion.

My great grandfather listed here as Monroe Harrison but often referenced as James Monroe Harrison.  I am starting to think Monroe may have been his middle name but what everyone called him.

2. Can’t find birth certificates? Don’t worry go for death certificates!

Death certificates are actually better because they give more information than a birth certificate.  The state of Missouri has death certificates from all counties from about 1900-1961 online for FREE!  I found death certificates for a lot of my ancestors and they included not only their birth date but also their date of death, their spouses’ name, their parents’ name, the state their parents’ were born in, and what their occupation was.  It will also tell you how they died.  From a death certificate I confirmed a rumor that a great great grandfather died from syphilis! This is one document that if filled out in it’s entirety is a great source of information!

This is what I believe is my 4x great grandfather’s death certificate. Notice the different spelling of his name.  Here it is listed as Jno but other records including census records list his name as John Barnes. His date of birth and place of birth also indicates that he was born into slavery.

3. Remember important dates!

1890- In 1890 there was a census but unfortunately a fire ruined it about a hundred years ago.  I was SO mad when I found this out!  I think it may have held the information about my one elusive ancestor.

When slavery ended- Understand that there really is not one date for this and it really varies depending on the state.   I have kind of used the date of the 13th amendment, 1865, a few years after the emancipation proclamation was signed. This is benchmark date because before then you likely will not find you ancestors in census records.

-The Great Migration around 1910-1930 – This was the point where African Americans began to migrate north for better opportunities.  During this time frame I found my family moved from Southern states like Tennessee and Mississippi to Missouri.  This may be the time frame that you will find your ancestors moving as well so keep that in mind.

4. Don’t forget siblings!

At first I was only researching direct lineage and was not bothering with my ancestors’ siblings.  One day I got bored and started adding siblings and I discovered even more information just from them.  More importantly this will give you more sources for your direct ancestors.  For example my great great grandfather’s sister’s death certificate gave me an alternate name for their father, which was helpful with my research.

5. Realize that some information will be wrong and be open to conflicting information.

The main thing I find that is often wrong is birth dates.  I assume that many of them may not have really known their birth date.  Oral history is also helpful but can be wrong as well.  Be open to information that conflicts with what you heard from grandparents and others. Even more frustrating are official government documents that are completely wrong. Early on my in research I found my great great grandmother Gertrude’s death certificate which listed her mother’s name as Gertrude as well but no maiden name.  I was never able to find other supporting documents that her name was Gertrude but I went with it for about two years.  Just recently I finally found a census record that proved Gertrude’s mother’s name was in fact Cora and her death certificate was wrong.  I initially did not trust what my research uncovered particularly since my initial source was a death certificate but things seemed to fit with Cora better.  I was never able to find anything about Gertrude Sr. that fit other details I knew.  Once I switched to Cora I found a lot more information.

It is so easy for these things to happen!  Many African Americans could not read or write and had to depend solely on the staff at these government offices when filling out these documents.  That opens the door for plenty of room for error.   Then I cannot help but to question how their race played into how seriously their death certificates were taken by workers at these offices.   Then there is just plan human error on the part of the informants.   If they did not really know they may have guessed just to put something down.  Whatever the reason is you will find errors but you will have to use logic and other clues to find the real answer.

6. Keep your tree open!

If you decide to use ancestry.com to compile your research (I do recommend it) make sure that your tree is visible to others on the site.  Ancestry.com will not allow the public to see living people on your tree for privacy reasons..  This is a great way to find long lost living relatives as well as a source for more information for your tree.  Not long after I joined Ancestry.com I found one of my mother’s first cousin who she’d never met.  It was great to connect and share information.

Good luck researching! Let me know if you find anything interesting!

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