Throughout history, populations have been on the move. The Pilgrims moved to America to escape religious intolerance. And throughout time, humans have relocated to find refuge and/or opportunity. But did you know that those journeys can be reflected in your DNA?
Ancestry scientists can now detect groups of people based on DNA connections (matches) that they call “communities.” As they’ve looked to see what these groups have in common, what they’ve found is history. They can see the diaspora that followed Irish Potato Famine more than 150 years ago recorded in the genes of the descendants of the million Irish who left, or the Great Migration of African Americans from areas in the South to northern cities that started a century ago.
As WWI began, the flood of immigration to the U.S. from Europe slowed to a trickle. At that same time, American servicemen were leaving the workforce for the trenches in Europe. Northern factories, mines, railroads, and meatpacking plants needed workers to fill those jobs, and the nearest pool of available labor was African Americans from the rural South. Some companies even sent agents to the South to recruit workers to move to the North.
In an era when lynchings and other atrocities were all too common, and Jim Crow laws and segregation stifled and oppressed African Americans, it’s not surprising that many sought a way out of the South. Couple that with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the boll weevil infestation of the early 1900s, which decimated cotton crops, and the motivation to find a better life prompted millions of African Americans to leave the only life they knew in favor of a new start.
By the time the Great Migration was over in the 1960s, more than 6 million African Americans had migrated to the North and West. It’s estimated that only 10% of Blacks lived outside the South prior to the Great Migration. Afterward, that percentage had increased to around 47%, with most living in northern urban centers like Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, and Indianapolis. Many also went westward, creating communities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Denver, Seattle and Portland. As early migrants found success, word spread, driving more immigration in an exodus that lasted through the 1960s.
Where emigrants ended up can provide great clues to where they came from in the first place. And now these clues are showing up in DNA test results.
During the Great Migration, peopleoften followed predictable routes. For example, African Americans from Mississippi showed up in Chicago in large numbers between 1925 and 1950. Looking at this map of the Illinois Central Railroad, it’s not hard to see why.
Map citation: Map courtesy the Library of Congress. Rand Mcnally and Company, and Illinois Central Railroad Company. Map of Illinois Central R.R. [Chicago, 1892] Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/98688682/.
Émigrés from the Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas had both water and north-south rail routes to cities like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. Those paths are reflected in maps generated by AncestryDNA test results combined with data found in Ancestry online trees.
Folks looking to leave Louisiana and Texas often had their sights set on California via the Southern Pacific, particularly during the 1940s-1960s.
We can see earlier movements, and small stories, as well. In the 1790s, the cotton industry was just starting to spread into upland South Carolina, following the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. Before that, slavery wasn’t as common in upland South Carolina, where one in every five people was enslaved, and most of them were working in the timber and mining industries, as well as farming. As Tennessee opened for settlement, in the first decades of the 1800s we see this largescale movement to the Western Highland Rim, another area where the mining of iron ore was lucrative.
We can even see the paths that some fugitive slaves and free persons of color took from Virginia across the Ohio River into Ohio, prior to 1850. Additionally, there is a community in Canada, which would grow quickly following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. That legislation levied serious fines and possible prison time for those caught aiding fugitives and required fugitives be returned to their owners. African Americans had no say as they were brought to a hearing in front of a commissioner who was paid $10 for siding with the slaveowner and $5 for siding with the fugitive. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant that it was no longer safe anywhere in the United States for African Americans, regardless of their status as a slave or free person. Canada was the only true safe haven.
How New Scientific Advances Can Aid Your Research
Look at your AncestryDNA matches who share these same migratory communities. Look to matches where you know how you are related. That is a clue to which part of your family may have been a part of this community.
Look for evidence of your ancestor’s journey in records. Do the birth places of family members and their parents in the census match the paths that a community took? Browse your ancestor’s neighborhood and look for patterns. Are many of your ancestor’s neighbors in the North sharing the same birth state in the South? These could be clusters of people who migrated together or who came to join others who had migrated earlier, but are from the same area as your ancestor.
For example, looking at this 1870 census recordfrom Alachua County, Florida, we can see that the Watkins family was mostly born in South Carolina. However, the youngest children, under the age of 5, were born in Florida. Looking at their neighbors, you find that many of their households follow the same pattern. Everyone older than around 5 or 6 was born in South Carolina, and those younger were born in Florida.
Since the Gainesville area of Alachua County, where these families were, was in Confederate control, it’s most likely that these African Americans from South Carolina arrived at the close of the Civil War. Some searches online revealed that in May 1865, the 3rdU.S. Colored Infantry Regiment was stationed at Gainesville, and it was followed by several other companies of colored troops. Their presence would have made this an appealing place to settle for newly freed slaves. It was also predicted that there would be a large cotton crop that year, so former slaves from South Carolina and Georgia were being recruited.
It’s very possible that many of these families originated in the same area of South Carolina—potentially areas where the 3rd Colored Infantry was stationed in South Carolina before it was sent to Florida.
While more research will need to be done to piece together the story of how this community came to be, there is no question that the new U.S. African American Communities in AncestryDNA results are a powerful new tool. When family history and AncestryDNA combine, they can tell some powerful stories from history and guide you to your family story.