Posted by Juliana Szucs on February 25, 2019 in AncestryDNA

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.

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.

Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 20 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program.


  1. Me

    While it is true that this area is an area to comment on the article it is under, it is the only way I have a chance to get Ancestry’s attention. Clearly I have tried for weeks and have not succeeded in achieving that. I am still trying to get someone’s attention to remove a record from being shown on’s search site. NOBODY I know has contributed that record or would even have access to it if was not showing it. It is a tourist visa which mentions my name, my birth date, my birth place, has a picture of me, has the names of both my parents and the address where I lived when I obtained this tourist visa for a South American country. How and where that record surfaced I do not know. I most certainly never provided it. What more would any identity thief need to bleed me dry? I am still very much alive and do not like the idea that this data can be obtained on There was a time where protected the living. The reason why we do not have access to the 1950 Census yet is in order to protect the privacy of the living. This tourist visa was obtained decades later. Police officers have told me that is a place where identity thieves do research. should not aid and abet. SHAME ON YOU ANCESTRY.COM.

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      Hi, thanks for getting in touch with us. We’re very sorry for any upset that has been caused by details which you have seen on the Ancestry website. Could you please provide us with a link or the name/description associated with the collection on the site where you have seen this? We’d like to look into that for you right away. Cheers.

    • Me

      Well, I will try that again, but will continue to leave my message on each site until I get some action from you. Writing to you does not mean that I get any action.

      • Me

        Thank you Customer Service for removing my record after three months of my efforts to have you do so. I understand that these changes will be reflected in the next site update. You cannot, on the one hand, tell us that we cannot see the 1950 Census records yet in order to maintain the privacy of the people whose name is on those census records, but then divulge this much information openly. Please review your policy on that.

  2. Catherine Christie

    I know there likely more subcribers to Ancestry in USA, as well as DNA participants.
    I would like to know why, even though I am on the UK site, as most of my ancestors are, why Ancestry insists on transporting me to the USA site, with hints.
    Many of us in the UK, Scots, Irish, and other European countries, did not even move over to the USA, just sometime within our own borders.
    Is there a ways to just keep the hints inside the site we sign up for?

    • R.D.

      Catherine, this is easy for you to do. Enter someone in the search field. Click on the “Show more options”. At the bottom look for “Collection Focus” and click on whichever country you want. It is the location filter for the searches!

  3. Dale

    I am confused. Are blacks the only people that moved from the south to the north and west as you imply? My ancestors moved to Arkansas and Oklahoma and Texas and on to California. They were not African. The implication that our DNA is changed by our migration seems erroneous to me. Which came first the chicken or the egg!

  4. Janice

    I find the genetic communities interesting but I am very puzzled as to why I am not in a Scottish community (father was born in Scotland). It would be so helpful for me to be able to sort folks related to me on my early New England (England) side from my Scots. Is there no way to do this? I have a lot of Scottish DNA matches but no Scottish community – only a New England community. Do I find my Scottish cousins in my New England community? Scot ancestry not in U.S. until 1920s. Thanks.

  5. Dianne

    I do NOT understand why this level of detail is available for the USA when AncestryDNA can’t even show Australia as part of my ethnicity – especially when every single line of my ancestry goes back a minimum of 4 generations in this country. A disappointingly skewed resource is all I can say.

    • Ernest Kapphahn

      Nationality vs. ethnicity. An ethnicity report shows the ethnic group your ancestors were most likely in 500 years ago which may indicate where they came from. Unless you have Aboriginal heritage, it’s unlikely that Australia would be in your ethnicity. It’s much more likely that your ancestors were in Britain or Western Europe in the 1500s.

  6. I do NOT understand why this level of detail is available for the USA when AncestryDNA can’t even show Australia as part of my ethnicity – especially when every single line of my ancestry goes back a minimum of 4 generations in this country. A disappointingly skewed resource is all I can say.

  7. Andyk

    That was the story my grandma told me when I was a young girl, of her journey to the North; however, her daddy didn’t tell her it was going to be a very long train ride away from home. She was in Buffalo, New York and lived her life out in suburban Pittsburgh, PA. I do know she had some Cherokee Indian and black? Grandma did the picking of the cotton and all that….Yet she still raised me to see a person’s heart! Thankfully now we have DNA, because I don’t know my father and now I can locate my people!

  8. I wanna to record my family tree because one day then next generation on our family might check our background online and wanna let them see this family tree

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