How Making Discoveries is Even Easier for African Americans with Latest Updates from Ancestry®

15 May 2023
by Nicka Sewell Smith, Professional Genealogist and Senior Story Producer at Ancestry

As a longtime genealogist, I’ve used a wide range of tools to trace my family history and build my family tree. Records, family trees, and DNA are the foundation of family history research, and they can provide snapshots of our ancestors’ lives and relationships between people. But for many, especially African Americans, when we enter the period of enslavement, records become sparse and many of us hit roadblocks. 

This is where the wonder of scientific innovation comes into play. DNA can step in and help us scale the proverbial brick wall, and for some, lead to the discoveries years in the making. That’s why I’m so excited about the release of new African American and Caribbean DNA communities available on AncestryDNA®, which brings the total to more than 400!

Getting Leads on Lines You’ve Struggled to Trace

Many of us have seen patterns among our DNA matches where the same last names, family trees, and locations repeat, which can help us discover, or rediscover, branches of our family trees. AncestryDNA communities do the same thing by looking at networks of related DNA matches, identifying their geographic locations, and giving us information from the last 50-300 years covering major moments from Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Great Migration and Civil Rights Movement. That means many people will get leads for family lines they’ve struggled to trace and find new discoveries previously unavailable to them through AncestryDNA communities. Discoveries and details even down to the county/parish level in some locations are possible!

Using the New Communities on Ancestry to Trace My Family Movements

This new launch from AncestryDNA unearthed the Eastern Louisiana & Mississippi Border African Americans community in my DNA Story. This community spans as far north as Natchez, Mississippi, and as far south as New Orleans. I’ve traced my ancestors through the paper trail to Vidalia, Louisiana, Woodville, Mississippi, and New Roads, Louisiana which sits within the geographical bounds of the community. Records for ancestors who have ties to Eastern Louisiana & Mississippi Border African Americans can be found in the U.S Freedmen’s Bureau Records from 1865-1878. Louisiana has the second most records in this collection, and in fact, the records that encompass part of what make up Eastern Louisiana & Mississippi Border African Americans are among the earliest in the collection beginning in 1864, which made it ripe for searching for my ancestors.

Within the Freedmen’s Bureau Records on Ancestry I found that my 3x great-grandfather, Robert Sewell, was engaged in a labor contract with Milton Wilson at Black River in Concordia Parish, Louisiana. A letter was written on behalf of Robert on July 8, 1867 and mentioned he produced “26 bales of cotton, about 500 bushels of corn,” but Wilson never settled his account with him despite Robert receiving clothing and household items like a skillet and a broom from Wilson. I haven’t found whether or not settlement happened, but it was great to see an actual receipt of things my ancestor bought right after they were emancipated. Can you believe this level of detail is possible with the help of a community update? 

Letter written on behalf of Robert Sewell, Vidalia, Louisiana, dated July 8, 1867.
Letter written on behalf of Robert Sewell, Vidalia, Louisiana, dated July 8, 1867. Source: U.S., Freedmen’s Bureau Records, 1865-1878, Ancestry.

Unveiling More Discoveries

I continued my journey after this DNA communities launch and found that Robert obtained backpay and a bounty payment for service in the Civil War as a corporal in the United States Colored Troops 76th Infantry. He received $326.86 which was quite a bit of money for the time. And this is just one example of the discoveries I made using the new communities launch.

List of Claimaints, Robert Sewell, company F, 76th Infantry (US Colored Troops).
List of Claimaints, Robert Sewell, company F, 76th Infantry (US Colored Troops). Source: U.S., Freedmen’s Bureau Records, 1865-1878, Ancestry.

For many African Americans, getting this level of detail into your family history can be challenging and seem impossible, but with the tools from Ancestry, like the billions of records and DNA communities, tracing your African American and Afro-Caribbean ancestors is now both possible and easier to do than ever before.

Check your DNA results for new communities and our resource page  for even more details on African American research.