This was my favorite episode so far. More of it took place in libraries and archives than the previous episodes, with lots of looking at records and historians guiding us through their meaning. Second, the profound impact this research had on Underwood really came across.
After taking an Ancestry.com DNA test to help trace his paternal side (which his brother Frank has researched in genealogical records—I wonder if Frank has read Family Tree Magazine?), Underwood crisscrossed Virginia from Richmond to Lynchburg and back (and forth again) to trace two branches on his mom’s side.
Among his discoveries in censuses and registers of free “negroes” was a free African-American ancestor, Samuel Scott. Scott owned two slaves, who we learn were probably his own parents.
Due to an 1806 law regarding freed slaves, the parents would’ve had to leave the state or risk being sold back into slavery if Samuel had not purchased them. This shows how important historical context can be when you’re interpreting historical records about your family.
In another branch was an ancestor, Sawney Early, who was institutionalized in the 1900 census. From newspaper articles, we learn about Sawney’s disputes with white neighbors who’d arrived after the war. Sawney was described as wearing odd clothing and believing himself to be the “second Jesus.” He shot a man’s cow that had wandered into his corn, and was himself shot several times. A historian explains Early was likely a “conjuror”—a spiritual leader and healer in slave communities.
At the end, the DNA test results come in and Underwood’s Y-DNA is a match to a man in Cameroon, so he and his father visit their African cousins. The cousin said he took a DNA test in 2005 for a project to connect people in Cameroon to families in America (I wonder if this was the National Geographic Genographic Project).
A couple of things I want to point out: The DNA testing was very appealing and made it look easy, but I wonder what the chances are of finding such a clear match.
And the show seemed to give up when Sawney Early couldn’t be found in the 1860 census, when he was probably a slave. There are strategies to trace slaves using the 1850 and 1860 censuses, even though they’re not named, and you also can use resources such as wills and estate records and African-American genealogy websites such as these. (Perhaps the researchers tried these methods and came up empty-handed.)
The episode showed that African-Americans can have success tracing their roots in records and through DNA, and it showed how meaningful the journey can be.
Related resources from Family Tree Shop:
- Who Do You Think You Are? The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History by Megan Smolenyak
- Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing by Megan Smolenyak
- African-American Genealogy Value Pack (on sale through the end of February)