In 1977, workers building a highway in the US state of Maryland came across an abandoned cemetery in the middle of the woods. In the unmarked graves there were mostly women and children. The oldest date back to the 18th century. They were the black slaves from the Catoctin furnace, a nearby iron foundry. Now, in an unprecedented study, the DNA extracted from 27 of those corpses has revealed their history, determined their place of origin in Africa and found tens of thousands of current relatives, including almost 3,000 direct descendants; something impossible until now, because in that country blacks were not included in the national census until 1870.
The vast majority of the 45 million black African-Americans in the United States are descended from half a million slaves who were brought from Africa between the 16th and 19th centuries. The lack of records means that most do not know their origins beyond the last third of the 19th century. Frederick Douglass, a Maryland slave who escaped his masters, reunited with his wife, and dedicated his new life to promoting abolition, described it perfectly in his memoirs in 1855. Slaves, he said, know so little about their their age and origins like horses, and their owners take great care that this is the case. That’s why, he said, “family trees don’t grow among slaves.”
The new study has been possible thanks to the collaboration of associations, relatives, experts in ancient DNA, and the huge database of the company 23andMe, a kind of Google of genetics with 14 million users spread all over the world. A few years ago, organizations that had excavated the abandoned Catoctin smelter cemetery turned to the company to find people who had certain genetic sequences that remain identical to those of the 27 slaves that were buried between 1774 and 1850. the more shared DNA fragments, the greater the relatedness.
The results, published today in the journal Science, a benchmark for the best scientific research, recover a story that spans three centuries and three continents. The full genomes of 9.2 million Americans who were 23andMe customers and had given permission for their genome to be used, anonymized, for research projects, were analyzed. Thus, 41,779 relatives of the blacksmith’s slaves have been located. Among them there are 2,975 who retain at least 0.4% of the DNA of their ancestors, which probably makes them direct descendants.
Great Great Grandsons of Slaves
Iñigo Olalde, a geneticist at the University of the Basque Country and co-author of the study, explains: “The level of kinship of some people in this group is equivalent to one of the slaves being the father or mother of their great-great-grandfather or great-grandmother.” “In other cases the relationship is less direct, and they may have shared a common ancestor, for example a cousin. Until now, this type of study was limited to the DNA of current people and small databases were used; we now have millions of people, which has allowed us to bring to light the family history of today’s African-Americans. DNA cannot be erased like writing, ”he adds.
In the cemetery there were members of at least five families. Most are women and children, including a mother in her thirties whose young son was buried on top of her shortly after her. It is not known why there are hardly any men, perhaps because they were sold or because they were buried elsewhere. The skeletal remains bear the scars of the terrible life they were subjected to: back injuries from carrying heavy loads, dental problems and extraordinary levels of zinc from the fumes from the smelter. Genetic analysis shows that the majority of slaves were descended through the patrilineal line of men originating in England and Ireland. This supports that white masters raped or sexually subjected slaves to have offspring, according to the study.
The DNA clarifies that the slaves were originally from the Wolof and Mandinka peoples, from Senegal and Gambia, and the Kongo, from Central Africa. “It is a level of precision that had not been reached before,” highlights Cristian Capelli, professor of human evolution at the University of Oxford (United Kingdom), who a few years ago signed one of the largest studies on the origins of the descendants of slaves. from America. The origins in that case were more mixed, depending above all on the country and nationality of the slave ships. “In the case of Catoctin we are probably dealing with a very compact group that had just arrived from Africa. Judging by the places of origin, it is most likely that they arrived aboard British slave ships”, he adds.
Current view of the Catoctin smelter, in the state of Maryland (United States). Cam Miller
The Catoctin smithy was already fully operational in 1776. About 270 slaves worked there, who, among other things, made bombs that were used in the American War of Independence against England. After the fighting was over, the slaves, to whom England had promised freedom if it won the war, remained the property of their masters, including those of George Washington, the first president of the United States, as geneticist Fatimah LC Jackson recalls. “If the English had won the war and kept their word, African-American slaves could have been free 100 years earlier, about five generations,” she writes in a companion article to the study. It is “disappointing”, adds the researcher, that the genetics of chronic diseases in African-Americans has not been analyzed, when in the United States this group has a higher incidence of cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes than descendants of Europeans
In the mid-19th century, the Catoctin slaves were replaced by wage earners of European origin. It is not known what happened to them, but the study shows that most of their current descendants continue to live in the state of Maryland. There was also a great migratory odyssey, since the closest relatives of the smelter captives today live thousands of kilometers away, in southern California.
as if they were animals
Historian Elizabeth Comer is president of the Catoctin Historical Society and the daughter of another historian who participated in the excavations of the cemetery in the late 1970s. Comer has spent nearly 10 years collecting official records, church records, and personal diaries to try to identify descendants of the Catoctin slaves. For now, she has managed to name and surname two groups of descendants. The first are Crystal Emory and Steve Pilgrim, white descendants of Robert Patterson, an African-American who worked at the foundry. On the other side are the Winston sisters and her mother, African-Americans descended in a direct line from Henson Summers, who began his life as a slave and ended it as a free man. “My dream is to reconnect all the descendants of Catoctin with their past,” Comer explains in a telephone interview. Among the documents she has recovered are 16 newspaper advertisements offering rewards for escaped slaves from Catoctin. She identified them as “black Harry, black Len…”, and described them as if they were animals, for example, referring to their hair as “wool”.
One of the advertisements in the press that offered a reward for the arrest of two escaped slaves. CFHS
This study is so new and atypical that it is not known what its consequences will be. 23andMe is considering whether and how to inform its clients of their relationships to the slaves—they may not want to know—as they must comply with privacy regulations.
In parallel, the company is in the process of analyzing the genome of the descendants already identified to deliver the results. Éadaoin Harney, the company’s geneticist, explains: “About 80% of our customers agree to their genome being used for research. That makes us the largest database of its kind in the world, far larger than any public repository. In the future, we want to determine how we can connect more people with their origins.”
“I am often asked,” Douglas wrote in another of his autobiographical books, “how I felt the day I arrived in free territory.” “There is no other episode of my life that I can give a more resounding answer. A new world opened before me. If life is more than breathing and flowing blood, I lived more in a day than in a whole year of slavery.”
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