By: Darius Brown

Darius Brown discovered he had an above average amount of African DNA, leading him on a journey to discover the origins of his enslaved ancestors in Africa.

My exploration into my family’s history was sparked by a deep-seated curiosity about my West African ancestors. The journey began between 2017 and 2018, when I undertook a series of DNA tests to unravel the intricacies of my genetic makeup. The first test, 23andMe in 2017, was just the beginning, followed by and FamilyTreeDNA in the subsequent year. The cumulative results were nothing short of astonishing, revealing that I had a genetic makeup between 96-98 percent African.

This discovery challenged prevailing DNA studies, which suggested that the average African American possessed European ancestry ranging from 15-20 percent. However, it was the results from that stirred a profound interest in my family’s history. The desire to connect with my roots deepened when I joined a genealogy/DNA group on Facebook, where I crossed paths with Kimberly Morgan, a local genealogist, who would become an instrumental guide in my quest.

I Began the Search For Our Origin Story in Africa

My initial goal may have appeared overly ambitious:

  • Trace an ancestor back to Africa
  • Pinpoint the ship that brought them to America
  • Identify the slave owner.

This ambitious vision was inspired by a rare family story from Charleston, South Carolina, where a family knew such intricate details, and I was determined to follow in those footsteps.

Undeterred by the enormity of the task, I immersed myself wholeheartedly in genealogy. Research became a part of every facet of my life, from work breaks to sunup to sundown sessions on my laptop or smartphone. The burning desire to connect with Africa fueled my passion, accelerating my learning curve and accumulating research hours at a pace that seemed almost insatiable.

Oral Histories and Archival Research Revealed My Ancestors Slave Owners

To realize my ambitious goal, I delved into the challenging task of researching my ancestors during chattel slavery. Armed with oral histories directly from my elders, I had a unique advantage—knowing six out of eight great-grandparents and one set of great-great-grandparents. This wealth of information allowed me to trace my family’s roots back to large plantations in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

The oral histories were invaluable, providing not only the names of ancestors but also the names of slave owners. My paternal great-grandfather knew the full name of the man who enslaved his grandfather, and my great-grandmother knew the surname of the family who enslaved her paternal grandparents. The names resonated.

  • John Joyner Smith
  • the Daniel Blake family
  • General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

Each is rooted in the oldest and most prominent families of Beaufort, Charleston, and Colleton Counties.

My ancestors Fortune’s and Lena’s families at Pinckney Island, 1826, in Charles Cotesworth Pinckney’s Estate Inventory 1826.
My ancestors Fortune’s and Lena’s families at Pinckney Island, 1826, in Charles Cotesworth Pinckney’s Estate Inventory 1826.

Further archival research brought me face to face with records created by these men and their families that survived through the centuries. The Pinckney family records, spanning three centuries from the early 1700s, proved to be more abundant than any other papers I searched.

The records chronicled not only their engagement in everyday life but also their involvement in the legalized system of chattel slavery once they arrived in Carolina. The majority of my ancestors were born on Port Royal Island, with branches of my family extending to numerous islands in Beaufort and Charleston, along with Colleton County.

Across these many counties, my ancestors labored on those respective families’ large rice or sea island cotton plantations until their emancipation in November of 1861, a moment coinciding with the beginning of the Civil War.

List of enslaved people who escaped in the Santee Raid, Confederate Citizen File of Arthur Middleton Blake, 1863.
List of enslaved people who escaped in the Santee Raid, Confederate Citizen File of Arthur Middleton Blake, 1863. My ancestors London and Daphne and their children George, London Jr, Tilla, Sarah.

My best-case scenario unfolded during the research on the Blake family plantations. These expansive rice plantations spanned thousands of acres of land along the Combahee and Santee rivers, serving as homes to hundreds of enslaved people. Through meticulous research, I unearthed ship records that revealed the Blake family’s consistent purchases of Africans from a slave trading firm in Charleston, South Carolina. These purchases, predominantly from the Gambia River and Sierra Leone, began in the 1750s.

Applying DNA Testing To My Research Confirmed Recorded Histories

A pivotal juncture in my research involved the integration of DNA testing to connect with other descendants whose ancestors shared the same plantations. Combined with the use of Civil War pension files, especially those of the US Colored Troops of South Carolina, who often started their service in Beaufort, I obtained firsthand testimony from my ancestors and other relatives.

DNA Results Can Connect Multigenerational Enslaved Families

As the importation of Africans became illegal in 1808, the enslaved population began to grow through natural births, giving rise to multi-generational families. A notable example is a branch of my family that was initially enslaved by the Pinckney family for six generations but came to an end when they were sold to another family in 1852.

However, both enslaved families and enslavers experienced multi-generational continuity, leading to probate and estate divisions that tore apart families. This is where genetic genealogy emerged as a powerful tool. By utilizing DNA testing and third-party genealogical tools like Gedmatch and DNA Painter, I managed to piece together fragments of broken family ties.

Triangulated segments of DNA on these third-party websites indicated common ancestors among separated families. Implementing Y-DNA and mtDNA tests from FamilyTreeDNA helped to determine if certain individuals were directly related on their paternal or maternal line when the paper trail wasn’t clear, providing insights into their deep roots.

This genetic confirmation, aligned with historical records, significantly strengthened the validity of my genealogical research. The convergence of historical documents and genetic evidence not only enhanced the credibility of the research but also provided a comprehensive understanding of multi-generational families on Lowcountry plantations.

Deposition of Penda Blake in Peter Blake’s Pension File.
Deposition of Penda Blake in Peter Blake’s Pension File. Her name is a testament to the survival of Senegambian names that survived on the Blake plantation. Penda Blake is a cousin of mine, per oral history and confirmed by DNA evidence.

My Immediate Family Also Carried a High Retention of African DNA

Being a part of the Gullah community meant that I belonged to a distinctive group of African Americans from the coastal regions of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, maintaining strong cultural and genetic ties with many West and Central Africans.

While Gullah people are often acknowledged for their distinct accent and cultural connections to Sierra Leone, our high retention of African DNA is primarily explored by historians and geneticists rather than common members of the community. Choosing this less-explored route is what led me to research the distinctive genetic connection retained by the Gullah, ultimately using DNA testing to assist me in my research.

This involved purchasing DNA tests for multiple family members. Remarkably, all my immediate family members have scored a total African percentage similar to or higher than mine, with one of my uncles receiving results of 100 percent African on several DNA companies, including FamilyTreeDNA.

Understanding African Geography and Cultures is Vital To Understanding DNA Research

My approach involved a meticulous search for Africans within both my DNA matches and those of my family members. The consistent discovery of distant African cousins served as compelling evidence of a shared ancestry, transcending the barriers of time and geographical distance.

Our DNA matches spanned several places in West Africa, encompassing countries like:

    • Cameroon
    • Ghana
    • Nigeria
    • Senegal
    • Gambia
    • Mali
    • Sierra Leone
    • Liberia

    These matches vividly showcased the diverse ethnic makeup of African Americans, representing groups such as:

    • The Yoruba people from the southwestern region of Nigeria and parts of Benin and Togo in West Africa
    • The Igbo people from southeastern Nigeria, primarily in the states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, and Imo
    • The Akan people from the Ashanti Region and other parts of the central and southern regions of Ghana in West Africa
    • The Wolof people from Senegal, a country located in West Africa
    • The Mandinka people from West Africa, particularly in countries such as Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso
    • The Fulani people from Sahel region of West Africa, spanning countries such as Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad
    • The Mende people from the southern and eastern regions of Sierra Leone, including areas such as the Southern Province and the Eastern Province

    Significantly, specific regions in the Americas displayed a heightened affinity for particular areas in West Africa. For example, Brazil exhibited a connection with Angola, and Jamaica with Ghana. Despite Gullah being a blend of various ethnic groups from West and Central Africa, a robust link to the Senegambia region down to Sierra Leone was evident.

    DNA Testing Confirmed Strong Family Connections

    Moreover, the DNA matches of those involved in my plantation research project were truly eye-opening. Remarkably, nearly all of our cousins from Senegal, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have South Carolina designated as a genetic community, based on the numerous Identical by Descent (IBD) segments they share with individuals from South Carolina. This designation strongly indicates that many of the Africans from that region who were brought to South Carolina were indeed their relatives, emphasizing the intricate web of familial connections. Many of these matches originated from the same ethnic groups and bore the same surnames.

    A compelling example is my uncle, who shares genetic connections with at least 10 cousins from Guinea Conakry, specifically from the Diallo and Bah families. This revelation gains particular significance considering that his paternal grandfather’s entire family had been enslaved by the Blake family for at least 3 generations. The Blake family, involved in the purchase of Africans from Sierra Leone, also included individuals from Guinea. This discovery adds a profound layer to my comprehension of our familial ties, revealing not only shared genetic heritage but also common ethnic affiliations and surnames among our extended family network.

    Chronicling My Family History

    The culmination of six years of exhaustive research is meticulously documented in my book, At the Feet of the Elders: A Journey into a Lowcountry Family History. This comprehensive work not only delves into the intricate details of my enslaved ancestors’ lives but also offers a profound insight into the remarkable journey that ultimately led to their freedom in 1861. It stands as a testament to the resilience and strength of generations past, ensuring that their stories are not forgotten.

    As I continue to uncover more layers of my family’s history, this book serves as both a record of the past and an inspiration for future generations to explore the rich tapestry of their own heritage.

    My book can currently be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Google Play.

At the Feet of the Elders: A Journey Into Lowcountry Family history
Darius M Brown

About the Author

Darius M. Brown

Author and Genetic Genealogist

Darius M. Brown is a Genetic Genealogist and Research Assistant at the International African American Museum in Charleston, SC. With over 6 years of experience in genealogy, he specializes in researching enslaved African Americans in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Mr. Brown has conducted extensive research on various lines of his family, tracing them back to the colonial period. Notably, he has reconstructed the enslaved population at several plantations, including Old Fort, Otaheite, Blue Mud, and the Blake Plantations, situated in Beaufort, Charleston, and Colleton Counties, South Carolina.

In addition to his work, Mr. Brown is featured on a drive and tour app called Free & Equal, available on the Apple and Google Play stores. Currently pursuing both his Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Management at the College of Charleston, and certification in DNA and Genetic Genealogy from the International Institute of Genealogical Studies.