Going Down Home Timeline

May 2018 Third trip Down Home

July 2015 Second trip Down Home

October 2014 First trip Down Home

July 2013 to October 2014 Online research and interviews

July 2013 23andme results received

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A little color

Earlier this year, when I was telling a friend about my interest in my Southern mother’s family, he asked “So you have a little color in you?”  When we met, we both had blue eyes, straight hair.  But he had a little color.

Not me. For most of my life, I believed I was of only European ancestry. I have light eyes that have turned hazel with time; skin that burns, then tans; a vanilla exterior that will always seem colorless, thanks to my known English, Irish, French and German ancestry.

When I married a second generation Greek American, my mother started reading Edith Hamilton. “Did you know that the Greeks were originally blondes with blue eyes until they were invaded by the Moors?”  She seemed triumphant.  The fantasy that that my husband had a little color in him seemed to validate something she suspected, something that would define him long before his grandparents landed at Ellis Island. 

It wasn’t until I saw a picture of my great-great grandmother in 2000 that I began to wonder whether my maternal line might have ancestry other than European, and if so, whether that most intimate and lost knowledge was discoverable.

This week I uploaded my 23andme raw autosomal genetic information to Gedmatch in the hope that their admixture tools would provide more information about our supposed Native American ancestry.

Their tools gave me bits and pieces of NA identifications, ranging from .06 percent Artic-Amerindian to .21 percent Amerindian – some modeled results with more than one NA designation, which could be totaled, but never to more than 1 percent.

My African admixture, however, was expressed in ranges from a conservative .82 to wildly speculative 19.66 percent, with Sub-Saharan ancestry in the 1.06 to 8.06 range. 

I’ve included the genome painting from one of the admixture tools, Ethiohelix. Turquoise blue, which is by default called French, is my predominant European ancestry. But on every genome, there are splotches of orange—large and small – and elsewhere, bits of red and yellow and cornflower blue. 

I do have a little color.   

These admixture tests are scientific, yet impressionistic.

Somewhere between colonial America and this digital painting were people who knew who was in their family, people who lived in fear of the “one drop rule,” of the hypo-ascendancy that racial identities could confer.  There were also people who hid what they knew, even after to social consequences had changed, understanding the titillating, gotcha moment of discovery and revelation.

Family, not admixture calculators, are where real information lies.  I have no family to ask about my Gedmatch results.  Next month, in North Carolina, I’ll be talking to strangers.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Mary Ann's story

There is one woman in my maternal line whose story haunts me.  Mary Ann Armstrong Parisher, born in 1835 in Tyrrell County, North Carolina to parents William Graham Armstrong and his wife Mariah, my great great grandmother, appears in a picture given to me by a Parisher family researcher to be biracial or tri-racial.  

There are several reasons why her appearance and unknown racial identity are of special interest to me:

1.  Her father, William G. Armstrong, and his father, Holloway Armstrong, were both slave holders.

2.  A various times throughout Mary Ann's life, there were "free colored" members of Armstrong households.  In the 1850 and 1860 Tyrrell County, NC census rolls (and earlier) we find people with the surnames Hill, Bryan and Rousom in the households of Mary Ann's father, her grandfather, Holloway Armstrong, Charlotte (his widow), and other Armstrong kin (Jones D. Armstrong, and Bennett Armstrong.) Sometimes, as in the case of Micajah Rousom, a member of Mary Ann's household when she was a girl, they were apprenticed children.  

3.  Members of those three families living in Armstrong households are free persons of color identified in census records as black or mulatto.  Those surnames are also associated with Native families of Tyrrell County.  It seems likely that the Hills, Bryans and Rousoms who lived with the Armstrongs were not only biracial, but tri-racial.  (Alternate spellings: Bryant, Rowsom, Rowsome)

4.  Mary Ann's mother, Mariah, had both the maiden and surname Armstrong. I have not yet been able to find a record of Mariah's parents.

5.  Which brings me to a question that I'm hoping my trip Down Home might answer: were the Hills, Bryans and Rousoms, who were related to each other, also related to the Armstrongs?  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Women's Stories

Both of my parents lost their mothers before I was born.  

My dad did not talk about his mother, but my mother spoke often of hers, and always as if Inez Chesson Snell had been an angel.  She could sing beautifully, play the piano by ear, make a dress without a pattern.  Quick to laugh, resourceful, a woman of faith, humor and resilience. My mother would sometimes examine my hands and declare them a genetic copy of Inez's hands.

The underlying message was that this lovely good woman who I never had the chance to know did not deserve the hard life she led with her alcoholic, irresponsible husband.  She did not deserve to die at 50 of stomach cancer, wasted and skeletal thin.  

My mother often seemed stuck in loss.  I would give anything in this world to have a mother, she would say, especially when she was making the point that I did not seem to appreciate her.  And although I don't think she ever told me that her mother would have adored me, I liked to think that would have been the case.  

Fact is, I didn't have the opportunity to know any of my four grandparents, not the women who died before I was born, not the men who showed no interest in me.

And so I am drawn to this lovely, imagined, magical woman, who was a hauntingly beautiful child, as if she were the ancestor who could serve as the link to all family stories.

Without a male relative to genotype, mitochondrial DNA is all I have to tell our story.  And so it becomes women’s stories.  Me; my mother; Inez; her mother, Sarah Parisher Chesson; her mother, Mary Ann Armstrong Parisher; her mother, Mariah Armstrong.

Mary Ann Armstrong is the last for whom I have a picture.

Mariah Armstrong is the last woman in my maternal line for whom I have a name.

My mother is the last for whom I have a story, and even that is incomplete.  I don’t really know about her life Down Home, before she settled down, became a mother and a Northern housewife.  

I often imagine that it was wild, and full of secrets.  Actually, I’m pretty sure it was.