The following article appeared in yesterday's NY Times thought it might be of some interest.
Surprises in the Family Tree
January 8, 2004
By MITCHELL OWENS
JOHN ARCHER first appears in Northampton County, Va., in
the mid-17th century. He started a family that prospered,
fought in the Revolutionary War and built a mansion.
Generations later, Archer's blood trickled down to me. It
mingled in my veins with DNA from a gravedigger in
17th-century Württemberg, Germany; from an Appalachian clan
with a recessive gene that turns their skins indigo blue;
and from a rich young widow in Jamestown, Va., whose fickle
heart led to America's first breach-of-promise suit, in
I have been researching my past for two decades, since I
was in high school, so finding a new ancestor is hardly
startling. Learning about John Archer three years ago,
however, was startling. He was black, a slave or indentured
servant freed around 1677. I am white. That's what it says
on my birth certificate. Now I know better, thanks to Paul
A retired oil-refinery engineer in Collegeville, Pa., Mr.
Heinegg, who is white, has compiled genealogies of 900
mixed-race families who lived freely in slaveholding states
in "Free African Americans of North Carolina, South
Carolina and Virginia" and "Free African Americans of
Maryland and Delaware." (The information is posted on a Web
Mr. Heinegg's research offers evidence that most free
African-American and biracial families resulted not from a
master and his slave, like Thomas Jefferson and Sally
Hemings, but from a white woman and an African man: slave,
freed slave or indentured servant.
"Most of the workers in colonial America in the 17th and
early 18th centuries were indentured servants, white and
black," said Dr. John B. Boles, a professor of history at
Rice University in Houston and the editor of "The Blackwell
Companion to the American South" (2001). Since there was
not a clear distinction between slavery and servitude at
the time, he said, "biracial camaraderie" often resulted in
children. The idea that blacks were property did not harden
until around 1715 with the rise of the tobacco economy, by
which time there was a small but growing population of free
families of color. Dr. Boles estimated that by 1860 there
were 250,000 free black or mixed-race individuals.
"Some academics have studied this parallel story of blacks
in America, but it hasn't trickled down to the general
population," Dr. Boles said. "The action is in slavery
studies." Mr. Heinegg is one of the few people to trace the
free black families that lived in slave-owning America:
some of them rich slave owners, most of them poor farmers
and laborers, nearly all of them little known.
"When I saw what Paul had done, my eyes opened wide," said
Dr. Ira B. Berlin, a professor of American history at the
University of Maryland and the founding director of the
Freedmen and Southern Society Project there. Dr. Berlin met
Mr. Heinegg in November 2000 at a conference in Durham,
N.C., about the mixed-race cabinetmaker Thomas Day, a major
antebellum figure. The documentation Mr. Heinegg had
amassed in five years convinced Dr. Berlin to write a
foreword to his book praising his meticulous work.
It is incontrovertible that America is a multiracial
society, from the founding father Alexander Hamilton (the
son of a mixed-race woman from the British West Indies) to
Essie Mae Washington-Williams, 78, a retired schoolteacher,
who, the late Senator Strom Thurmond's family acknowledged
last month, is his daughter. And for decades there have
been questions about the possible mixed-race ancestry of
Ida Stover, Dwight D. Eisenhower's mother.
Since 1997, after it broadcast "Secret Daughter," a
documentary about a mixed-race child given up for adoption
in the 1950's, "Frontline" has been exploring the mixed
ancestry of well-known Americans on its Public Broadcasting
System Web site. One is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose
blood lines, according to the historian Mario de Valdes y
Cocom, go back to the van Salees, a Muslim family of
Afro-Dutch origin prominent in Manhattan in the early
1600's. If any branch of your family has been in America
since the 17th or 18th centuries, Dr. Berlin said, "it's
highly likely you will find an African and an American
That's where Mr. Heinegg, 60, comes in. In 1985, his
mother-in-law, Katherine Kee Phillips, who was black, asked
him to research her family tree. "I had hoped to trace as
many branches of her family back to slavery as possible,"
he said. Instead, he found that Mrs. Phillips and his wife,
Rita, had white ancestors who were not slave masters,
including a woman who started a family with John Kecatan,
an African slave freed in 1666. The ladies were intrigued
by his discoveries but not surprised, Mr. Heinegg said.
Curious about his findings, he began tracing free black
families related to his wife by combing colonial court
records, wills, deeds, free Negro registers, marriage bonds
and military pension files. Many were dauntingly unindexed.
"Nobody has done anything like this," said Dr. Virginia
Easley DeMarce, a historian and former president of the
National Genealogical Society who works for the Office of
Federal Acknowledgment, Department of the Interior, which
decides who is an American Indian. "Paul is the first
person to identify families of color on such a broad
scope," gathering material from entire states rather than
just a county or two.
Dr. Berlin said, "There were communities in 17th- and
18th-century America where blacks and whites, both free, of
equal rank and shared experiences, were working together,
living together, drinking and partying together, and
inevitably sleeping together."
Tracing those communities has not been easy. "People of
color are often not identified as such in early records,"
Mr. Heinegg said. "For example, an individual might appear
in deeds and court records and leave a will without ever
mentioning his race." Sometimes a person's race can be
discerned only by studying the tax assessed on nonwhites.
If a man paid the tax on his wife but not himself, Mr.
Heinegg said, it meant he was white but she was not.
An added challenge is that racial identity can mutate from
free black to white in just a few generations. In my Archer
ancestors' case, it was mixed marriages and a cross-country
move: my great-great-grandfather Esquire Collins and his
wife, Roxalana Archer, are listed as mulatto in an 1800's
Tennessee census but show up as white on a later Arkansas
census. "You crossed over as early as you were able to,"
said Antonia Cottrell Martin, a genealogist in New York.
Mixed-race families who had difficulty passing sometimes
explained dark complexions as coming from an American
Indian or Mediterranean ancestry. "It's what people in the
South used to call Carolina Portuguese," said Dr. DeMarce,
who comes from a mixed-race background.
"Free African Americans of North Carolina," self-published
by Mr. Heinegg in 1991, won an award from the North
Carolina Genealogical Society. (The American Society of
Genealogists gave a later edition the Donald Lines Jacobus
Award for best work of genealogical scholarship.) But the
book also stirred controversy. Some white members of the
North Carolina group were upset with his findings and asked
that the award be withdrawn, Mr. Heinegg said.
Dr. DeMarce said: "He's just publishing the documents. He's
not interpreting them. That's up to anthropologists."
Mr. Heinegg is familiar with racial prejudice. He and his
wife, who met as members of the Brooklyn outpost of the
Congress on Racial Equality, left the country in 1969,
disgusted by what they saw as a lack of progress. They
raised their three daughters in Tanzania, Liberia and Saudi
But even when he was abroad, Mr. Heinegg ordered microfilm
records by mail and spent one-month vacations in the United
States to peer at faded records in county courthouses. He
still works on his research, and updates his book and Web
site regularly. A new edition of "Free African Americans"
is published every two years by Clearfield, a division of
the Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc.,
www.genealogical.com. The latest two-volume paperback costs
$100 and is 1,042 pages long.
The index to Mr. Heinegg's book lists more than 12,000
individuals, including ancestors of mine it would be nice
to know more about, like Richard Nickens and his wife,
Chriss, freed in 1690 by the will of John Carter II, a
prominent Virginia planter. Nickens and his wife were given
two cows, six barrels of corn and the right to farm some
Carter land for life.
Matters like these fascinate me. My brother, Derrick, finds
our black ancestry only mildly interesting, being riveted
instead by our Native American blood. My eldest nephew,
Justin, an elementary school pupil obsessed with islands,
cherishes the knowledge that one ancestor was shipwrecked
on Bermuda in 1609.
Genealogy is not regarded as an academic discipline, Dr.
DeMarce said, which is why Mr. Heinegg's work is not more
widely known. And his lists are published by a specialty
house, not a university press, she said, "so it's unlikely
to be reviewed by a major publication like The American
Mr. Heinegg prefers to let the academics find his work on
their own. Right now, he is busy adding more free black
Virginia families to his list. "My goal," he said, "is to
find the origins of every family that was free in the
Southeast during the colonial period."