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 Wurttemberg, 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 1623.
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 Heinegg.”
When New York Times Columnist Mitchell Owens’ wrote a story entitled Surprises in the Family Tree, he credited uncovering his own surprises due to the work of Paul Heinegg. While this may have been a new and welcome discovery by the author, we bet that many serious students of 17th-, 18th-, or early 19th-century African-American genealogy would have heard of him. Heinegg is the author of two authoritative books published by Clearfield Company: Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina from the Colonial Period to About 1820 (now in its Fifth Edition) and Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware from the Colonial Period to 1810.
Paul Heinegg’s interest in the early roots of African Americans goes back to 1985, when he started to research his wife’s maternal line. His findings confirmed that the blurring of lines between servitude and early slavery, occurring until about 1715, made for what Professor John Boles has described as a “biracial camaraderie” and frequent unions between blacks and non-slave-owning whites of the same class.
Such novel results encouraged Mr. Heinegg to expand the scope of his work; in fact, his goal is now to trace the roots of every free black family living in the Southeastern colonies. Working from microfilm copies of deeds, wills, tax records, and other local sources, he has been able to trace the origins of over 12,000 individuals who are related to colonial freedmen. His accomplishments are all the more remarkable when one considers that he conducted most of his research from places like Tanzania and Saudi Arabia, where his livelihood as a petroleum engineer took him and his family.
Mr. Heinegg’s books are important in other ways. From the standpoint of social history, they dispel a number of myths about the origins and status of free African Americans, such as the “mysterious” origins of the Lumbees, Melungeons, and other such marginal groups, and they demonstrate conclusively that many free African-American families in colonial North Carolina and Virginia were landowners. Considered from the standpoint of methodology, Heinegg’s work illustrates how to get the most mileage out of the scant records, particularly for African Americans, of the colonial period.
Image credit: Arch Goins and family, Melungeons from Graysville. Archival family photograph from the 1920s, provided to http://www.geocities.com/melungeonorigin/maomg2.html by Barbara Goins. By Badagnani at en.wikipedia. Later version(s) were uploaded by John at en.wikipedia. [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.