The French Huguenots

ONE FORGETS AT TIMES, that all of these mysterious “white people” who invaded the shores of Virginia and North Carolina had languages and national origins as diverse as the people who were already living here. Not that they maintained those identities long. My grandmother — born in 1918 — said most of her ancestors were English or British. But modern-day DNA ancestry testing has told a bit of a different tale.

If you have had family in America over multiple centuries, DNA testing is a remarkably useful avenue for family history discovery. Because, if you are like me, your trees essentially end around the time of the 1790 US Federal Census. And, again, we often do not know or are not certain of the family names of our female ancestors. So many origins that could be ascertained by surname are just not there. Where else to turn but DNA?

The first test I got my grandmother to take was called Genographic 2.0. This test has since been discontinued. Many criticized Geno 2.0, which was administered by National Geographic’s Genographic Project, for not having the coverage of the other admixture tests. However, over time, these results have held up remarkably well. When I received my grandmother’s results back, it said she was 42 percent Northern European, 41 percent Mediterranean, and 16 percent Southwest Asian.

I quickly downloaded the raw data and sent it off to Doug McDonald, who provided the following interpretation back:

French= 0.510  English= 0.473  Iranian= 0.000  NaDene= 0.017 or
French= 0.699    Irish= 0.286 Georgian= 0.000  NaDene= 0.015 or
French= 0.832 Lithuani= 0.151    Druze= 0.000  NaDene= 0.017 or
French= 0.662    Irish= 0.329 Mozabite= 0.000     Maya= 0.009 or
French= 0.660    Irish= 0.331 Armenian= 0.000 Columbia= 0.009 or
French= 0.465  English= 0.524 Georgian= 0.000     Maya= 0.012 or
French= 0.464  English= 0.526   Jewish= 0.000 Columbia= 0.011
French= 0.883  Finland= 0.103 Armenian= 0.000  NaDene= 0.014

“Na-Dene” is Athabaskan. This was the first analysis to show some indigenous American ancestry in my grandmother’s DNA. Usually, it skewed more closely to the Athabaskan samples than the Mesoamerican and South American samples. Using a tool called Oracle-X (also discontinued, from GEDmatch), she had the following results for her kit:

1. Mixed Germanic 90.84%  2. Sardinian 6.43% 3. Ecuadorian 1.45% 4. AthabaskHD4 1.22% 5. MEX30 .02% 6. Colombian .02%

1. Mixed Germanic 89.1% 2. Sardinian 4.95% 3. Ecuadorian 3.53% 4. Aragon 2.29% 5, Ethiopian Jews .01%

While this drew out the indigenous genetic ancestry quite well, it’s worth noting that my grandmother’s first matching European population using McDonald’s calculator was French, not English. This matches the Genographic results, because using their reference populations, if she was mostly British, her Northern European should be closer to 50 percent and her Mediterranean should be closer to 30 percent. Yet in Geno 2.0, they are roughly equal.

Now, let’s break out some other results. Originally, AncestryDNA said she was 61 percent “Europe West,” which was essentially France. This has been replaced by 61 percent England, Wales, and Northwestern Europe. It also shows her to have 22 percent Germanic Europe — which is right in line with having a German grandparent (her grandfather was from Germany, but don’t get too excited, they also don’t typically have a high amount of Mediterranean ancestry). It also says she is 14 percent Ireland and Scotland, and 3 percent Swedish.

I was fortunate enough to upload her kit to 23andMe, after she passed away, and they now provide me with the following results: 35.7 percent British and Irish, 33.7 percent French and German, 5.9 percent Scandinavian. Her French and German results actually show French as the first highly likely match and all around the country, not just in Northern France, which might just indicate Norman ancestry. As for that 2.6 Eastern European, very interesting. The matching reference population on this segment is Tatarstan in Russia. This is an ethnic group from North and Central Asia that migrated from Siberia to western Russia centuries ago. It is possible that the Siberian/Athabaskan result is being read as Tatar by the 23andMe algorithm. I have no other explanation.

I also uploaded the data to MyHeritage. This provides an interesting analysis: 40.8 percent Northwestern European, of which just 14.1 percent is English. 17.6 Southern European, of which 15.9 percent Iberian. And 16.6 percent Eastern European. (It’s my personal opinion that that Siberian/Athabaskan ancestry is causing these algorithms to fit her with populations that have similar amounts of Siberian ancestry.)

Now, for the history part. I had to start wondering — while we generically think of the Europeans who moved into Virginia and North Carolina as being English, were there any French settlers as well? Apparently, French Huguenots had begun to settle the area south of the James River extending south into North Carolina by the middle of the 17th century. This book, FraNCe: The French Heritage of North Carolina, notes that Nansemond County, Virginia, and Gates County, North Carolina, were particular destinations for French Protestants fleeing “the Virginia plantation hegemony.” (Interestingly, it cites George Durant, one of my ancestors, as an example of this particular breed of Frenchman. Durant, anglicized from Durand, may have been from a refugee Huguenot family.)

In looking at my grandmother’s tree, I can find a few hints of what might be French surnames. She has an ancestor named Mary Maget/Majette, and this family actually has a paper trail that goes back to Holland. Supposedly, they were a Huguenot refugee family living in Middelburg, the Netherlands, before they moved to Virginia. But with pedigrees that go back to the late 18th century, it’s hard to tell who came before them or what their names are. However, even though the paper records and the memory of this ancestry has been lost, that does not mean that the genetics changed with it. My grandmother apparently had substantial French ancestry. So when people ask, what was your grandmother’s ancestry, I will feel less confident about saying “English” in the future.


One thought on “The French Huguenots

  1. The French Huguenots continued to settle along the coast going as far south as Charleston, as my family, the Gourdins settled in the Beaufort/Charleston/Oceda area to escape religious persecution. I am the decent of a White slave owner Robert Marion Gourdin and his black slave Daphane Singleton, who according to the census records, lived as commin law husband and “wife”Ironically enough, my grandfather migrated north to the Nanesmond area where my grandmother was raised.

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