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Kindred: My Search for Myself

Written By: Sandra Starks McCollum

Africans have an expression that if you cannot call the names of your ancestors for seven generations you do not know who you are

The 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in The United States occurred in 2019, marking a significant historic occasion for our Nation. We should reexamine the description of the First Settlers to include the 23 Angolan Africans who were counted in the census of the first successful English settlement in North America. One year before The Mayflower arrived, and 113 years before the birth of George Washington, John Rolfe, widower of Pocahontas, confirmed the arrival of their ship on an official document in Jamestown Virginia. Though their arrival in 1619 was enmeshed in sinister purposes, they became a vibrant part of the prosperity of the early colonies. What wasn’t noted, however, was that these urban Africans were accustomed to a more sophisticated environment than their surroundings in Jamestown. However, in only a few years, many of them owned land, had black and white servants, married whites and had children who were known as this Nation’s first free people of color. Initially, the census documented them as Africans. The next generation was recorded as Mulatto, followed by free people of color in the subsequent generation. Within four generations, the U.S. Census records some of these same families as white.

When I began researching my family tree, I had no idea that the trail would lead me to 1619, and kinship with one of the first Africans to walk upon our land. Genealogy can be as arduous a task as it is a rewarding one. African Americans are faced with daunting roadblocks in their search for records to verify the life of their ancestors prior to the civil war. The lack of specific documentation of people who frequently were slaves often leads to a dead end trail. Slaves were habitually recorded on documents by sex and age(ex. Male age 35 or Female age 14) which makes it virtually impossible to identify these anonymous persons.

My DNA was analyzed eight years ago. Prior to that time, I only knew my paternal grandfather’s last name, which was different from my family name. DNA illuminated hidden genetic knowledge that had eluded my search for myself. Possibly, I would never have known my great grandfather’s full name if I hadn’t searched for him among relatives matched to my DNA. After locating his family by the last name and receiving confirmation from them, I was able to use genealogy to find a treasure trove of documents, pictures and narratives about my father’s family.

My great grandfather never met his father. Though he lived only fifty miles away, with his new wife and daughters, my great, great grandfather didn’t venture that short distance to see his only son. He didn’t inquire about his son’s well-being, or send toys or clothes or money or acknowledgements to a little boy who must have longed for his father. I would like to believe that he always intended to make that fifty mile journey, but he died when his son was ten years old without ever accomplishing that unspoken desire.

These peculiar details nagged at me especially since my father didn’t meet his father, my great grandfather’s son, until he was seventeen. He never really knew him. Perhaps there were two or three encounters where they talked politely. But they never embraced, or shared intimacies, or deep yearnings and expressions of love like my father did with us. When he died in 1996 at 88 years old, my father still longed for the love of his father. Because he was not raised by his biological mother, there was a further disconnect from relatives who may have loved him as much as we did. The absence of a mother consistently in his life gave him an additional circumstance he shared in common with his grandfather, as he as well was not reared by his mother.

My great grandfather’s name was William, just like his father, my great, great grandfather, and just like his son, my grandfather. The tradition of three generations of Williams changed when my father was born into a family that only learned of his life posthumously. William II’s children wrote family narratives describing him as a most tender, lovable man, quiet and contemplative. He was an exemplary father with high standards and a tolerant temperament. His children and grandchildren hesitated before acting, always eager to measure up to his standards of social courtesy, discourse and consideration. This characterization was an uncanny revelation to me as I had often used similar words to describe my father, his grandson, whom he never met.

Africans have an expression that if you cannot call the names of your ancestors for seven generations you do not know who you are. Through William II, my great grandfather, I can call the names of my ancestors for more than seven generations from Ireland to Louisiana. Through my paternal great grandfather’s mother’s ancestry, I can trace our lineage back to the first ship of 23 African captives who disembarked upon these shores in 1619. Margaret Cornish, my thirteenth great grandmother arrived in Jamestown, Virginia from Luanda, Angola in Africa after a series of harrowing experiences which read more like an adventure saga than reality.

More than one novel has been written about the intriguing life of Margaret Cornish. Poignant details are evident in documentation found among numerous civil records. Margaret is credited as being the first woman of African descent to pay tithes/ taxes in this country and to own her own home in 1668-69 Lawnes County Parish, one year after slavery was legalized in Virginia.

Margaret was captured by Portuguese invading the Bantu speaking nation of Ndongo on the Kwanza River in Angola. At the time, the Ndongo Kingdom was a thriving area of about a quarter of a million people who were farmers, craftsmen, and cattle herders and had a number of political divisions. They had traded with Africans south of them for iron, steel and salt and with Europeans for guns and cloth for over a century.

It could be argued that Margaret was lucky when she was captured by Portuguese slavers in Luanda, Angola, escaping an unknown fate in a brutal war between the Ndongo and the Portuguese. She was chained aboard a Portuguese slave ship headed for a life which would be shortened by excruciating toil in Spanish silver mines in Mexico, when she was miraculously rescued by English Pirates and subsequently taken to Jamestown, Virginia as one of 23 prisoners exchanged for food. This all transpired before Margaret was 10 years old.

In 1990, historian Engel Sluiter of the University of Berkeley in California unraveled the intricacies of the voyage of the first Africans upon our shores. The White Lion, and its companion ship, the Treasurer, were in a dispute with a Portuguese slave ship, the San Juan Bautista, on its way to Veracruz, Mexico with 350 Africans aboard. The Angolans had first been captured as prisoners of war and sold to Portuguese slavers. Subduing the Portuguese slavers in an act of piracy, each English vessel seized 20 to 30 Africans and eventually docked in Jamestown within four days of each other. Now the property of the English, The White Lion carried no definitive documents of identity for the Angolans.

Contrary to common belief, there were no traces of savagery marring the refinement of these Angolans. They were urban people who had interacted with Europeans for decades. They spoke a common language and many were literate. Some were probably second and third generation Christians as the kingdom of Ndongo had converted to Christianity in 1490. In their own milieu, the Europeans had noted that they dearly loved and valued their children and their families. Luanda, Angola had traded with and lived among Europeans since the 1400s when Prince Henry the Navigator had traversed the waters off the coast of Africa. Their rulers had even sent emissaries to Portugal on several occasions.

When the White Lion landed in Jamestown, slavery had not fully burrowed its malevolent claws into the hearts of the English colonizers. These Africans became indentured servants as the laws of slavery had not been fully codified in the English colony of Virginia in 1619.

Within three years of their arrival, the Powatan Indians killed 347 of the Jamestown colonists, in what is called The Great Massacre in 1622. Margaret was listed by name on the 1625 census which was compiled after The Great Massacre. One quarter of the English population of Jamestown was slaughtered, but in another surreal episode, once again Margaret was unharmed.

She married John Gowen, (multiple spellings) a fellow shipmate and child captive aboard the slave ship The White Lion. By 1635 they had a child named Mihill or (Michael). At the time, Margaret was indentured in the household of Lieutenant Robert Sheppard and John Gowen was employed in another household. Robert Sweat, (pronounced Sweet), a young Englishman, was also a servant in Lt. Sheppard’s household.

By October 17,1640, an entry is listed in The James City Court: “ Whereas Robert Sweat hath begotten with child a Negro woman servant belonging to Lt. Robert Sheppard, the court hath therefore ordered that the said negro woman shall be whipt at the whipping post and said Sweat shall tomorrow in the forenoon do public penance for his offence at James City Church in the time of divine service according to the laws of England in the case provided.”(Virginia Council and General Court Records 1640-1641,in Virginia Magazine of History” vol.II,p.281,) This was a general law against fornication that applied to all members of the colony.

The Negro servant referenced in the court entry is Margaret. It is interesting to note that it is written in multiple historical narratives that Margaret fell in love with Robert Sweat. There is no reference to him loving her, although they eventually marry and have at least four children. But this does not take place before Margaret is involved in another scandal.

On March 31,1641, in a suit launched by John Gowen ,…”whereas the said Negro having a young child of a negro woman belonging to Lt. Robert Sheppard which he desired should be made a Christian and be taught and exercised in the Church of England, by reason where of he, the said negro did for his said child purchase its freedom from Lt. Sheppard.”

Five year old Mihill (Michael) was taken away from Margaret. There is no written documentation recording a future relationship between Margaret and her son. Mihill (Michael) was indentured in the home of Christopher Stafford as a servant. He remained in the household of the Stafford family until he was eighteen years old.

Margaret’s children are among the first free people of color in this Nation. Her Sweat and Gowen descendants number in the thousands. It is also suggested in historical documentation, that anyone in this country with the last name Gowen or Goin or a derivative thereof is a descendant of John Gowen or Mihill (Michael) Gowen.

I am extremely grateful and fortunate to have located Margaret Cornish. I want to believe that her blood still flows through my veins as my DNA shows 2% Africa Southeastern Bantu and 3% Africa South-Central Hunters and Gathers, both of which are indigenous to Angola. The real irony is that for eight or more generations which preceded my father, all of Margaret’s descendants in my line were documented as white. Additionally, the majority of the hundreds of my white DNA cousins who descend from Margaret Cornish share one or both of the same ethnic traits indigenous to Angola, Africa also present in my DNA. Margaret Cornish’s presence is mightily still among us.

Sandra McCollum currently lives in Chicago. She may be reached via email at Sandra McCollum traced her DNA through

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