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Overheard on the Message Boards: Black Dutch Ancestry
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

September 26, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: My mother was always told from her mother that they were Black Dutch. We were told by another family member that my great-grandfather was half Cherokee Indian, but that he was ashamed of his heritage so he moved away and always claimed to be white. Can anyone give me information on where to find information on people who were Black Dutch or can anyone tell me specifically what Black Dutch really is. I can't find any information or records on my family. We have also been told that my great-grandfather may have also been German. I am at a brick wall. -- Demetra

A: The term "black dutch" has been bantered about for a number of years. There are many different theories surrounding the term and a few are more widely accepted than others. Some of these theories are discussed below.

Before talking about the theories though, it is important to remember that regardless of the family tradition, or family story, that has been passed from generation to generation, you should always research from the known to the unknown. Family traditions sometimes tempt you to force evidence you find to support the family story.

Many theories abound about what the Black Dutch really are.

Good Research Practices

Re-examine the information you have already found on your great-grandfather. What records have you been able to collect on him? Do you know when and where he died? Have you been able to get documents to support this? What census records have you found him in? Where was he living? Is he always listed as white? What records have you been unable to find on him?

Go through what you have now and answer the questions asked. If you can't answer all of them, then you will begin to see a research strategy for you to attack. Completing that research may help you figure out if he was 1/2 Cherokee or if he lived in the areas traditionally settled by the Black Dutch.

Begin to plot a timeline for your great-grandfather. Do you see any major gaps in his life for which you either do not have any records or do not know where he is? If you don't have records, is it because you haven't looked for them or you looked and did not find him listed where you expected? If you haven't looked, then you will want to spend some time looking for the records. If you have looked, then you need to look and see if you can guess where he went in the open time period.

Theories on the Black Dutch

One of the most accepted is that it is not "Dutch" as in those of Dutch descent, but Deutsche as in of German descent. A similar name is the Pennsylvania Dutch which are actually of German descent. The theory is that the Black Dutch are descended from the Germans that live in the Black Forest. This area of Germany was at one time much larger than it is now and the inhabitants are much darker than Germans from elsewhere in the country.

Another theory is based on the idea that these individuals were indeed Dutch and that they can be traced back to those living in the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries. As the story goes, this was during the time when the Spaniards were at war with the Dutch. This was a lengthy battle that lasted about sixty years and the theory is that during this time the Spaniards were intermixing with the Dutch. Thus, the darker looks of the Spaniards were dominant traits over the blond, blue-eyed Dutch. Therefore the offspring of these alliances carried the darker looks of the Spaniards.

In her "Shaking Your Family Tree: In Search of the Black Dutch," from April, 1998, Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG calls this particular theory "fanciful." When one stops to consider that the two factions were at war, it does raise questions. Additionally, the Dutch government's Central Bureau for Genealogy can offer no explanation for the term. Since this group was established as a state archive and genealogical organization, if they cannot explain this, then it is likely that this theory is inaccurate.

One other theory traces its lines back to early immigrants who married Native Americans. Still another adds an African American descent into the equation. For an excellent article on the tri-racial research, it is a good idea to read "Verry Slitly Mixt: Tri-Racial Isolate Families of the Upper South -- A Genealogy Study" by Virginia Easley DeMarce and which was published in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. This article appears in volume 80 on pages 5-35. This article also includes a number of surnames in it, though the author does caution that just because a surname appears in the article does not guarantee that an individual can trace back to a tri-racial lineage.

An excellent start in regards to the Melungeon theory can be found at A Melungeon Home Page which has quite a bit of information about the Melungeons. They have included some of their back issues of the Melungeon Information Exchange newsletter.

Another excellent article about the Black Dutch can be found in American Genealogy Magazine. This quarterly, which was published by Datatrace, has great insight into the question of the Black Dutch. The article in question can be found in Volume 12, number 1. You may be able to read it through your local genealogical library or you might visit the American Genealogy Magazine Web site where you can order the individual issue.

Location is Everything

The one constant on research of the Black Dutch is that they trace to the Upper South, appearing in Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, and North and South Carolina. Just as the Pennsylvania Dutch are traced to Pennsylvania, the Black Dutch follow a specific migration patter settling in the Upper South.

It is because of this tie to a specific geographic location that I suggested that you evaluate your present research on your grandfather. Does the information you have on him place him in any of the above mentioned states? If not, then you may need to re-examine the family tradition.

In Conclusion

Every family story or family tradition has clues hidden away in it. The key is to do your research so that the family story doesn't lead you astray. The best way to do that is to keep the tradition in the back of your mind, but evaluate each piece of evidence on its own merit. There will probably always be a disagreement over just what the Black Dutch were racially. However, as your research progresses you may find that your great-grandfather was living in the area common among others of the Black Dutch label.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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