Black FuturesCulture

historical dna information is the new black power

February 19, 2020
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With recent DNA advances, science can now pinpoint our ancestors’ origins and use this information in way that weaves the stories of our predecessors into our present-day lives. DNA has shown us that while only 45 million people in the U.S. claim to be Black on the census, closer to 75 million Americans have some African ancestry. Meaning that nearly one in five Americans share Black heritage, rather than one in eight. DNA research adds the history of these “lost” 30 million people into the Black historical narrative. DNA, along with a new explosion of online and digitized records, have given Black genealogists and historians a new Black power: to start reshaping and correcting the historical narrative of North America.

Here are two examples of the new Black power and how it can change our historical narrative.

Mathieu da Costa is thought to be the first African to set foot in, and help the French settle, what is now Canada. Thought to be of Portuguese/African ancestry, he is one of the most important and mysterious characters in the country’s history. With his assistance, the Portuguese, Spanish, French and Dutch explored Canada, while communicating with and learn the culture of the Native Americans living modern-day Nova Scotia and Quebec. da Costa was instrumental in helping the French get a foothold in Nova Scotia (or “New France”) in the 1600s and helped establish the city of Quebec, before the settlement of Jamestown.

Canadian postage stamp of Mathieu DaCosta issued in 2017

Da Costa was not only fluent in the European languages but was a grumete or translator who spoke the pidgin and Mi’Kmaq dialects of local tribes.  A grumete was highly valued not simply because the French and Dutch found Native languages too difficult to learn, but because such a guide also understood the traditions and the business approaches of both cultures, hence indispensible as a bridge the people. Da Costa was signed to a lucrative three-year contract to work for the first French governor of New France, Pierre Du Gua de Mont, as interpreter and explorer. His talents were so valued that when the Dutch seized two French ships in 1607, they kidnapped and held Da Costa in Amsterdam. The French sent negotiator Jean Rallau to retrieve the seized ships, but also to retrieve Da Costa. 

It is likely that Da Costa accompanied Portuguese or Spanish fishing expeditions to Nova Scotia in the late 1500s. The Native Americans and Spanish and Portuguese fishermen developed a “pidgin” language used for trade. One theory of Da Costa’s origin was that he was the offspring of a lançado (a name given to Portuguese explorers of Africa in the 1400s) who had sailed to the North Atlantic fishing grounds. Some of the first lançados married local African women, usually from influential families to strengthen social ties. It was a common method used by the first Portuguese explorers in order to be accepted into Native society. For Mathieu Da Costa to have learned the pidgin and Mi’Kmaq language and the Native American cultures, he probably stayed in the area for lengths of time and married a Native woman. We know that Da Costa came back to Canada with Samuel de Champlain in 1605 aboard the Jonas from New Rochelle, France. 

An increasing number of historians believe Jean “Jehan” Cote was the son of Mathiieu Da Costa and an unknown Native American woman. He was born around 1604 in Canada just when Da Costa was there. The problem, shared by many African-American genealogists, is that the French especially during these times, rarely bothered to document any births, baptisms, or marriages of Africans or Native Americans, unless they were connected to a French person in some way. This lack of documentation has allowed white genealogists and historians to fill the vacuum of information with preferred narratives based in whiteness. Cote was believed to have been sent to France as a young man to be educated, and lived with a French foster family named Loisel before returning to Canada in 1634. This seems very plausible. There is ample evidence that other early French inhabitants of Canada sent their sons back to France to be educated by the Jesuits during the early settlement of the colony. 

Some historians believe Cote was born in France to Abraham Cote and Francoise Loisel and came to Canada in 1634 for the first time. If you believe this narrative, you not only deny the place of important African and metis (Canadian term for mixed race) families in the founding and settling of Canada, but you ignore how Jean Cote could have learned Native languages in one year that the French and Dutch explorer found so difficult they preferred to hire highly-paid interpreters.

Believed to be of the Huron Cord Clan, Ann Martin, whom Cote married, also may have been known as Ann Matchonon. She was the daughter of Abraham Martin, who was known as L’Ecossais (the Scot) and a woman who was assumed to be Native American (possibly Marguerite Langlois or Guillemette Couillard). Ann’s marriage to Jean on November 11, 1635 was arranged by the Jesuits and is one of the earliest marriages recorded in Canada. At the time, there were just a few hundred French settlers living in and around Quebec City (then known as “Kebek”). The French were incredible bureaucrats and they had relatively few births and baptisms to keep track of there. If Jean Cote and Ann Martin had been of solely French ancestry it would have been very likely that their births and baptisms would have been recorded. However neither was. Their marriage was recorded by the Jesuits after they converted to Christianity.

After their marriage, Cote and Martin became one of the first couples in a settlement of Wendat (Huron tribe) Christian converts established by the Jesuits on Quebec’s  Île d’Orléans. Most agree that Jean Cote worked for the second French governor Jacques Hualt de Montmagny, serving as a grumete, as had Da Costa. Where did Jean Cote learn the Mi’Kmaq language? If he was a descendant of a Native American he certainly would have learned it growing up, and as a native speaker, Cote, would have been a natural candidate to be sent to France to be educated, in order to return to Canada and use that education to help the fledgling settlement. 

It makes sense that Cote and his bride were both metis — he, Native American and African; she, Scottish and Native American — otherwise, why would they live in a settlement of Native American Christian converts if they did not have some filial relationship to them? The couple had eight children, with special interest going to a son named Mathieu, born in 1642, likely named after Jean Cote’s father, Mathieu da Costa. Another son, born in 1644 and also named Jean Cote, was known as “Le Frise.” (Le Frise is the French term for “frizzy haired.”) 

Another Black explorer who often mentioned as a historical footnote is a man called York. Described as large, very strong and agile, York’s importance to the expedition set out by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark has largely been left out of the American historical narrative. 

Bronze Statue pf York at Riverfront Plaza/Belvedere, in Louisville, Kentucky.

York was the slave of William Clark during the Lewis and Clark Expedition, officially called the Corps of Discovery.  Born in 1770 in Virginia, he was the son of “Old York” and Rose, both enslaved by William Clark’s father John Clark. York was passed down in the will of John Clark to his son William in 1799. When the Corps of Discovery left in May of 1804 York was referred to by William Clark as a “servant.” However, during the 28-month expedition, York’s freedoms increased, he became a voting member of the group, he was allowed to carry a gun, hunted for the expedition, and was chosen for numerous important scouting expeditions. He was also an important caregiver to sick members of the expedition, including Sacagawea the Shoshone interpreter and only woman on the expedition. York Island in Missouri is named after him. 

Like Mathieu da Costa, York was crucially important to the Corps survival and negotiations with the Native Americans. The Nez Perce tribe called him “Raven’s Son,” in their oral history. In a 1966 oral history, a legend was recounted that the Nez Perce tribe wanted to slaughter the expedition but feared retaliation from the “black man.” In another negotiation, the Shoshone refused to trade horses with the expedition until they were allowed to meet York. Many Indian tribes considered his dark skin as a sign of commanding great spiritual forces. 

When the expedition returned to the east in 1806, Clark refused to free York for his service to the Corps of Discovery. York also did not receive pay or land grants like the other members. Possibly due to this slight, the relationship between Clark and York soured so much that by 1809 Clark leased York out to a cruel slave master named Young near Louisville, Kentucky. Some believe York, who had been married before the expedition had requested to be closer to his wife. Eventually York was freed around 1811 and started a business as a wagoner. He died sometime before 1832. 

Unfortunately Clark’s biased story of York’s freedom is the only written history we have of him. In 1832 Clark wrote, “He could not get up early enough in the morng [sic] — his horses were ill kept — two died — the others grew poor. He sold them, was cheated — entered into service — fared ill. Damn this freedom, said York, I have never had a happy day since I got it. He determined to go back to his old master — set off for St. Louis, but was taken with the cholera in Tennessee & died.”

Clark’s biased, soured relationship with York has been the narrative for two hundred years.  Yet for twenty-eight months, York experienced the ultimate freedom of exploring two-thirds of the U.S. for the first time, and been an integral part of the Corps of Discovery’s survival and success. So to return to the East in 1806, and not be freed for the service he had rendered to Clark and the expedition — to receive no pay, land grants, or accolades — was surely a huge humiliation. 

DNA testing and information has given genealogists and historians new power. We need to use this power to tell the stories that until now have been controlled by historians with huge racial and social biases. We must help reframe the colonial history of the Americas by telling our stories, to create a more complete picture of the past. Until very recently white historians and genealogists have fully controlled these narratives, shaping them into comfortable stories of European dominance. In the era of white supremacy, this was understandable. 

The idea that one of the first prominent families in Canada were metis flies in the face of white domination of the historical narrative of Canada. The idea that York, an enslaved man, was critical to the survival and eventual success of Lewis and Clark expedition reframes a crucial event in American history. 

During Black History Month and beyond, as Black genealogists and historians increasingly share their research, they bring important information and viewpoints that expand the historical narrative of both white people and people of color. People of color finally having a forum to be listened to, will enrich current research. Likely, this research will reveal that even more historic achievements attributed to white settlers or explorers, were built with and upon the contributions of people of color.