Native American: Is She or Isn’t She?

Many people have an oral history that a specific female ancestor is Native American.

Autosomal DNA results may or may not show some percentage of Native American ancestry. If your results DO include a percentage of Native American, you still need to figure out which ancestors were Native. Where did that piece of your genetic heritage come from?

If your results don’t include Native ancestry, that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a Native Ancestor. Sometimes you just didn’t inherit a discernable segment of DNA from that ancestor, or maybe the vendor you tested with didn’t pick that up.

Be sure to upload your raw DNA file to both FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage for free to gain another perspective. Here’s my free step-by-step guide for downloading and uploading your DNA files from and to all the major vendors.

FamilyTreeDNA provides painted segment information as well that shows you which segments are Native American.

One of my challenges is that I do have Native American autosomal DNA segments. Determining where they came from has been challenging, although the ethnicity chromosome painting at FamilyTreeDNA has been very useful in confirming the source of those segments.

Is there a way to augment autosomal results and be more specific and directed in my search? Can I focus on an individual ancestor? Especially females who are particularly difficult to research, given name changes in each generation?

Yes, you can.

Chasing the Truth

Sometimes, especially historically, when a female ancestor’s genealogy wasn’t known, people presumed that they must have been Native American. I’ve come across this several times now.

The good news is that using mitochondrial DNA, you can find out conclusively if you test someone who descends from that woman through all females to the current generation, which can be male.

I had Native American oral history connected to two ancestors, both of whom I was able to confirm or refute by finding a cousin who inherited that ancestor’s mitochondrial DNA and agreed to test. Women give their mitochondrial DNA to both sexes of their children, but only daughters pass it on. In the current generation, males or females can test.

I also found an unexpected ancestor who was Native. I had no oral history about her – so you just never know what you’ll discover.

Sarah Faires

Oral history in some descendant families indicated that Sarah Faires’s was Native American, possibly because her ancestors were unknown. There was a supposition that “she must have been Native.”

We were able to obtain the mitochondrial DNA of Sarah whose haplogroup turned out to be H49a1, so clearly not Native.

If Sarah’s direct maternal line (her mother, her mother, her mother, on up her tree) had been Native American, she would have fallen into subclades of haplogroup A, B, C, D or X, although not all of those subclades are Native.

You can view the entire list of Native American mitochondrial DNA haplogroups, here and you can view H49a1 on the public mitochondrial haplotree, here.

H49a1 is most frequently found in Germany, followed by Sweden, England and Denmark.

Elizabeth Vannoy

My father’s grandmother, Elizabeth Vannoy, was reported to be Cherokee, both orally and in several letters between family members.

One of my first genealogy goals was to prove that history, but I wound up eventually doing just the opposite.

Elizabeth Vannoy’s mitochondrial DNA haplogroup is J1c2c, not Native.

Haplogroup J1c2c is found most often in England, France, Sweden and Hungary.

I was able to connect Elizabeth to her parents. Then, eventually, thanks to mitochondrial DNA, working with a cousin, we connected another four maternal generations conclusively, and I’m still working on the fifth generation.

Anne Marie Rimbault

My cousin had no idea that her ancestor, Anne Marie, born about 1631, in Acadia, wife of Rene Rimbault, was Native American when she tested her mitochondrial DNA.

Mitochondrial DNA results explained why Anne Marie’s parents had never been identified in the French records. She was Native American – a member of the Mi’kmaq tribe that intermarried with the French men in the Acadian settlement, proven by her A2f1a haplogroup.

Haplogroup A2f1a is shown on the mitochondrial haplotree as First Nations in Canada and Native American in the US, plus one French flag reflecting a tester who only knew that her ancestor was French-Canadian and believed she had come from France.

Her mitochondrial DNA matches are scattered across the Northern US and Canada, but her closest matches are found in the Acadian and French-Canadian communities.

Is She, or Isn’t She?

Testing your own mitochondrial DNA if you think your direct maternal ancestor may be Native will unquestionably answer that question. Finding a mitochondrial DNA candidate for each of your ancestral lines will reveal which ancestor is Native, or you can target test to see if any specific ancestor is Native.

Unlike autosomal DNA, mitochondrial DNA never loses its potency and doesn’t mix with the DNA of the father. The segments aren’t divided in each generation and don’t wash out over time.

Do you have oral history about female Native American ancestors? Do you have ancestors whose parents are unknown? Mitochondrial DNA testing will resolve that question, plus provide matching with other testers. You don’t know what you don’t know.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to find your Native American ancestors, you might enjoy my book, DNA for Native American Genealogy. There’s lots of information there, including search tips, ancient DNA, maps and known tribes by haplogroup.

Do you have female ancestors who might be Native American?


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17 thoughts on “Native American: Is She or Isn’t She?

  1. Well gosh, our longest NA segments come from our dad and we don’t know know who but that it is his maternal grandmother’s side. On MY maternal grandmother’s side who made me a jingle dress, her dna trianglulates through the family of Chief Di’wali John Bowles on her fathers side and on her mother’s side is a paper trail to the Catawba(the only confirmed line) however that line’s(Catawba) dna ended in my mom’s generation. No one has a NA mitochondrial DNA. Sometimes I find the NA ancestry search a bit pedantic. Three-fourths of my ancestors have been here for 500 years. They “subdued” the indigenous population. I suspect there were native lines whether I can name them or not..

  2. It’s always a lot of fun chasing those family stories of Native ancestry. I’d point out that in regard to autosomal testing, others may find, as I did that one testing company may show a small amount that other companies may not show. I’ve tested with all of them and while 23andMe shows results down to a tenth of a percentage point, the others don’t. As a result, I had 6 tenths of a percent showing as Native while the others show nothing. I confirmed this using GEDMatch, analyzing the chromosome segments 23andMe showed. They matched, all on chromosome 15. I’ve since identified two indigenous ancestors, one well-sourced in French Canadian records and the other Acadian identified by mtDNA testing, as you have. As expected, they are distant ancestors, seven and eight generations removed. As your book excellently points out, it takes a multiple approach to confirming Native ancestry.

  3. Your article leaves a clear and concise no if’s and or but’s way to know if you have Native American ancestry. Our family had the same story as so many others about our Native American 3rd great grandma. She supposedly was brought to New England from KY/TN area by a preacher in the 1770’s or so. My sister and I both tested our mtDNA and we’re H1g1. Which is pretty much the most common haplogroup out there. With that being said we are totally stuck at 3rd great grandma right where the family has been stuck for well over 100 years. Thanks Roberta.

  4. They say there is some truth in every lie. And we would assume there is the possiblity of some truth in every myth. My ggrandmother was said to be NA. My mtDna is U3a1b, that is not NA. So, if, and she is, my ggrandmother, she was not NA. I found that when she died, my ggrandfather married another woman and she WAS NA, and had the same surname as my ggrandmother, and they were actually distant cousins. Kinda like the myth that Richard III was buried in that carpark for over 500 years; and then he actually was! Before they found him, we went to that car park and parked very close to where they found him. I never believed in a million year that he could be buried there.

      • If she was NA on her father’s side, would I probably show NA ethnicity in my atDna results? I do not show any NA from any of my 4 testing sites, or any of the calculators at Gedmatch.

        • Not necessarily. You just might not have inherited any if her Native segments. What about other people descended from her? Do they have any Native?

      • You could be correct! There is another myth, that her gg grandmother on her father’s side was NA. So, if true, she was already mixed. So many myths, so little time.

  5. Although I’m not Native American, my mitochondrial haplogroup is u6a7a1b (one letter different from u6a7a1a (Lejeune sisters in Acadia). I’m interested in following blog.

  6. I have read your book on Native American ancestry. My question is about tribes that assimilated in the New England area say early 1700s or earlier. Would traditional mtdna haplogroups include the assimilated tribes? Thanks

    • Yes. Native is Native and tribes are a social/political construct. Think of villages or counties. If they combine, the DNA remains the same even if the name changes.

  7. Roberta,

    Did you use the “Paint differences between 2 kits, 1 chromosome” option of the Admixture Utilities tool at GEDmatch to investigate your suggested NA painted segments at FTDNA?

  8. A2f1a is the maternal haplogroup of one paternal match of mine on 23andMe who is from Louisiana, and I’m sure matches me through her Spanish/Canary Islands descent (“Isleños” of Louisiana. My father is from Cuba and largely of Canary Islands descent). Her continental autosomal percentages are 97.9% European, 1.7% Sub-Saharan African, 0.2% Central & South Asian, 0.2% Indigenous American, and 0.0% Western Asian & North African

    I believe that looking at any minority percentage in relation to the rest of the tester’s autosomal percentages can lend to some understanding of migration patterns, and subsequent cross-ethnic confluence. This particular tester’s European is composed of 68.9% Southern European (largely “Spanish & Portuguese”); 25.9% Northwestern European (17.8% “French & German,” 1.5% “British & Irish,” with the rest attributed to 23andMe’s “Broadly …” category); 2.0% Eastern European, and 0.0% Ashkenazi Jewish.

    The 0.0% ethnicities that I include here is an attempt to find specificity in just what migration from the Iberian Peninsula/Canary Islands this person may descend from. I only note 0.0% WA&NA because most Cubans of Canary Islands descent get this component in low percentages – specifically North African – and it is increasingly understood to be coming from the indigenous peoples of the Canary Islands, and not necessarily a North African genetic component in the Iberian Peninsula. This is being substantiated by haplogroups such as U6b1a). THE 0.0% Ashkenazi Jewish could also speak to the Spanish authority’s practice after 1492 of precluding those of Jewish or Muslim heritage from being part of New World colonial efforts. This was often “proven” through a genealogical practice referred to as “limpieza de sangre” (cleansing of the blood). Despite this, the repressed genetic did make its way to the “New World.”

    As for the French connection to Louisiana, It likely happened in various migrations, and is not entirely attributed to “Acadians,” I am not as versed in the history as I would like to be. I did find the following From the Wikipedia entry on “Acadians”: “After being expelled to France, many Acadians were eventually recruited by the Spanish government to migrate to Luisiana (present-day Louisiana). Their descendants gradually developed what became known as Cajun culture.” 

    What this match’s autosomal percentages (including her <1% Indigenous Americas) coupled with her maternal haplogroup tell me is that her likely Mi’kmaq matrilineal ancestor’s genetic legacy mixed with that of a French male in present day Nova Scotia (or wherever else Acadians and Natives with that maternal haplogroup inhabited in the mid-1700s), the descendants of which may have been “deported” back to France, and within the same or next couple generations, the admixed genetics found its way on a Spanish ship to Louisiana by way of the Canary Islands and Cuba. It is likely -based on the <1% Indigenous Americas – that no further introduction of indigenous DNA occurred in her ancestral lines. The low, but higher than Native percentage of SSA likely happened in Louisiana and could be a whole story in and of itself.

  9. I am trying to find more info on a couple of my ancestors married in Quebec in 1644 who are of unknown origins, and I’m wondering if one or both could be Native Americans. Marie de la Chaisnaye (or Chenaye) b 1624 and Pierre Masse b 1620 were married in the lodgings of Mnsgr Chevigny not the church, and the marriage record does not indicate their origins or parentage, all of which I find to be unusual. Later records for Marie record her last name as Pinet or Pinette. Nos Origines shows them to be of unknown origin. Marie’s original name “de la chenais” translates to “of the oak grove” or trees. Pinet translates to pine tree. One of the witnesses to the marriage was Charles Cadieux. According to info from a researcher of Charles (on Wiki Tree), he was raised by the Jesuit’s, was a fur trader, possibly was a Huron, and his wife was associated with the Ursulines. Putting all of this together makes me wonder. Have you ever come across these names in your research on early Quebec? I’m hoping someone out there has done their mtDNA or Ydna with direct maternal or paternal lineage to this couple. I descend from two of their children Pierre and Jeanne. Thanks!

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