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Jewish DNA among Southeastern Indians

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Jewish DNA among Southeastern Indians

Posted: 1070565438000
Classification: Query
Edited: 1081647879000
Surnames: Adair, Thomas, Bowles, Cooper, Sizemore, Wallen, Cone, Mordecai, Collins, Grant, Waters, Powhatan, Cherokee, Choctaw, Blevins, Ward, Coody, LeFlore, McAbee, Rogers, Glass, Black, Fox, Blackfox, Holland, Hyde, Locklear
DNA Testing of Southeastern American Indian Families to Confirm Jewish Ethnicity
Paper delivered at Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies, San Antonio, August 8, 2003

Donald Panther-Yates

THE PROJECT I will be speaking about today, which is the first of its kind I am aware of, grew out of the Melungeon Surname DNA Project started by Beth Hirschman, who was inspired – or manic enough at the time –to spring for the funds. I want to begin by thanking both Beth and Bennett Greenspan of Family Tree DNA for their amazing help and support. At one point in the project, when the results were beginning to roll in, I was pleased to see that both Bennett’s son Elliott and Abe Lavender matched mitochondrial DNA results of several of our participants. Beth was able to e-mail Bennett with the message, “Welcome to Melungeon-land!”

The project called for volunteers to take either a female descent or male descent genetic test if they could provide reasonable genealogical proof that they were descended either from an early Indian trader or a Native American woman who married or had children with one. The odds were all against us. In order to qualify, the descent of the trader or his wife could not cross from the male to the female line; it had to be either the “outside” male line, father to son, father to son, or the outside female line, mother-daughter, mother-daughter. We could not, for instance, test the claim of one individual who claimed, very eloquently and convincingly, to be descended from both Pocahontas and her sister-cousin Princess Cleopatra. I received a fair measure of hate mail from professors of Indigenous Studies. One volunteer, a Collins in Kentucky, wrote to me about Torah study in her local band of the Saponi, though she assured me they were all good Christians. I also got an interesting letter from the chief of a Tennessee band of the Cherokee who lamented the fact that the tribe members were going through their fourth round of DNA testing without proving much Indian blood, though they had found so much Jewish genetics among them that one of them decided to adopt the name “Rolling Bagel.”

Some of the test subjects invariably got cold feet and bowed out. I am particularly sorry to have missed the linear descendant of James Adair (author of the first anthropological study of American Indians in 1775), the linear descendant of Abraham Mordecai (founder of the town of Montgomery, Alabama), and the linear descendant of Cherokee Chief John Looney (whose ancestors were the famous Luna family of Portugal, among them “the woman who defied Kings”). On the bright side, though, we did hit paydirt by locating people with the right credentials and level of cooperation for a number of important historical personages. These included Nancy Ward, the Beloved Woman of the Cherokee Nation, who has more than 12,000 known descendants alive today; Col. William Holland Thomas, the Welsh trader who founded the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina; Chief John Bowles, the leader of the Texas Band of Cherokees; and Elizabeth Tassell, said to be the first Cherokee to marry a white man, Ludovic Grant, a Scottish trader. To these may be added an ancestor both Beth and I have in common – William Cooper, an explorer and trader who was the scout for Daniel Boone.

What I’m going to do is I am going to run through the numbers first, then talk about a few of the genetic types on both the female (mostly Indian) side and white (mostly male) side, then sum up with some observations about the early mixing of Indians and Jews in the Colonial period as a sort of Eastern parallel to the experiences you are probably more familiar with in the American Southwest. I’ve brought all my files with my on a laptop if anyone is interested in seeing specific data or is curious in pursuing a connection after the lecture.

First, the numbers. There were 9 persons, mostly females, who took the Native Match test, and 12 persons, necessarily males, who took the Y-chromosome test. Only one test result came back Unknown, but many of the haplotypes were unique, meaning they matched no sample in either Bennett’s clientele at Family Tree DNA or the larger databases he cross-indexes to, including Michael Hammer’s. This shouldn’t surprise us because the DNA testing of Native Americans has been very restricted, controversial, and concentrated at any event on Navajos and other Western reservation tribes. Peter Jones of the Bäuu Institute in Boulder, Colorado, published an important paper criticizing the whole state of anthropological genetics and calling for an entirely new beginning. Of the five lineages the current state of scholarship admits as Native American -- haplogroups A, B, C, D, and X -- our project found 2 Cs and one B, no A, no D, but one X in an uncle of one of our participants. The majority of those hoping to authenticate their female Indian ancestry (5 out of 9) proved to be H, the most common European haplogroup. One was J, the classic Jewish/Semitic haplogroup. As for the y-chromosomes, half (6 out of 12) were R1b, sometimes called the Atlantic Modal Haplogroup, 2 (17%) were E3b, one of the two well-studied Jewish haplogroups, and one was J2, the other. There were also single entries in the categories of Viking (Locklear, a Lumbee Indian name), Native American (Sizemore), and as I mentioned, one sample that turned out to be a “big unknown.”

So those are the results we are dealing with, and both Beth and I (but I’m not sure about Bennett) were impressed with the fact that, though this was but a small, purposive sample, it produced the same proportion of what we might call male “Jewish” DNA, roughly 20 percent, vis à vis 80 percent male non-Jewish DNA (Atlantic modal haplogroup) as is found in most studies of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi populations. On the female side, the most startling result was a strong hint that there were females carrying Mideastern genes among the Cherokees even before so-called “white contact” in the eighteenth century.

For our first break-out, let’s talk about the results for a woman whom I shall call – unoriginally – Judith, for she showed the J haplogroup in the female line. Judith was very forthcoming with documentation, names, dates, and a lot of family history that would probably have remained hidden to most academic researchers. She claimed strict matrilineal descent from Betsy Walker Hyde, a native girl who was born about 1718, captured in a military operation by the English, and raised by Sen. Felix Walker. Her descendant, Catherine Hyde, was remembered as a “full blood Cherokee,” was selected by Col. Will Thomas, and she and bore him several children. Jasmine put me in touch with the last, lone descendant of one of Col. Will’s other daughters, also by a “Native” woman, Demarius Angeline Thomas Sherril. The mtDNA there was haplogroup X, a rare Native American lineage which may have come from Europe. There are many reasons to think Col. Thomas himself was a crypto-Jew – his mother was a Calvert, and the Holland surname is often associated with Jews from the Netherlands. In support of the crypto-Jewish culture of these people were the given names Demarius (Tamar), Darthelia, Joshua, Parmelia and (my favorite) Docie Beatrice.
Let us go now to the man who turned out to bear Jewish male DNA. I was extremely pleased to get correspondence from the descendants of Col. John Bowles, the founder of the Texas Band of the Cherokee who died at the head of a war party, shot in the back by a white man, near Redlands, Texas, in 1839. We located two elderly brothers in Oklahoma who were great-great-great grandsons of the legendary chief. To everyone’s surprise Bowles DNA came back J2, the haplogroup that contains the Cohen modal lineage, with a two-step mutation matching a person identified as Ashkenazi from the Ukraine. How could this be? Bowles was similar to several other Cherokee chiefs in having been a known “half breed.” His father was a Scots trader and his mother a full-blood Cherokee woman. When his father was killed and robbed by two North Carolinians in 1768, the son was only 12 years old, but within the next two years the fair-complexioned, auburn haired boy had killed both his father’s slayers. After that, he became a Chickamauga warrior. The Bowl (in Cherokee, Duwali) was a white chief at the same time as The Glass (in actuality, Thomas Glass of North Carolina) and Black Fox, my ancestor (a Scotsman descended from Blacks and Foxes), were chiefs of the Cherokee Nation. I believe all their families were Scottish crypto-Jews.

I ran a search for matches on Bowles DNA in the Y-STR Haplotype Reference Database. There were 17 matches in Europe – Albania, Berlin, Budapest, Bulgaria, Bydgoszcz, Cologne, Colombia (2), Freiburg, Latium, Pomerania, Stuttgart, Sweden, Tyrol, Umbria, Warsaw, and Westphaia. A “one-off” mutation produced Freiburg and Lombardy. The picture that emerged was one that closely resembled the distribution pattern for what Beth Hirschman believes were the Gothic invasions that repeopled Italy, France and Spain. The preponderance of matches in our Melungeon surname study has been in the Iberian Peninsula and places like Antioquia, Colombia, where Marranos and crypto-Jews emigrated. Here was a Jewish haplotype that, historically speaking, seems to have traveled out of Scandinavia and the Baltic region with the Lombards, gone through Italy to Spain and Scotland and passed on to the Americas, where it mingled with the Indians.
In another of our surnames, Rogers, one can almost see the footsteps of the Goths.

How about Wales as another unlikely place to find Jews? Our project also established the Jewish roots of another great pioneer family of the South who intermarried with Cherokees, the Blevinses. Two of our test subjects were found to have E3b genes, which even Bennett admits are Ashkenazic. The name Blevins originates in the High Middle Ages and by the 1400s was associated with the little Welsh port town of Formby. It may be the Welsh form of Wolf, or Benjamin. William Blevins, born in Rhode Island, was a Long Hunter from Virginia who explored Kentucky and Tennessee with Elisha Wallen in 1734. His son had two Cherokee wives, sisters, and numerous Blevinses, all of them cousins of mine, appear on the Cherokee rolls. The Blevins family has sometimes been openly Jewish. Bertha Blevins, a declared Jewess, married Moses H. Cone, who was born in Jonesboro, Tennessee, in 1857. She endowed the Greensboro (N.C.) Health Care System upon her death in 1947.

Now it is time to look at the American Indian results. We were fortunate in being able to sample the DNA of two key female figures in Cherokee history. Elizabeth Tassell (we might call her a “princess” as long as the American Indian Movement is not listening), married Ludovic Grant, a Scots trader about 1720 (the name probably comes from French Grand, German Gross), and their descendants are the first and the oldest of the bloodlines studied in a definitive fashion by Emmett Starr, whose genealogies are the basis for government blood quantums and tribal membership even today. One of her eleventh-generation descendants, with a long Dutch name, joined our study and her DNA proved to be haplogroup C – as did also an Oklahoma descendant of Nancy Ward, the famous Beloved Woman. Both participants preserved their clan affiliation, which was Wolf. Does this tell us anything? I think it does, since one’s clan was passed from the mother in a strict fashion, just like mitochondrial DNA. The other test subject, a San Francisco man who matched a woman of Hispanic descent with a crypto-Jewish surname, was of the B lineage and the family still preserved the fact they were Long Hair Clan.

Haplogroup C, notably, has a large “cline” in the southern Appalachians. The B haplogroup, concentrated in the Southwest, appears to correspond to the Pueblo Indians and former Mound Builder tribes, one of whom, the Natchez, were integrated together with the Cherokee as the Long Hair Clan.

Let me mention the “Big Unknown” before concluding. This was an 80-year-old gentleman in California by the Scots-sounding name of McAbee who generously complied with our study, with the help of his niece, and whose family had a sturdy tradition of crypto-Jewish practices in Kentucky, including opening the door for the prophet Elijah on special days in their homes. All the powers at Family Tree DNA drew a blank over his DNA, which was finally classified as “Unknown” and described by all the rest of us as “eerie.” The family claimed they were descended from Judas Macabbaeus. Could it be true? As I learned, it is indeed a very rare haplotype. The closest match in the Y-user database in Berlin were in Albania, Bulgaria/Romani, London and with a Bulgarian Turk. If – and I repeat if – descendants of the Hasmonean Jews, who were the first convert population to Judaism, lived anywhere it would likely be in those places.

The last DNA test results I would like to talk about were those of a verifiably crypto-Jewish family that lived among the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians. This was a male paternal-line descendant of Louis LeFleur/LeFlore, a French Canadian trader who married Rebecca Cravat, said to be an “Indian princess.” He introduced the first cattle, hogs, keel boats, cotton and tobacco crops among the Choctaw, and thus occupies the same position of Culture Bearer as Nancy Ward among the Cherokee. His son Greenwood became a principal chief of the Choctaw, married a Jewish Cherokee woman named Elizabeth Coody and managed to stay in Mississippi after Indian removal. One branch of the family changed its name to Flores. Perhaps I should say, they changed it back to Flores, which is a big Marrano surname. A run through the Y-STR database confirmed numerous Iberian and Latin American matches, with Asturias and Central East Spain being the highest scores.

One of the really “cool” things about DNA analysis is finding a match and making contact with people you would never have dreamed you are related to. When we got the results for Gayle Wilson, an enrolled Cherokee in Oklahoma, and found out she carried the Nancy Ward gene, a young schoolteacher in California by the name of Juan Madrid wrote to us inquiring how he could have matched her. Madrid, of course, is a fairly common Marrano name. But he had no tradition of being Cherokee. His grandmother lived among the Comanches, and all the family would talk about is “some Indian blood somewhere,” without being specific. Juan definitely had the Cherokee Wolf Clan gene, and he is now pursuing tribal enrollment. I found out he already had an Indian name. Very significantly, he is called Two Hearts.

It is time to draw some conclusions and end. Bennett has repeatedly assured both Beth and me that there is no such thing as “Jewish DNA.” Strictly speaking, it’s true. There are haplogroup determinations that contain the DNA of people known to be Jewish today. But even some Arabs and Muslims test positive for the Cohen gene. So how can we be so sure the y-chromosomal haplotypes we are studying are Jewish? The answer lies in the overwhelming preponderance of surnames with Hebrew and Sephardic Jewish roots, combined with multigenerational cousin marriage and other historical factors that must be properly interpreted. Genetics without a good genealogical chart is useless, and even the charts are deceptive in the case of crypto-Jewish families unless one has access to the death-bed confessions and whispered family traditions.

Only in the last two years have I found out my family on both my mother and father’s side was Jewish, specifically crypto-Jewish with numerous ties to the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and other southeastern Indian tribes. There is not a single surname in my family tree, which I have traced back more than 700 years in some lines, that breaks the pattern. Despite all this, though, I always wanted to find something concrete and unequivocal, something of the vanished past I could touch with my hands and cling to in my heart. So this spring I made a pilgrimage to New Hope Cemetery on Sand Mountain in Tennessee where my great-great-great grandmother Mahala Jane Blevins Cooper is said to be buried.

New Hope is a beautiful, forgotten place. The dogwoods and redbuds were in flower; it was a Sunday morning. The Cooper-Blevins burial plot was on the edge of the cemetery, with the oldest stones, rough unmarked header and footer rocks, unlike the rest of the graves. I took a picture of my great-uncle Harmon Cooper’s memorial. It had the Freemason or Templar cross and showed a hand pointing to the sky, with the words GONE HOME—I’d seen similar designs in the crypto-Jewish burials at Purrysburgh, S.C. I dressed the graves … put down a tobacco offering in the Indian manner … said the Shema and Shecheyanu … wished I had learned the Mourner’s Kaddish, and finally experienced what I think I had been looking for all along … a shock of recognition maybe, the strong feeling that the ancestors were, or would have been, pleased. If I have accomplished nothing else, I would like to leave you with this. We all have a moral imperative to uncover our families’ past. And they would have been proud of us.


General view of New Hope Cemetery, Marion County, Tennessee, with Blevins-Cooper burial plot.

Gravesite of Harmon Cooper (1830-1879)
SubjectAuthorDate Posted
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