The specter of European ancestry in the African American past

In the summer of 2001, I traveled to Louisiana with one of my cousins to meet and learn about the history of my maternal grandmother’s family from her oldest brother Archie Jeff Marsh. Uncle Archie and his siblings were born and raised in the town of Benson- a small farming community roughly 11 miles from Mansfield, Louisiana in De Soto Parish. Their parents were Charlie Marsh Sr. and Allareal Thomas. I remember sitting in the living room at Uncle Archie’s house listening to him regale us with tales of his life, his parents, my grandmother and other people he remembered from the past. He showed us a picture of his father Charlie hanging on the wall.

Great-grandpa Charlie was a fair-skinned man with curly hair who was described as being 6'2 and solidly built. He worked most of his life as a farmer and even helped dig ditches to create levees. Uncle Archie recalled the night his father dying in 1935 as if it happened yesterday. He told us about the White country doctor coming by and telling his mother that his father died after falling sick. My great-grandfather’s life was tragically cut short at age 35 leaving my great-grandmother Allareal a widow with eight children.

I became curious about his father’s appearance. Uncle Archie casually joked that he came out on the “dark side of the fence” and said his father’s mother was the daughter of a White man from Mansfield named Will T. Pegues and her name was Alabama Pegues. Alabama was born about 1874 and died in 1921 in Mansfield. She is buried in the old family cemetery at Mary Springfield Baptist Church in Benson. My uncle shared an early memory of his grandmother “Bama”(as they called her) giving him honey cakes as a very young child. Alabama married Jefferson Marsh Jr, the son of ex-slaves ,on the last of day of the year 1891 at the courthouse in Mansfield at age 17.

Marriage license of Alabama Pegues and Jefferson Marsh Jr. (31 December 1891)

Alabama’s life before meeting Jefferson Marsh is an enigma. The story behind the circumstances of her birth and the name of her African American mother didn’t survive in our family oral history. Her identity is lost in time. Ironically, Uncle Archie knew much more about the Pegues family and mentioned one of them wrote a diary. Years later, while researching online, I found a transcription of the diary of Dr. William Allen Pegues, a native of Marlbro County,South Carolina, who recounted his journey to Mansfield, Louisiana from Alabama-

“”To my paternal home I now bid a long, a last farewell.
I go with proud hopes, a wanderer, a professional adventurer to the distant
West, to make new acquaintances and friends, to find a new home, to estab a
name among strangers. I shall have to wage with fortune a sullen war; and feel the potent influence of “Malignant Star.” If heaven prosper my efforts, in
a few years more the bright star of my hopes will be high in ascendant, and
wealth, fame and friends be mine.” On the 13th of January 1848 1 left my father’s house in Wilcox Co, AL to come westward in search of a future home, after a long and toilsome journey of many hundred miles and close survey of much beautiful country and rich land west of the MS River. I reached this Par in the month of February, being pleased with the general appearances of the country, I determined to stop.

I located in Mansfield and engaged to a limited extent in the practice of
medicine, until the following December. In the meantime I purchased the
tract of land on which I now live. In December I returned to AL and brought
my negroes, goods and chattels out. Commenced clearing on the 29th January 1849, cleared and planted 50 acres. On the 21st March 1849, I m Elizabeth A.Guy.

William Allen Pegues was the cousin of my ancestor William Thomas Pegues.
William Thomas Pegues was born on the 13th of November 1851 in Mansfield to Charles Stuart Pegues and Mary Francis Guy who likely followed William Allen to Louisiana from Alabama in the 1840s. The genealogy and history of the Pegues family lead from Alabama to South Carolina to London, England and according to legend, earlier to France as French protestants being persecuted by Catholics. Although, I knew from my readings on American history and the institution of slavery, European ancestry would rear it’s head in my genealogy, knowing their names and history made it more real to me instead of abstract. I knew that William worked most of his life as a farmer and sheriff in town. But, I knew nothing of the woman he impregnated nor the circumstances of my great-great grandmother’s birth beyond that single sexual encounter. Was it consensual? Was it rape or sexual coercion? I don’t know. While the Pegues story stretched deep into the 17th century, the genealogy of this nameless mother was silent, a broken thread in my past.
Without any firm leads, Alabama Pegue’s maternity remained hidden forever.

Enter. Genetic Ancestry testing. In 2004, the sequencing of part of the human genome was announced to the world and was deemed one of the greatest scientific achievements in human history. For the first time, we could learn about our evolutionary history at the DNA molecular level.

23andme became the first commercial consumer DNA testing company to provide Autosomal DNA testing. With enthusiasm and hope, I spit in tubes and scraped my cheek cells and sent my DNA samples to companies like 23andme, Ancestry and FamilytreeDNA. I wanted to see what story my genome could tell about my ancestry records were silent on and oral history seem to have forgotten. I eventually DNA tested my mother and my maternal grandmother’s last surviving sibling submitted her DNA to Ancestry a few months ago.

DNA confirmed our genealogical connections to the Pegues family of Mansfield. Uncle Archie was right. Our history was preserved right there in our genes. I was pretty sure that somewhere in the sea of DNA cousins I saw in my results, some of those people were relatives of my great-great grandmother’s mother. I just needed a key to unlocking them. Because my great aunt was two generations removed from me, her genes would tell a slightly different story than mine and reveal links to earlier ancestors whose genes were lost by the time they got to me.

I got lucky last week. After nearly 20 years of searching, I finally found the death certificate of Alabama Pegues in the Louisiana Death Index online. The reason why I could never find it was because her name was misspelled as “Banna Morris”! It was supposed to be Bama Marsh. The location and date of death fit the engravings on her tombstone perfectly. I hoped that the names of her parents were listed. When I pulled up the abstract,Alabama’s parents were given as John Goss and Sophia! Finally, a name. Although I knew that John Goss wasn’t her biological father, I suspected that the surname given was a valuable clue to her maternal ancestry. I had no idea who Sophia was. It was only a first name.

I searched the U.S. census and marriage records of De Soto Parish, Louisiana looking for any references to the name GOSS or persons with the names listed on my great-great grandmother’s death certificate. In 1870 and 1880, I found the couple John and Sophia GOSS living in De Soto Parish! They were an older couple. John GOSS was born about 1820 and listed his birthplace as South Carolina and Sophia, North Carolina. No sign of Bama. Where was she? But, I felt I was on the right track because these names weren’t just pulled out a hat like a magic trick. They were real people with a real history tied to my 3rd great-grandmother somehow. On a whim, I decided to search the DNA matches of my great aunt, my mother and I on AncestryDNA. To my surprise, I found several people with DNA connections to the GOSS family of Mansfield, Louisiana! There was even a match with GOSS ancestors living in South Carolina.

Because of DNA, a part of my past was revealed and I can at least attach a specific family to my great-great grandmother with ties to an earlier history in the Carolinas. The research on discovering the name of my great-great-great grandmother’s identity is a work in progress. The story of Alabama Pegues represents the complex origins of African Americans with tangled genealogical branches that lead to Africa and Europe and untangling those roots involve the careful use of oral testimony, the historical record and our genes.

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