Were My Enslaved Forebears From Angola?

Tracing Your Roots: A DNA test leads to questions, and a search for answers in historical records.

By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Jason Amos, NEHGS Researcher

Updated Friday, June 21, 2013, at 8:57 PM

(The Root) —

“My father’s family just got our African-Ancestry test back, and on our matrilineal side, we were traced to Angola. I was shocked, because I was under the impression that most slaves from Angola ended up elsewhere in the Americas, not in the United States. I’d like to know the percentage of Angolans that ended up in the U.S. What was their typical point of entry? Do you have any info about genealogy records that might help me establish Angolan ties? –Diamond Sharp

You had your mitochondrial DNA tested. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down from a mother to her children, so this test traces a person’s mother’s mother’s mother’s line, back for generations. All children inherit this identical genetic signature from their mothers, but only daughters pass it down from generation to generation. Accordingly, it is an ideal way to trace the maternal branch of a person’s family back hundreds, even thousands, of years.

One of the biggest surprises about the history of the slave trade to the United States is the high percentage of our ancestors who were shipped to this country from Angola. African Americans have traditionally thought of Ghana and Senegal as our most common ancestral homes on the African continent, but almost half of all of the slaves arriving in this country were shipped here from two sources: Senegambia, yes, but also, Angola.

The slave trade from Angola to the New World began in the 16th century and continued (illegally) until 1860. It is estimated that, incredibly, there were more than 5 million slaves who came to the Western Hemisphere from Angola; more than half went to Brazil. Far fewer, in terms of absolute numbers, came to the U.S. (since the U.S. received dramatically fewer numbers of slaves than did Brazil, or even Haiti or Cuba or Jamaica, for instance). But the percentage from Angola was comparatively high.

According to historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton, we know that the first “20 and odd” Africans imported into Virginia in 1619 came from Angola. In fact, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, of the 388,000 Africans who landed in the various ports in North America over the entire course of the slave trade, 24 percent, or about 93,000 of them, came from Angola. In other words, an African American has about a one in four chance of being descended from these Central Africans.

It is possible that your Angolan maternal ancestor arrived in Virginia or New York or at another major port such as Charleston or New Orleans between 1619 and 1807. But the first ship that brought the Angolans to Virginia was the White Lion, whose crew captured a Spanish slave ship, the Sao Joao de Bautista, and took some of the slaves it was carrying to Cartagena, Colombia.

In 1808, the U.S. government made the importation of slaves into America illegal, but the illegal slave trade brought in many Angolans after that. The selling and trading of slaves in domestic markets was still allowed. If you are able to trace your enslaved ancestors back to an original owner, it might be possible to find more information about your ancestors’ arrival.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to

This answer was provided in consultation with researchers from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.

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  1. Velma E. Watson Says:

    I am in the process of getting my dna test done, but my husband’s
    oldest relative had his done and his people on his mother’s side were from Gabon. Gabon has a large Sarcoma Cancer Population. My husband had a 26 pound Sarcoma Tumor removed in September. There is no explanation of the development of the Sarcoma Tumor type that he had.
    During the search, I found that my first husband was related to my second husband due to the dna testing. They never knew each other and the first husband never knew his grandfather’s people were from Louisiana. So genetically, my children with my first husband, and grand children are blood related to my current husband. The first husband died, never knowing any of this. My father and his male siblings and cousins always said that the first ancestor brought to this country was from Angola. His name was Ai. I finally found that the New Netherlands Colony’s records held information, where I found MQuifa. He was one of twenty five men that Jan Rodriguez selected to build settlements for the East India/ Dutch Company. They did not want to suffer like those of Jamestown. A Jesuit Priest said in 1649 the 34 settlements within the new country were a perfect rainbow and they were within the New Netherland’s Colony. The English created the divide and conquer scenario and the Portuguese, Finns, Scandinavians, and others left the settlements due to the terrible lies created by the English. The Priest said their were all races of people living with in the New Netherland Settlements and they spoke 14 different languages and dialects. The English then created the lie of the 13 original colonies, when in fact it was 34 settlements, each considered a colony. MQuifa was born in 1580, was an Imbangala Tribesmen, who had been sent to Lisbon to learn the language, as he was used to communicate for the Portuguese. Jan was Black and Portuguese and he was the one who carried Indian Hair, Tobacco, other food stuffs to Europe, along with the gold and silver that the Indians were not aware of their value. My brother did his dna and it has reflected Angola, but English and Scottish genetics are there also. The Spanish and Portuguese Records gives much more information that is fair and not clouded with English Lies…….

    • Yeye Akilimali Funua Olade Says:

      This is Wonderful! Now you must seek out Angolan Students at any University and tell them your story. Even you go to the angolan Embassy and see the ambassodor and tell him you want to go to see your roots! Some sisters did that for sierra Leone and the gov’t even sponsored them. But I suggest you contact Prof. Henry Gates in the article at the and ask him how to go about it
      Sent from my BlackBerry wireless device from MTN

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