How DNA Studies Have Helped Trace American Native Ancestry

Modern DNA research has allowed scientists to trace the descent of people living today from early American natives. This has been helpful in the search for the people who descended from the Roanoke colonists who went missing in 1587. [Story coming up.] DNA research has also enlightened the debate about when Europeans first came to North America.

The American Indian penchant for showing hospitality to the Europeans by offering them a woman bed-companion produced many mixed-race children. Between the time of European contact [formerly thought to be 1492] and when Europeans began selling Indians as slaves in the mid-1600s, the American native tribes welcomed new members of any race to their community. New members increased their population and added to the work force and armies.

When a child of mixed race was born to the tribe, he or she was accepted as a full tribal member, often esteemed over their own children. In her essay on this subject, expert genealogist Roberta Estes(1) wrote, “… given that a woman of reproductive age is fertile approximately 25 percent of the time (unless she is pregnant), and presuming that pregnant, post-menopausal, or pre-pubescent women were not offered as partners, the opportunity for the woman to become pregnant by the visitor would occur about 25 percent of the time, unless the visit lasted more than a few nights, in which case the chances increased.”

An English man named John Lawson, who visited North America in 1709 [seventy years after John Winthrop’s grouped arrived there], wrote in 1711,(2) “The English trader is seldom without an Indian female for his bed-fellow.” This practice helped the English befriend the Indians with whom they wanted to trade. It provided the trader with a help-mate who secured her white friend food and other provisions. It also supplied part-white children for the tribe.

First European Contact

Before the Europeans arrived, there were four major groups of American Indians living on the East Coast [though as many as 250 different tribal languages]. These have been grouped by their four major languages. Besides the Algonquians, there were the Iroquoians [centered around the Great Lakes], the Siouan Indians [centered in what is now Ohio and the eastern middle states], and the Muskogees [centered around today’s Georgia and Louisiana].

Before DNA research was available, historians assumed that Americans living today who can prove their ancestry to native Americans, were, for the most part, descended from the Indians who lived near the coast where Christopher Columbus and the rest of the Europeans entered the country in 1492. Surprisingly, that is not true. There are more people who can prove they have native ancestry from the Iroquoian natives in the area of the Great Lakes, than from the other three groups. Therefore, American native DNA mixed with European DNA much earlier than 1492. European DNA could have been introduced by the Vikings in 1000 CE, or by some other culture that invaded North America through the St. Lawrence River that we have yet to learn about. The fact is that the French, English, Portuguese, Dutch, and Spanish settlers who entered America in the 1500s were already late in the game.

The Wampanoags Today

Descendants of native Americans are making valiant efforts to revive the traditions and languages that were lost during the 400 years of European occupation. The last person to speak the language of Squanto’s Wampanoag tribe, Wôpanâak, died more than 100 years ago. However, the tribe has been, since 1993, working on a language revival project to produce new native speakers. This is the first time such an effort has been achieved in the United States. More recent news is that in 2011, the Massachusetts legislature approved an allotment of land for the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe to be used for a gaming casino, which is now in the town of Taunton.

Next article: How do we know these stories?


  1. Estes, Roberta. “Where Have All the Indians Gone, Native American Eastern Seaboard Dispersal, DNA and Genealogy in Relation to Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony of Roanoke,” Journal of Genetic Genealogy ‘Vol.5, No.2, p113, Fall, 2009.
  2. Lawson, John. A New Voyage to Carolina, 1711