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Friday, May 29, 2009

Finding out if an ancestor is African American or Native American

Genevieve asked
I want to know how to go about locating birth records of an ancestor that was born on a reservation. I learned from oral history that my GG Grandfather, Peter Sweet(s) was born on a reservation in Larue, Kentucky on Dec. 25, 1844. From the 2 pictures that I have of him, he looks to be Indian, but he’s listed as black on the census. Are there any records available before 1800’s other than the Dawes Rolls?

Olive Tree Answer: Genevieve, I found your question very interesting. It got me thinking about being led astray in our genealogy searching. Many of our ancestors have an appearance we think of as native in old photographs. I believe it is because farmers were out in the sun without protection and their skin became quite leathered and bronzed, giving a native-like appearance. As well, the lives that women and men lived were often quite strenuous and difficult, and individuals appeared much older and gaunt than we are used to seeing now. In my family tree we have a few individuals who you would swear have native heritage but they don't. So I would not personally put too much faith in those photos you have of Peter as being indicative of his ethnicity. And remember too that family lore is often a mixture of truth and fable, based on confusion or mis-remembering.

So I had a look in the various census records on for your Peter, and found that in 1870 he is listed as Mulatto as are his wife Eliza and children. In 1880, 1900 & 1920 he is listed as Black (as are his wife Hannah and children). In 1910 he is listed as Mulatto and in 1930 he is listed as "Negro" Since he almost consistently claims his race as black (or mixed) I would not be quick to dismiss that. I did not immediately find Peter in 1850 or 1860 and did not have more time to spend hunting, but I am curious how he is listed (and where) in those census years.

Because your question was so interesting to me, I did some more genealogy sleuthing and turned up Peter's Death Certificate (among other documents!) in which the informant, his son William, states Peter is black.

Peter's death took place in Appleton, St. Clair Co. Missouri in 1931 and the certificate image can be viewed online at Missouri Digital Heritage

Peeter [sic] Sweets, Black. age 91 b Kentucky. Married to Hannah Sutton. Father Owen Ray, mother Mehala Bell both born Kentucky. Informant W H Sweets of Lewis Iowa

Other Sweets death records I found on this site were:

* Hannah Sweets' death is also there in St. Clair Missouri in June 1944. Listed as "negro", widow. father Peeter Tutt [sic], mother's name not known
* William H. Sweets (Peter's son), of Lewis Ohio died Oct 1954 St Clair Missouri. His death record states he is Colored. Father Peter Sweets, mother Eliza Horn.
* Alonzo Sweets b June 1, 1867 died in May 1944 . He is listed as "coloured" father Peter, mother Eliza
* Nova R. Sweets b. March 1890 son of Peter Sweets & Hannah Sutton, race given as "coloured". He died in 1955 (he is no doubt the son listed as Enovious P/R in the census records)
* Theodore Lee Sweets, the grandson of Peter through his son Alonzo, is listed as coloured on his death certificate (information given by his wife Helen)

Alonzo Sweet's marriage record, found online on Missouri Marriage Records, 1805-2002 states that he is "coloured"

If this were my ancestor, I'd be looking at the amount of evidence pointing to black heritage, not Indian. And I would begin a diligent search of every one of Peter's children by both his wives (Eliza Horn and Hannah Sutton). Searching the children may turn up more documented evidence of Peter's birth and racial origins. Look for marriage records, death records, obituaries, court documents, census records and so on. Did any of Peter's children ever list themselves as Indian on any record? That is what you want to determine. Given that Peter appears to have had at least 18 children by his two wives, this will be quite a job but what fun you will have!

It is really important to not limit your genealogy research to just your direct ancestors. Search siblings as you never know what you will find for one sibling that you cannot find for another - such as names of parents, racial origin, locations of birth and so on.

If you did not have Peter's parents' names previously, armed with the death certificate information you can embark on a search for Owen Ray and wife Mehala. This brings up an intriguing thought though - was Peter's father Owen Ray Sweet, or Owen Ray? The death registration simply has Owen Ray but is Ray the surname or his middle name? This may seem far-fetched to you, but I'm only suggesting you keep an open mind as you search.

Gather the facts and document them carefully, then consider all the evidence - and how much weight you should give to each record you find. In other words do you believe a census record or a birth record over family lore? Over impressions of a photograph? Consider the information source of each record. Was it the individual himself who provided the information? Is it contemporary or written long after the event? In other words how good or reliable is your source?

You may find I Found My Great Great Grandfather Online -- Now What!!??? (Verifying Records Found On Webpages) helpful to you. Don't forget too that you may need to search OFFline as well as on.

Looking for Owen Sweets in Kentucky tuned up only one man in 1840, 1850, 1860 and 1870 census - and he is listed as white in all those records. Your Peter is not with him unless he (Peter) had another name which he used interchangeably with Peter. I became quite fascinated by your puzzle and I hope that what I found and what I have suggested as your next steps will be helpful to you

Postscript: Having already found so much and thoroughly enjoying your puzzle, I could not let it rest and decided to have a look for Peter's children. One of Peter's children was Nathaniel Sweets born about 1902 in Missouri. A google search for Nathaniel brought up a very interesting 1970 interview with a Nathaniel Sweets, prominent black leader in St. Louis Missouri. In it Nathaniel mentions he is the youngest of 17 children. I was fairly sure this was Nathaniel, son of Peter and Hannah, but there was no proof in the interview. So I continued my hunt and there it was.

In the online book Dictionary of Missouri Biographies, you will find a bio of Nathaniel Sweets "youngest of 17 children born to freed slaves Pete and Hanna Sweets". I urge you to read the interview and biography as it is most interesting! Nathaniel was quite famous in the African-American community and there is a great deal written about him. Now you can have the fun of finding out everything you can about Nathaniel and his family and siblings


  1. Good response to the question. You presented overwhelming evidence pertaining to the family history and identity. There is often a presumption about Indian ancestry made based on racial features. This is a pitfall that can lead one away from the facts. I talk about this in my book "Black Indian Genealogy Research. African American Ancestors Among the Five Civilized Tribes"

  2. Thanks Randy Seaver for the shout out on Genea-Musings: Best of the Genea-Blogs - May 24-30, 2009 of my AskOliveTree blog response re whether a submitter's ancestor was Native American or African American

  3. An excellent post with much good advice for everyone!

  4. I am not sure that you have the correct Peter Sweets. My GG Peter Sweets, wife Hannah, I have always been told was indian. They moved to Marshal Creek, Mo I do not know how they had time to do anything considering that the story is that between the two of them they had 27 children. However, I am just saying that I have always heard that he was indian and by looking at the features of my great-grandmother, grandmother, and myself I tend to believe that.

  5. I continued to read posts and did some more searching and this is indeed the same Peter Sweets. I remember that the mayor of Chicago had Nathaniel (uncle Nate) flown to Butler, Mo by helicopter and he received a police escort to the cemetary when his sister, my great grandma, Emma Nora Sweets Brown Smith passed away. I also found it quite interesting that GG grandpa Peter's mother's name was "Mehala" and one of his granddaughters was a singing machine.