Was the Pocahontas exception necessary?

By Razib Khan | November 12, 2010 12:11 am

Harry_F._ByrdIn Jonathan Spiro’s Defending the Master Race it is recounted that as American states were passing more robust anti-miscegenation laws and legally enshrining the concept of the one-drop-rule an exception was made in Virginia for those with 1/16th or less Native American ancestry. The reason for this was practical: many of the aristocratic “First Families of Virginia” claimed descent from Pocahontas. Included within this set was Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. of Virginia, who was 1/16th Native American, being a great-great-grandson of Pocahontas. This sort of background was probably not exceptional among the “Founding Stock” of Anglo-Americans whose ancestors were resident within the boundaries of the American republic at independence. Only around 1700 did the white population of the American British colonies exceed the indigenous, so no doubt some amalgamation did occur.

But from what I’ve seen the extent of admixture with the indigenous substrate was very marginal, especially in comparison to white populations in Argentina or Brazil. Or so I thought. In conversation a friend recently claimed that over 50% of American whites were 5% or more non-European in ancestry. I expressed skepticism, and he dug up the citation. Genetic ancestry: A new look at racial disparities in head and neck cancer:

The study included 358 patients; 37 percent were African American.

The researchers examined diagnosis (late versus early stage) and overall survival for African Americans with HNSCC based on self-reported race and genetic West African ancestry.

During the past decade, many groups have developed and characterized sets of single nucleotide polymorphism markers that can distinguish genetic ancestry among major ethnic groups such as Asian and West African, called ancestry information makers (AIMs).

For the study, genetic ancestry was based on a panel of 100 AIMs to estimate genetic background.

“Using these genetic markers gives you additional statistical power. It’s no longer two just categories – Black or White; it becomes a continuous variable. Race is not equal to genetics. Genetic markers don’t define specific races,” says Dr. Worsham.

Ultimately, the study found no correlation between West African genetic ancestry and HNSCC outcomes. Only self-reported race was associated with head and neck cancer stage.

Only 5 percent of self-reported African Americans had more than 95 percent West African ancestry, with 27 percent having less than 60 percent West African ancestry. By comparison, 48 percent who self-reported as Caucasian had more than 95 percent European American ancestry.

I’m not too worried about the number of markers. 100 should be sufficient on the scale of continents if well selected. But I’m curious about the representativeness of the sample. The African American one seems more European than others I’ve seen previously. And I really haven’t seen that much admixture with non-Europeans in the CEPH Utah white sample in the HapMap. But perhaps the Utah whites aren’t representative? Dienekes ran ADMIXTURE on the HapMap3 populations a few weeks ago, and I don’t see any elevated component of non-European ancestry in the Utah whites when compared to the Tuscans from Italy.


A factoid such as that less than 50% of white Americans are 95% or more European in ancestry can get traction quickly. But I think we should wait a bit and just get more samples. The results are from a presentation at a conference, not even a paper. Of course there’s a possibility that many people have more interesting backgrounds than multi-generational families which settled in Utah rather early. Time will tell.

Addendum: I believe that Native American admixture is going to be more common among the white Americans of the South than Yankees from New England. The reason I would give is that powerful and populous tribes and confederacies such as the Creek and Cherokee persisted in the Southern highlands far longer than in New England. The CEPH sample is going to be biased toward Yankees, as well as European converts from the British Isles and Scandinavia, so perhaps giving a somewhat lower result for non-European ancestry in American whites.

Addendum II: I thought about it more. Something went wrong in their analysis, or they had a very unrepresentative sample. Perhaps they had many Latinos and only coded their self-identified race and not ethnicity (50% of American Latinos identify as white). Maybe the AIMs aren’t good. I don’t know. But I do know that American genealogy buffs who assume Native American ancestry are often very disappointed. They seem to far outnumber those who find surprising non-white ancestry.

MORE ABOUT: Ancestry, Genomics, Race

Comments (26)

  1. Sandgroper

    Despite having no connections with America, I have been tracking the story of Pocahontas for a while. What is established as written history is somewhat evocative and tragic.

  2. The problem is that it is hard to prove an ancestor was Native American, unless you can trace an ancestor back to the final scrolls. Otherwise the record just sort of abruptly stops, and that’s where family legend picks up.

    Both of my grandmothers claim(ed) Native ancestry but it’s so hard to find documentation to prove it, and the only way to *disprove* it is to trace that line all the way back to the source country on all sides, which is very difficult to do.

  3. charlie

    Isn’t this just a numbers game?

    48% of participants self reported as caucasian; they had more than 95% european genes. One latino in there could throw off the numbers.

    King Philips war: kill off the Christian indians in New England and lower the chances of racial intermixing. I strongly suspect that very few founding stock before 1700 had any intermixing.

  4. This is a space where nuance (your lane) helps a lot. Race is one of those areas where an epistemological deformation bloodbath on all sides seems to occur in my observation.

    Maybe it would help if there was a space for experts to discuss topics phenotype-blind and anonymous.

    I can’t name anyone I can think of that is 100% good faith in participating in public epistemology on race, incorporating distribution, mechanics, coordination, policing, pageantry, and competition of identity, ancestry, and phenotype. An epistemological approach that did all that while successfully resisting being suborned by one’s own identity population or role optimization would impress me. So far, in this area, I haven’t been impressed. I feel like the truth comes out more with multivoice debate on racial epistemology topics, consisting of critical oponents of major identity population propagandas and good amount of smart oddballs cutting against all the major narratives and conflict pageants. But I think it would be helpful if the field had good faith epistemology overlords, like exist in other areas. I don’t see the Romers as deformed in their participation in empirical macroeconomics, nor do I see Prof. Gelman as deformed in his general approach to social science statistics. But when it comes to race all the experts, and even the armchair participants seem comically and unecessarily deformed to me.

  5. michelle, if you really are 1/64th, i think 23andme might be able to confirm or reject. they have a special native american ancestry finder. the main issue is that by the 19th century lots of “cherokee” were already very admixed.

  6. A ground zero of the front against broad race analysis neutrality seems to me to be the U.S. census and the particularly political way they construct census categories with regard to race and ethnicity. Whatever network is at the center of design, they don’t seem to be motivated by unblinkered curiosity. Many other sources adopt a deference to authority approach to the Census’ categories that is similar to how first legal principles are often recounted rather than analyzed for their empirical and epistemological groundings, or react in a narrow population advocacy type way divorced from a comprehensive reimagining of the Census as race, ethnicity and related information data collection (for example, advocacy for a Middle Eastern or Multiracial racial category). Unfortunately I can’t think of somebody I’d trust to turn the operation over to that could produce a bunch of useful knowledge for us. Maybe a somewhat unstable committee consisting of Henry Louis Gates, Steve Sailer, Alan Keyes, and Razib Khan, with methodological oversight by Andrew Gelman. I think the results would be interesting.

    Maybe Prof. Sforza Calli is the heroic epistemologist on race I’ve been looking for. I haven’t followed him in years so I don’t know his current status or stances on the state of these topics.

  7. trajan23

    Re: New England Amerind admixture rates vs Southern Amerind admixture rates,

    Alongside the persistence of Amerind groups like the Creek and the Cherokee in the South, I would also note the possible role of sex ratio disparity.The Puritan migration to New England was virtually unique in the history of immigration to the New World in having a nearly equal ratio of males to females. Since the male population of New England had an ample supply of English females, they would be less likely to dally with Amerind girls.In the South, on the other hand, the sex ratio was more unequal, with men out-numbering women, hence, a greater propensity for sexual relations with the Amerinds.

  8. Cavalli-Sforza, of course.

    Mr. Khan,
    By the way I’m a big fan of your use of toy models. It would be interesting to see you create one with where your intuition is about the distribution of admixture and identity in US populations. I’ll do the same as my woeful quantitative modeling and web publishing skills improve.

  9. 48% of participants self reported as caucasian; they had more than 95% european genes. One latino in there could throw off the numbers.

    can you restate what you said? doesn’t look like aggregate ancestry to me. rather, 50% were more than 5% non-white.

    re: sex ratio. i thought about bringing that up. TFR in much of the south, especially the lowland south, tended to be far lower than the northern states. the sex ratio imbalance in the english colonies was never equivalent to latin america, but new england in particular was exceptional for its balance and near total replication of european society.

  10. The CEPH Europeans are Utah families selected for having large pedigrees. The patients mentioned in this post were head and neck cancer patients, taking part in a medical study, from (I believe) Detroit; they are going to have a very different admixture history.

    Also worth noting that a lot of Western Europeans come up ~1% YRI+CHB+JPT on HapMap clustering, and this will be higher in Eastern Europeans. There is already a chunk of old admixture in the American European baseline.

  11. The study was done at Henry Ford hospital in Detroit. Given that fact, my intuition would be that there are a significant number of people in Detroit with a small, but unacknowledged, African-American ancestry, one can “pass” for white at about 1/8th African descent or 1/16th African descent (although probably not at 1/4 African descent in most cases).

    There would also be a significant Arab American population that might not be found to be European in ancestry based on the genetic markers.

    Another possibility is that there are probably a large number people of Southern European descent in the sample, who often have single digit percentage trace frequencies of non-European genetic markers, probably as a result of Mediterranean trade contacts from the Bronze Age through the Roman Empire.

  12. i thought about the arabs after i posted. in which case, that screams not representative of “white americans.”

  13. Interesting discussion and one of those areas that makes me think some day I’ll do some genetic genealogy.

    My maternal side are FFV (Harrison, Berkeley mainly) and very proud of it. So much so my GGM insisted I marry my 2nd cousin to keep ‘it’ in the family. Shiver.

    Interestingly, it’s my paternal side that claims descent from Pocahontas (or at least her family), not my FFV maternal side. The Native ancestry is quite clear. My grandmother was a Mattaponi, her mother full and her father half. She claimed that Pocahontas’ mother was Mattaponi (very possible) and we are descended from her mother. Who knows?

    I think family stories, as warped as they can become, have a lot of truth in them.

  14. charlie

    Sorry, let me be more clear:

    I read it as 48% of the total reported as Caucasian(vs 37% total self-reported as AA). Unclear in the press release. Your reading also makes more textual sense.

  15. Latifundiário

    The size of the Territory = The size of the Warrior Elite

    “However a new breed of men was growing, wild yes and untractable, but one with which the native American blood infusion would soon acquire unrelentless building up activity. While the Spaniards, in Paraguay, stayed where Irala had placed them, treated generally the discoveries which the first Conquistadores had done with indifference, the Brazilians continued, for two centuries, to explore the country. These determined adventurers would spend months and months in the wild hunting slaves and looking for gold and silver, following the informations they learnt with the native Americans. And finally, they managed to secure, to themselves and to the House of Braganza, the richest mines, the largest portion of South America, of all inhabited Earth, the most beautiful land”. (Robert Southey, 1819)

    So, the Brazilian Colonial Elite made it without millions of European immigrants and before the Industrial Revolution (and the Colt in open prairies).

    The 1500’s Brazilian Warrior Elite (With Amerindian”wifes”):




    The Portuguese Marquês de Pombal had Amerindian mtDNA

    Face it !

  16. Roger Bigod

    The way I remember the story, the VA legislature passed a law specifically exempting descendants of Pocanhontas from being considered products of miscegenation. A strong supporter of the legislation was Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, who was a descendant of Pocanohtas, of course.

    The background is that Pocahontas had one surviving grandchild, a female, who married a man named Robert Bolling. Descendants of that marriage are known to genealogists as Red Bollings. After his first wife died, Robert Bolling married a white woman and fathered the White Bollings. The descendants of both marriages married very widely in the Virginia gentry, including a Byrd, as mentioned, also members of the Randolph, Fleming, Bland, Jefferson (Thomas’s sister), Lewis and Meriweather families.

    Someone tried to claim a third marriage, but it was hard to shoehorn the dates into the known chronology. In fact, there were glaring discrepancies and proper genealogists refer to the claimed descendants as Blue Bollings, since they came out of the blue.

    Colonial racism was partly a side-effect of the extreme social competition that was a feature of Gov Berkely’s social program. He was governor during the English Civil War and encouraged members of the gentry to emigrate and form a highly stratified society. One way this shows up is in inventories of VA households, which include a huge amount of goods for consumer display — clothes, furniture, tableware, etc. It was ok to marry Scots (Marshall) or Welsh (Jefferson), but not Irish. And no descendant of an indentured servant held public office before the Revolution, ex one General. If someone married down, the whole family lost caste, so an Indian was completely out of the question.

  17. Cathy

    I’m a predominantly white American, but my great great grandmother on my father’s side was Mandan, and my husband’s distaff side also has Native American 3-4 generations back (although that’s more legend than established fact.) These trace remnants of Native American ancestry were suppressed for unknown reasons, and it was only in the 1980s that my grandmother admitted that her grandmother wasn’t the same Volga German as her other grandparents were, which surprised many of her children (who had had no idea.) There is no evidence of this ancestry in my physical features, but my father (and my oldest sister) had swarthy skin that turned a beautiful copper at the slightest hint of sun.

  18. The Dude

    I would be surprised if there is only minimal (i.e. ~1%) admixture in American whites, and I’m sure more will be found with more extensive sampling.

    Also, given that LDS dogma is hyper-conservative, overtly racist, and a tad consanguineous — engendering, effectively, a religious isolate — I doubt that Utah is representative of American social behavior as a whole, especially vis-à-vis race, past or present.

  19. Also, given that LDS dogma is hyper-conservative, overtly racist, and a tad consanguineous — engendering, effectively, a religious isolate — I doubt that Utah is representative of American social behavior as a whole, especially vis-à-vis race, past or present.

    you shouldn’t confuse contemporary LDS mainstream and the sects. also, as luke noted CEPH was a very specific subset of even white mormons. because of mormon missionization in foreign locales i’ve noticed sev. of my mormon FB friends have married non-whites.

  20. patrick

    You are unlikely to find any non-European ancestry in the CEPH sample (almost entirely northwestern European, with its colonial-stock American component being New England Puritan, the group which was least likely to intermarry with Amerindians.)
    If you are looking for white Americans with trace amounts of Amerindian ancestry, a much better bet would be other equally unrepresentative groups, namely French Canadian descendants and white southerners with significant amounts of Scottish ancestry (most of the colonial-era trade with the Southeastern highland tribes was in the hands of Scotsmen.)

  21. One of the things I’ve learned from my genealogical research is that I have absolutely NO native american ancestry in one line of my father’s family. That is notable because so many of my father’s relatives do have such ancestry verified (they got the cards and the benefits).

    The problem is that if the supposed ancestry is now beyond great-great grandmother it is almost impossible to prove. It’s as big and strong a brick wall as a “non-paternal” event when a female ancestor has an unusual first name, no last name, and no identifiable ancestors.

    There are a few lines on my maternal side where I can be absolutely sure there are no native american ancestors also. It’s quite easy to rule that out.

    However, on both sides there are numerous dead ends in different centuries in Southern states.

  22. Detroit has a lot of people of white Southern ancestry, and perhaps a few French Canadians (there are certainly a lot of French geographic names in the area).

  23. Roger Bigod

    A quibble, but Pocahontas was quite exceptional. She was a Princess, important to people accustomed to deferring to titles. She was legally married to Rolfe and went with him to England, where she was presented to the Queen.

    I’m barely an amateur in the subject, but I’ve never come across another publicly acknowledge marriage with an Amerind involving anyone related to the Virginia gentry.

    OTOH, descent from a Red Bolling was a point of pride. Only in the Nineteenth Cent. did the “single drop” view of racial purity become dominant, leading to attempts to reclassify her as non-non-Aryan.

  24. Huxley

    There is not a chance that their statement is true if you are talking about Americans of European descent, excluding people with ancestry from Latin America. Many whites are from 19th century immigrants from Europe where there has been no mixture with blacks or Indians. You might find a little Cherokee in some southerners but it is really not material.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar