Powerful DNA study links thousands to their enslaved ancestors at iron forge

First-of-its-kind analysis uncovers the hidden histories of enslaved and free African Americans who toiled at an 18th-century furnace in the United States.
Sade Agard
Site of Catoctin Furnace in Cunningham Falls State Park, Maryland.
Site of Catoctin Furnace in Cunningham Falls State Park, Maryland.

Aneta Kaluzna 

In a first-of-its-kind analysis to restore lost ancestral connections, researchers have harnessed the power of ancient DNA to illuminate the hidden histories of enslaved and free African Americans who toiled at Maryland's Catoctin Furnace during the early years of the United States. 

The study published on August 4 in Science successfully completed an intricate genetic puzzle, linking 27 individuals buried at the furnace to their modern-day descendants.

Motivated to reconnect African American communities with their heritage, this collaborative project demonstrates genetic analysis's powerful ability to piece together the life stories of those often left out of written records.

The power of DNA

The study, co-authored by renowned scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., delves into the rich history of Catoctin Furnace. This site played a vital role in the lives of enslaved and free African Americans from at least 1776 until the mid-1800s.

“Recovering African American individuals’ direct genetic connections to ancestors heretofore buried in the slave past is a giant leap forward both scientifically and genealogically, opening new possibilities for those passionate about the search for their own family roots,” Gates said in a press release.

Traditional understanding of early African Americans' genetic heritage drew from mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA sources.

Until recently, historical society staff solely examined written records and bone/tooth traits of those interred at Catoctin Furnace. These remains were not exhumed for research; instead, they were unearthed during a 1970s highway project and held by the Smithsonian.

Now for the first time, this latest study employed cutting-edge technology to sequence the entire genomes of historical individuals. 

By comparing these sequences with a database of de-identified DNA from over 9 million living individuals, the researchers uncovered intricate genetic relationships, offering a new method for determining genetic relatedness.

“Our study combines for the first time two transformative developments in genomics in the last decade," explained co-senior author Harvard professor David Reich.

"Ancient DNA technology, which makes it possible to efficiently sequence whole-genome data from human remains, and direct-to-consumer genetic databases that contain data from millions of people who have consented to participate in research."

"This work demonstrates the power of DNA to provide information about ancestral origins," he added.

The transatlantic slave trade

Tracing African American genealogy poses unique challenges due to historical gaps caused by the transatlantic slave trade, slavery's enduring legacy, and systemic racist practices. 

"Our enslaved ancestors' identities remain suspended in silence and anonymity in the abyss of slavery," remarked Gates.

The study offers a glimmer of hope by bridging these gaps and enabling connections between individuals who lived centuries ago and their present-day descendants.

The collaboration between academia and historical societies, such as the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, exemplifies a concerted effort to restore lost identities. 

Uncovering and teaching the history of sites like Catoctin Furnace while utilizing the latest genomic sequencing techniques paves the way for a more inclusive understanding of our shared past. 

The full study was published in Science on August 3 and can be found here.

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