DNA of Enslaved Iron Workers Gives Light to African American History

    10 August 2023

    Not far from Camp David, a U.S. presidential base in Maryland, lie the remains of an iron workshop called Catoctin Furnace. The workshop dates back to the late 18th century. It is an important place for understanding the start of the Industrial Revolution in early U.S. history.

    The site is also providing researchers with a greater understanding of African American history. A new study examined DNA from the remains of 27 individuals found in a burial place at Catoctin Furnace for enslaved people.

    The study revealed the ancestry of some of the enslaved people who were forced to work there in the years after the nation's founding. It also identified thousands of living relatives. Many of the relatives still live in Maryland.

    A view of the site of the Catoctin Furnace, an iron forge where enslaved people of African descent once worked, in Cunningham Falls State Park in Maryland, U.S., in this undated photograph. (Aneta Kaluzna/Handout via REUTERS)
    A view of the site of the Catoctin Furnace, an iron forge where enslaved people of African descent once worked, in Cunningham Falls State Park in Maryland, U.S., in this undated photograph. (Aneta Kaluzna/Handout via REUTERS)

    The burial site was used from 1774 to 1850. The remains were removed from the site in the 1970s so that a road could be built. Since then, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. has kept the remains. They include 16 males and 11 females. Some are very young children, while others are older adults.

    Researchers found that the 27 individuals descended from just a few African populations, mainly West Africa's Wolof and Mandinka peoples and Central Africa's Kongo people. And they have strong genetic connections to present-day populations in Senegal, Gambia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    Millions of people were forcibly taken from Africa to the Americas from the 16th to 19th century in the transatlantic slave trade. A lack of documentation about these people has left descendants with little information about their own family history.

    Kari Bruwelheide is a researcher with the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. She helped write the study, which appeared last week in the publication Science.

    Bruwelheide said, "This knowledge was severed by slavery – a truth that has implications for African Americans far beyond the community of Catoctin Furnace."

    She added that the study shows the power of genetic research to rebuild some of what was destroyed by a lack of record-keeping.

    Enslaved people of African descent were forced to work in agricultural, industrial, and home settings in parts of the United States. Slavery ended with the U.S. Civil War, which was fought from 1861 to 1865.

    Catoctin Furnace is a few kilometers from Camp David in Cunningham Falls State Park. It grew into a village area, with industrial buildings and housing.

    Workers mined iron, kept fires burning to melt the iron and made different kinds of goods. The goods they made included stoves, pots and even cannon balls. Enslaved people were the main part of the work force until paying European immigrants to work there became less costly by the mid-19th century.

    For the study, the researchers examined historical DNA alongside genetic testing company 23andMe's personal ancestry database. Through their efforts, they identified 41,799 Americans related to the 27 individuals.

    Eadaoin Harney was the lead study writer. She is also a 23andMe population geneticist. She said, "Enslaved African Americans are largely excluded from the historical record, and in documents where they are mentioned, they are often treated as property, not as people."

    The study found some European ancestry in most of the 27 individuals. That finding supports records of sexual abuse of enslaved people by their enslavers and others. It found that some of the 27 had possible genes for genetic conditions like sickle cell anemia and G6PD deficiency. Genetic conditions involving red blood cell problems are still common among African Americans.

    Kathryn Barca is a Smithsonian researcher and a writer of the study. She said, "The experiences of African Americans within the early industrial complex of the United States are not completely understood and their labors in this system have not been thoroughly explored or acknowledged."

    Barca added, "We hope this paper gives voice to these 27 individuals..."

    I'm Jill Robbins.

    Will Dunham reported this story for Reuters. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    DNA n. a substance that carries genetic information in the cells of plants and animals

    reveal v. to make (something) known

    descend from phr. v. to have (something or someone in the past) as an origin or source

    sever v. to end (a relationship or connection) completely

    mention v. to talk about, write about, or refer to (something or someone) especially in a brief way

    deficiency n. a lack of something that is needed

    thorough adj. including every possible part or detail