Harvard professor, Piedmont native hoping to solve family mystery
Gates seeks identity of great-great-grandfather
Elaine Blaisdell Cumberland Times-News
CUMBERLAND — Harvard University Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. is asking all residents of Allegany County who are of Irish descent to get their DNA tested to help solve a 150-year-old family mystery — who is Gates’ great-great grandfather?
Through genealogical records, the Gates family history can be traced back to Jane Gates, a slave who lived on Greene Street. Jane, who was born in 1819, had five children and took the name and identity of their father with her to the grave, according to Gates.
“All Jane told the kids was that they all had the same father,” said Gates in a phone interview with the Times-News. “I have a picture of Jane Gates and her sons and they all look white, including my great-grandfather, Edward Gates, who was born December 1857 in (Allegany County) Maryland. I’m looking to find my great-great-grandfather and I hope to find him using DNA analysis.”
Gates believes that one of the descendants of Niall of Nine Hostages fathered all five of Jane’s children.
“Hoping to help solve this troubling mystery — family legend had it that the father of Jane’s children was a slave owner outside of Cumberland, Md., named Samuel Brady — I had my y-DNA tested,” writes Gates, editor-in-chief of The Root, an online magazine. “The results astonished everyone, including me: My y-DNA haplotype is R1b1b2ala2f2, also known as ‘the Ui Neil Haplotype.’ At least 8 percent of all the men in Ireland share this same haplotype, and all of us descend from one man, a king named Niall of the Nine Hostages, who lived in Ireland around 500 A.D.”
The y-DNA was passed down to Gates’ grandfather, Edward Lawrence Gates, and Gates inherited it from his father, Henry Louis Gates Sr.
“On my paternal line, in other words, we are as Irish as Irish can get,” writes Gates in The Root.
The Gates family later found out that Brady was not their great-great-grandfather, according to Gates’ cousin John Gates. Brady’s farm was located in Cresaptown, where the Western Correctional Institution sits now.
Two separate tests will be run on the DNA that residents send — one on men’s y-DNA for a match to the Gates family and one for women’s DNA will be tested.
Scientists can trace family origins by analyzing DNA that is obtained from saliva on the mother’s mother’s mother’s line, and on the man’s father’s father’s father’s line, according to Henry Gates.
Residents who send in a DNA sample to see if they are related to Gates will get a separate website with the results, said Gates. Those whose DNA matches Gates may be featured in the new PBS miniseries “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates,” which will premiere March 25 at 8 p.m.
“I don’t think you can know who you are without looking into your ancestry. I think it’s empowering to learn where you came from,” said Gates.
The final results of who Gates’ great-great grandfather will be aired on the “Finding Your Roots” series either this season or next, according to Gates.
“I’m hoping and praying that we find him,” said Gates.
“Finding Your Roots” is a 10-part series that delves into the genealogy and genetics of famous Americans, combining history and science in a fascinating exploration of race, family and identity, according to the PBS press release. Gates will explore the family trees of 22 famous people, some of whom include Kevin Bacon, Robert Downey Jr., Martha Stewart, Barbara Walters, Rick Warren, Condoleeza Rice and Congressman John Lewis. “Finding Your Roots” is the fourth in a series of genealogical and genetic series that Gates has done for PBS.
The number of possible descendants of Gates and his mysterious great-great grandfather have been narrowed down to 178 men born in Allegany and Hampshire counties between 1800 and 1830 bearing 22 surnames, according to Gates.
“If the father of Jane’s children, my Irish great-great grandfather, has any other male descendants walking around on the planet, he will have exactly the same y-DNA signature ... as my father, brother and I do,” writes Gates in The Root. “With a (wee) bit of luck, one of the millions of unsolved genealogical mysteries facing African-Americans today can be solved.”
John Gates and his wife, Sukh, purchased Jane’s house at 515 Greene St. in 2009. John is restoring the house and is working to get the property added to the National Register of Historic Places.
“My role is to retain the property and hopefully my three sons will share in the interest of the property,” said John.
Jane bought the house for $1,200 cash and the only way that she could get the money for the house is from the father of her children, explained Henry Gates. The house was purchased in 1870, according to the deed provided by John.
“I think the fundamental question that haunts me is what kind of man he was,” said Gates.
Residents interested in getting their DNA tested can email Gates at email@example.com for a free DNA test kit.
Gates, who was originally from Piedmont, W.Va., now resides in Cambridge, Mass., where he is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, as well as director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research.
“Home in my mind is still Piedmont, West Virginia,” said Gates.