The term “Black Dutch” is something you may encounter in your genealogy research, or maybe you’ve heard it mentioned in your family as being part of your ancestry? But what does it mean, exactly? Who were the Black Dutch? If you’re just getting started on your genealogy adventure, you may not know.
Black Dutch is a term that is used in historical documents to refer to several different groups. Knowing your ancestral origins and some of your family histories will help you put the term “Black Dutch” in context with your own family.
The Dark-Skinned Dutch Immigrants
The most common designation of “Black Dutch” refers to Dutch immigrants to New York who had swarthier complexions than most other Dutch. The darker complexions were usually due to intermarriage or out of wedlock births with Spanish soldiers during the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands. Many of these so-called “Black Dutch” are still in New York today while other families migrated south and west to other states. DNA studies have shown that these people are of mainly European descent, with little, if any, African or Native American DNA in them.
The Sephardic Jewish Immigrants
Sephardic Jewish merchants came to the Netherlands from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century after being expelled from those nations. Some of them were admitted to England during Oliver Cromwell’s occupation of it in the 17th century during the English Civil War. Many of these eventually came to the American colonies and settled in New England and in the south.
The Sephardic Jewish immigrants often mixed with free or enslaved Africans and bore children with them. Sometimes, the men stayed with their mixed-race families, especially if the woman was free, while other times, they abandoned them for Jewish wives. The descendants of these Sephardic Jewish immigrants and the Africans in America with whom they bore children were also historically referred to as “Black Dutch.”
Some Native Americans, particularly the Cherokees of the Carolinas, identified themselves as Black Dutch in order to avoid being sent west to reservations. Giving themselves this designation also allowed them to buy and own land in the east, something that was only permitted to those of European descent at the time. These Natives denied their ancestry, sometimes for generations, because they were concerned their land would be taken from them and they would be sent west. Today, though, most Natives who identified as Black Dutch have become open about their ancestry. If you have a Native in your family who identified as Black Dutch in order to stay in the east and buy land, you will probably know it through family records and strong oral tradition.
The term “Dutch” has long been used for German immigrants, as the Germans called themselves the Deutsche people. This easily Anglicized into “Dutch,” and both German and Dutch immigrants became known by the same designation. The Pennsylvania Dutch are the descendants of German immigrants, and many groups of them, particularly the Amish, still speak various versions of German today. Like the dark-skinned immigrants from the Netherlands who settled in New York, German immigrants to Pennsylvania and other areas were also referred to as “Black Dutch” if they had darker than usual complexions. The surnames of these Black Dutch have remained decidedly German even to the present day, making it easier to identify a Black Dutch ancestor who was really a German immigrant than possibly for any other group of people referred to as Black Dutch.
The Black Dutch in the South
As many northern families who were referred to as Black Dutch immigrated south, the original meaning of the term became lost through the generations. Many southern people today claim to have Black Dutch ancestry, usually believing they have an ancestor who bore children with a Native American. In most cases, this is incorrect. However, it was not uncommon for people in the south to have children with Africans during the 18th and 19th centuries, and these mixed-race families gradually integrated into their communities. Most of the southern Black Dutch do not have German or Dutch ancestry at all, but are of English or Irish descent, with maybe some African mixed in.
How to Research Your Black Dutch Ancestors
Since “Black Dutch” is an American term, you will be doing all of your research in American records. It was a common term in legal and personal documents from the 1600s through the early 1900s in this country. If you come across it in your research, or if you’ve been told you have Black Dutch ancestry, the easiest thing to do is to get a DNA test from one of the inexpensive companies that now does this for genealogists. It will tell you where your ancestors came from in the past several hundred years, and this will allow you to narrow down the ethnicity of your own particular brand of Black Dutch.
Knowing this will make following the paper trail to your original Black Dutch ancestor easier. You can follow the line of ethnicity back through census records, court records, wills, church records, and even old newspaper records. Eventually, you will find someone in your line who is identified as Dutch, Jewish, German, or even outright Black Dutch. Further research on that ancestor will reveal their origins in most cases. This will allow you to prove or disprove family lore, and learn the true meaning of “Black Dutch” as it pertains to your family.