Our DNA Cousins, the Jackson Whites

From the cover of The Ramapo Mountain People by David Steven Cohen

The DNA trail doesn’t always fit neatly into paper proofs of lineage or family stories. In fact, at times DNA tells a very different story. My DNA cousins, the Jackson Whites, also called the Ramapo Mountain Indians, are part of our family DNA from approximately 5-6 generations ago on the Jones-Sweet and Smith-Edwards lines. This is likely at least a generation or two prior to my great grandmother Alice Ida Smith Hopkins’ grandfather and grandmother, Nelson O Jones and Katherine Margaret Sweet moved from New York to farm in Lapeer, Michigan. And, separately, when Charles Gray Smith arrived in North America as a Hessian fighter for a prince in Germany and James Edwards was a Loyalist in the 84th Royal Highland Emigrants.

Popular Image of Jackson Whites and their interaction with law enforcement
from Stranger in the Mountain

So who are the Jackson Whites? They are a “triple race mixture” (Indian, Black, White) likely dating from the early to late 1700s in the Ramapo Mountains of New Jersey/New York, just a 25 mile distance from New York City. Many descendants have inbred generation after generation staying in the Ramapo Mountains with their kin. Their fascinating but fought over history is documented in many places (see below for a variety of links). According to researchers and journalists the Jackson Whites had Dutch surnames, Degroat, Defreese, VanDunk, and Mann, and likely originate from Dutch slave masters as individuals were emancipated during the 1800s. Their Indian ancestry was likely from the Algonquin or smaller, more local tribes such as the Munsee. But most interestingly, over generations they acquired a unique cultural identity in their isolated mountain home, hence earning the pejorative name Jackson Whites.

Jackson White / Ramapo Mountain Indian area highlighted
Note: area crosses New Jersey-New York

How does DNA connect our family to the Jackson Whites? It all started with answering a simple question, where does my one percent African DNA come from? Digging into this question I learned that my first DNA cousin matches with any African ethnicity were 4th cousins (minus close relatives that also carry this DNA). But once at 4th cousins, I found 50 cousins between 1-85% African ethnicity, consistently aligned with other Jones-Sweet and/or the Smith-Edwards descendants. Out of these 50 cousins almost 100% also had 2-6% Native American ethnicity, plus a large mix of African countries and some Middle Eastern countries, along with plenty of British and Scandinavian ethnicity. In addition, beyond these 50 cousins another 45 4th cousins were “shared matches” and also within the Jones-Sweet and/or Smith-Edwards lines (shared matches is Ancestry DNA’s term for cousins that share DNA between you and another cousin, in effect connecting you with additional cousins of the same descent through triangulating your DNA matches) .

Jones-Sweet and Smith-Edwards 4th Cousin Counts
Note: Shared Matches are cousins with a shared African Ethnicity cousin,
but are not one themselves

Examining the family trees and shared matches of each of these 50 cousins it became clear they had much more in common with each other than just African ancestry. Their ancestors almost universally had common surnames and locations: Degroat, Defreese, VanDunk and Mann and lived in Bergen County, New Jersey or Rockland County, New York (which are contiguous counties in the Ramapo Mountains). I was on to something.

Ancestry DNA sample screen of our 4th cousins with African ethnicity
(Note: Benin-Togo broken out, African includes all African countries)

But what? Reviewing U.S. Censuses, Bergen County, New Jersey and Rockland County, New York wills and more general Internet searches revealed a singular people and history that is still discussed and debated today, the Jackson Whites or their preferred name, the Ramapo Mountain Indians. Our 4th cousins fit this group spot-on. Surnames, ethnicity, family lineage, location.

Now the problem was, when did these ancestors get introduced into our family tree, i.e. how is our currently documented family tree incorrect as it must be to account for these DNA cousins? As it turns out only a broad hypothesis was possible, but with some parameters:

  • Only Jones-Sweet and Smith-Edwards lines had shared matches with these Jackson White cousins (or any African ethnicity within our family for that matter). Nonetheless, approximately 52% of Jones-Sweet descendants are still carrying this shared match DNA and approximately 45% of Smith-Edwards descendants do (not necessarily direct African ethnicity but shared matches with a cousin that does).
  • Given the highest cousin DNA match for this Jackson White group is 43 cM and 3 segments the likely generation this was introduced is 5+ generations ago.
  • Each family line, Jones, Sweet, Smith, and Edwards, have gaps in their genealogical proofs. Nonetheless, there are no family stories that would suggest Jackson White ancestors.
  • Each family line seems to have had opportunity windows. Charles Gray Smith and James Edwards while fighting during the Revolutionary War as Loyalists and Hessians (see below for connecting stories). Jones and Sweet families lived in New York, sometimes for generations, prior to their move to Michigan. In addition, the paper genealogy trail is weak at important points.
  • Though irritatingly odd, Jones-Sweet and Smith-Edwards descendants that do not have ancestral overlap still both have Jackson White shared DNA matches. Therefore, was this DNA introduced twice, once a bit further back for Smith-Edwards and then a few generations forward for Jones-Sweet?

So the upshot? The Jackson Whites of New Jersey are ancestors of both the Jones-Sweet and Smith-Edwards family lines approximately 5+ generations ago per DNA results and correlations. But who would have thought?

  1. History and Legends of the Mysterious “Jackson Whites” published by Weird NJ provides many published snippets surrounding the Jackson Whites – https://weirdnj.com/stories/fabled-people-and-places/jackson-whites/
  2. Summary Under the Criteria and Evidence for Proposed Finding Ramapough Mountain Indians, Inc. case provided to U.S. Federal Government for RMI to acknowledged as an Indian Tribe – https://www.bia.gov/sites/bia.gov/files/assets/as-ia/ofa/petition/058_ramapo_NJ/058_pf.pdf
  3. The Ramapo Mountain People by David Steven Cohen provides much evidence as to the history of RMI – https://www.amazon.com/Ramapo-Mountain-People-David-Steven-ebook/dp/B001CEK41S/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=David+Steven+Cohen&qid=1559142735&s=books&sr=1-1
  4. The Name Game: The Ramapough Mountain Indians by David Steven Cohen reviews the weak case towards acknowledging RMI as an Indian Tribe – https://www.academia.edu/1225640/The_Name_Game_The_Ramapough_Mountain_Indians
  5. Strangers on the Mountain by Ben McGrath touches on the modern conditions of the RMI/Jackson Whites and impact of legends surrounding this group – https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/03/01/strangers-on-the-mountain
  6. Terror in the Ramapos by Charles Dewey tells the story of so-called British terrorists in the Ramapos Mountains during the Rev War – https://allthingsliberty.com/2019/03/terror-in-the-ramapos/
  7. Scott-Hopkins Family Tree on Ancestry.com provides lineage relationships and addition information on individual ancestors, however, it has not been corrected for Jackson White DNA cousin implications (DNA results are not public) – https://ancstry.me/2KcAd6v

©copyright 2019 by Elizabeth Scott Wright

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