It was a balmy night in Nairobi; one where the leaves rustled melodically in the gentle breeze and the stars peeked through the veil of cloud cover to wink at we mere mortals below. Our working group had convened to have a final dinner together before we all went our separate ways. Perhaps it was the vino – in which, they say is always truth – or perhaps it was the euphoria I was feeling in general, but my lips were very lose and I was more than eager to share personal parts of my life with this band of cohorts who were no longer strangers, but definitely not friends. The woman sitting next to me was Nigerian, and in retrospect, I did a very Diaspora Thing with the following:
“I’ve been looking into my ancestry,” I announced enthusiastically. “My DNA results say I’m 24% Nigerian! One of my recent ancestors came/was brought to America in the mid 1800s.”
The Kenyan woman at the other end of the table curled her lip in disgust.
“DNA? For me, those things are a pyramid scheme. So for example if they don’t come and test people in my village, how will they show where I’m from?”
“And besides that, there is no such thing as a ‘Nigerian’,” scoffed the South African man who agreed with her. “You can be Igbo or what what, but your DNA can’t just say Nigerian.”
If they had asked me, I would’ve told the Kenyan that DNA results have a segment that is “unassigned” for those genes that have not yet been/cannot be identified, and I would’ve informed the South African that the results from Nigeria refer to the current geo-political borders. But they didn’t ask, so I went back to sipping my drink and made a mental note never to discuss ancestry with strangers.
So why am I talking about my ancestry with you? Because you’re not a stranger at all! You’re part of my M.O.M. Squad…and I promised you an update on my journey of self-discovery.
Last year, I told you about my second great-grand mother, Peachy Dunn. She is the woman who inspired my thirst for knowledge about my African American roots. My grandfather prepared this family tree which is the only document my family has (that I’m aware of) detailing names and dates of birth of the Davis side of my family. I took a trip to Kentucky in 2021 to find out more. You know what happens when you go in search of answers: You usually end up with more questions. In the Garrard County historical records, I found myself at a dead end where Peachy was concerned. Her parents, Nelson and Mary Dunn were my “brick wall.” Apart from their names on a roughly written document recording her birth, there was no other information about them. After such an exhilarating series of highs of discovery, I felt let down. Who were Nelson and Mary Dunn? What kind of lives did they lead having been born in antebellum Kentucky? I wondered this aloud when I informed my uncle about my intention to do some sleuthing after he’d shared his dad’s meticulously scribed family tree.
“Do you really think they were slaves, Uncle Gary?”
“What else you think they were doing in 1863,” he retorted.
I am proud to announce that my research has taken me back to my 4th great-grandparents on both my maternal and paternal grand parent’s side. I discovered some interesting threads. The Kidds (m) either did a lot of intermarrying or it was a very common name in Shelby, AL. (Most likely the former, as everyone is very reluctant to talk about the Kidds.) On the Dunn/Davis side, I noticed that the name “Nelson” had been passed on to every generation leading up to my mother’s brother. If I were researching my Ghanaian side of the family, the significance of this naming convention would’ve been immediately apparent. West Africans are almost zealots when it comes to the concept of a “namesake”. Through my exploration of dozens (if not hundreds) of documents on Ancestry.com, I was rewarded with the answer. My 4th great-grandfather, Nelson Dunn, died mysteriously/unknown causes at age 33 in 1860…but he died FREE. That had to have been an incredible accomplishment in a time when the country was ready to go to war over the preservation – or the destruction – of the institution of slavery.
When Nelson died, his widowed wife was left to care for 4 children. Peachy was my 3rd great-grandmother. Her brother Commodore (sometimes spelt Cammondore) grew to become an influential man in and around Davistown, KY. His name is found on church leadership documents and he has an impressive headstone that marks his final resting place. According to their marriage records, Commodore also provided bond for Peachy and Samuel Davis’ nuptials. I find myself in great admiration for what Mary was able to accomplish as a young widow: raising four children in what was unquestionably a hostile climate. In 1860, Kentucky was a vital strategic base of operations for the Union as it was a crucial border state separating the Confederate States from the Union.In my most romantic thoughts, I imagine that she was thrilled when Peachy announced that her second son, Samuel Nelson, would carry on her departed husband’s name.
Nelson Dunn had to have been a special man with his own lore for my family to hand down his name with such dedication one generation after the next. Was he killed in pursuit of liberty and equality? Was he literate and transgressed the law by teaching people to read? If he was only sick for a day, why was there no cause of death listed? Sadly, I may never know what that lore is. That part of my family’s memory has passed into shadow. Or who’s to say? There may be other mysteries that *Ancestry.com is waiting to reveal.
Are there names – revered names – in your family that have been passed down from one generation to the next? Do you know the story of the first person to bear that name? If you don’t know, I hope my discovery inspires you to find out more!
(*Note: This is not a plug for Ancestry.com. I am actually about to cancel my membership because these 2023 fees are out of control!)