Who are the Black Dutch?

Where do we come from? Who are our people? These are the questions we seek to answer in our genealogy journey. Sometimes in our searches interesting phrases arise pertaining to the people from whom we descend. One such term is Black Dutch. Who were the Black Dutch? Where did they come from? Most importantly, what is behind this name?

Historically, there are actually several groups with whom the term Black Dutch have been associated. This American phrase has been associated with both immigrants and the offspring of combined communities within the United States.

The Original Black Dutch

As part of Northern Europe the Netherlands is located close to Scandinavia and as a result saw a great deal of settlement during the Viking era. Typically fair skinned, these Viking settlers left a definite impact on the Dutch population of today passing on their fair complexions.

Therefore, the generally fair skinned nature of the Dutch leads to confusion over the term Black Dutch. This term was coined specifically for Dutch immigrants to New York who were unusually darker in complexion.

There is a very simple reason for these more swarthy Dutch which dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries. It started in 1477 when the marriage of Mary of Burgundy to Maximillian Hapsburg led to the beginning of the Hapsburg control of the Netherlands.

In 1555 Charles Hapsburg gifted the Netherlands to his son Phillip II of Spain effectively bringing the country under Spanish rule. It is from the resulting Spanish soldiers who came to the Netherlands that the origins of the Black Dutch are found.

Through intermarriage, or out of wedlock births, the people of the Netherlands and the Spanish military interbred. The offspring of these unions took on the darker, more swarthy complexions of the Spanish. Descendants of these unions would later become known as the Black Dutch when they entered the United States.

The German Dutch

Historically, German immigrants to the United States referred to themselves as Deutsch, which is of course from the German name for Germany, Deutschland. The similar sounding name quickly became anglicized to Dutch.

Accepting the Dutch moniker, the German immigrants to Pennsylvania are often referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch. Just like the people of the Netherlands most native Germans were fair skinned. Spanish influence has also impacted Germany as well historically which has led to individuals with darker complexions.

Those German immigrants with darker complexions also became known as Black Dutch. It is also common that these Pennsylvania Black Dutch have held onto their German identity even generations after arriving in the United States.

Sephardic Jewish Immigrants

The term Black Dutch has also been associated with the offspring of certain Sephardic Jewish immigrants and free or enslaved Africans in America. Tracing back to the 15th Century, Sephardic Jews immigrated to the Netherlands from Spain and Portugal.

After two centuries in the Netherlands the descendants of these Sephardic Jews moved first to England and soon after to the New World, many of them settling in the South. It was here that the Dutch Sephardic Jewish men encountered the free and enslaved African women.

Often viewed as being on a similar social level in that period of history it was not unusual for the two groups to intermarry especially if both parties were free. The resulting offspring of these unions historically were referred to as Black Dutch.

Assuming the Name

The Black Dutch name has also been used historically to hide a true ethnicity. It was notably used by some Native Americans especially the Cherokee who resided in the Carolinas.

At a time when Native Americans were being forced west to live on reservations it became a practice to claim to be Black Dutch rather than Native American. This allowed them to buy and own land while also avoiding a forced removal from their home.

The lie often lasted for several generations but ultimately many years later most who claimed the Black Dutch origin rejected it. Having held onto their culture in secret most of these families became open about their ancestry.

The Non-Dutch Black Dutch

There are many families who believe to have Black Dutch heritage but who cannot trace those original ancestors from Germany or the Netherlands. In fact, records may direct them back to the British Isles or other countries in Europe.

The honest truth is that many of these families may derive from the Deep South. Over the years the meaning of Black Dutch in states like Tennessee, Alabama and Texas became a common term for someone of mixed heritage.

Intermarrying between poor whites and free people of color produced offspring whose complexion is similar to the Black Dutch. It would be beneficial to claim to be Black Dutch rather than of mixed heritage.

A key clue to a non-Dutch related Black Dutch ancestor may be found in family names. If the names being found in your research indicate British sounding names rather than Dutch or German it is likely that you have an African ancestor.

How to Find Your Black Dutch Roots

The important thing to remember when researching your Black Dutch ancestors is that the term is essentially an American nickname. This means that the only records that really matter are those from America.

As a term in documentation Black Dutch was notably found in both legal and personal documents from the 16th through to the 19th Century. It is important to note that the term does have a somewhat liquid meaning and can also be misleading.

In order to pinpoint the origin of your Black Dutch connection when records are not giving obvious answers the best next step is an ethnicity DNA test such as 23&Me or Ancestry. Using a DNA test you can discover if you have Dutch or German Ancestry.

It may transpire that you have a surprise amount of Native American or African DNA along with a sizable amount of European. This may indicate the alternate Black Dutch origins by which your ancestors needed to hide their true origins.

As is often the case in modern genealogy a combination of record research and our own DNA is key to finding out as much about our family history as possible.

Neil Edwards

Neil Edwards

Genealogist and family-tree research specialist

Neil was born in Shropshire, England surrounded by centuries of living history. His interest in the past has been a lifelong passion leading to undergraduate degrees in both Economic History & Geography and History & Politics.

This interest in history quickly translated to family history when he moved to the U.S. in 2010. It was here that he began working on his own family tree as well as that of his American wife. That research allowed him to gain a wealth of experience working with both U.S. and European genealogical documents and studying their best uses in researching family history.

Following 9 years of honing his genealogical research skills, Neil was proud to have earned a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University in late 2019. Neil also took part in the research process for a Duke University study into the families of 19th Century UK Members of Parliament.

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