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My First Black American Ancestor in 1619

Through researching my own family tree, I discovered in one line of my family that our earliest black ancestor to come to America was named Abram Cuttillo.  I don’t know what year he was born, which isn’t unusual for our early African ancestors.  But I do know that he was born in Ndongo, Huambo, Angola, Africa.  What was the Kingdom of Ndongo is immediately to the south of Congo.

In July 1619, he was taken from Africa as a captive onto a Portuguese slave ship called the “São João Bautista” that sailed out of São Paulo de Loanda, Angola.  The ship “São João Bautista”, captained by Manuel Mendes da Cunha, was intended for Veracruz, Mexico, but was pirated by the Dutch slave ship called the “White Lion”, which was captained by John Colyn Jope [Chope].  It is believed, according to Spanish records, that the ship was pirated somewhere in the Spanish-controlled waters just outside of West Central Africa.

In August 1619, Captain John Colyn Jope [Chope] brought Abram to Jamestown, where he was one of only twenty of the first Africans to ever arrive in Virginia.  Captain John traded him into indentured servitude for food and supplies to either Governor Yeardley or Abraham Peirsey at Fort Monroe, Point Comfort (now Hampton), Virginia.  John Rolfe, the widower of Pocahontas, was at Point Comfort on that day and wrote about it in his diary, saying “About the latter end of August, an English ship flying a Dutch flag of the burden of 160 tons arrived at Point Comfort, the Commanders name was Capt. Colyn Jope.  He brought not anything but 20 and odd Negras.”

It is said that the 20 Africans brought to Virginia in August 1619 (which included my 8th great grandfather Abram Cuttillo) spoke the Kimbundu language and came from the Mbundu region of Ndongo in the watershed of the Kwanza River, in Angola just south of Congo.  Kimbundu is a Bantu language.

From as early as the 1300s, the Mbundu society has always been matrilineal, with land inherited by the women, and family descent assigned through the women.  When boys come of age, they are sent to live in villages with their maternal uncles.  The first king of Congo (Kongo) occupied part of the Mbundu territories since 1370, turning it into his province MPemba, and establishing his capital Mbanza Kongo there.  Later, the Mbundu kingdom became a vassal of Congo.  Congo had been in contact with the Portuguese since 1482 and had a monopoly on trade with them.  The NDongo leader (the “ngola”, meaning “ruler”), tried to break the monopoly and this led to war between Congo and NDongo.  The NDongo won and became independent of Congo.  Then in 1579, the Portuguese made their first attempt to conquer Ndongo, but the Mbundu fiercely resisted and won again.  In 1590, the Mbundu allied with the Matamba to again confront the Portuguese.  But the Portuguese destroyed the leadership of Mbundu.  Mbundu was then raided by its northern neighbors from Congo, who captured and sold the Mbundu people into slavery to the Portuguese.  Today, the Bantu people still living in this region of Angola speak both the Kimbundu and Portuguese languages.

The early Africans brought to America in the 1600s were not chattel slaves, but were indentured servants that were freed after a period of service.  It was common that after being freed from service, they would live in Native American territories and would have relationships and children with both Caucasian and Native American women.  These communities were of mixed free African, Caucasian and Native American people, and these early groups of what became tri-racial people from 1600s Virginia came to be known as the Malungu (or the Malungeon).  Cuttillo was one of only 3 surnames that originated from Angola, Africa but were in Virginia in the 1650s.

In Poquoson Parish, Virginia (which is one of the oldest named cities in Virginia, deriving its name from the Algonquian Native Americans, a tribe affiliated with the Powhatan) in 1670, Abram had a child with a free white woman named Katherine Jewell-Pond.  His daughter’s name was Mary Jewell-Cuttillo.  In 1693, Mary Jewell-Cuttillo later had a child with a free white man named John Berry, whose family was of Devon, England.  Their son, when he was born, was called James Cuttillo, but later came to be known as “Old James Berry”.  This was the first black, or rather mixed-race, ancestor in my family with the Berry surname, which has been passed down to me.  And through DNA GEDCOM studies at, I’ve been matched to distant relatives with the surname Cuttillo, as well as matched to Berry relatives in Devon, England.

Had “Old James Berry” passed on his actual given name that was recorded in the county courts at the time of his birth, James Cuttillo (rather than later being assigned his white father’s name), our family surname today would be Cuttillo, not Berry.

If you’re interested in reading more about the Atlantic slave trade related to specific regions of Africa, I recommend a book called “A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, 1250-1820”, by John K. Thornton, 562 pages (ISBN: 978-0521727341), published by Cambridge University Press in 2012.  You can buy it on Amazon by clicking HERE.


A featured recommendation by!  Rated 4 out of 4 stars by!  Received a glowing review from Kirkus, the most authoritative voice in book discovery for 80 years!  GET A COPY OF AUTHOR KIMBERLY BERRY’S BOOK, “All-In-One Basic to Advanced Guide to Genealogy & Ancestry History Research” at Amazon’s CreateSpace e-Store BY CLICKING HERE.

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Member of MENSA, Association of Professional Genealogists, and Author’s Guild. Avid history and genealogy explorer, blogger, lecturer, and author of “All-In-One Basic to Advanced Guide to Genealogy & Ancestry History Research”. President/Director of Society for History and Research Education (S.H.A.R.E.).

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