The Fascinating Family History of the American Set to Revolutionize the Royals
From Middle Ages Yorkshire to Jim Crow-era Tennessee and Pennsylvania coal country, what genealogists have learned about Prince Harry’s future bride.
Her future husband can trace his genealogy on both sides back to the Middle Ages, and although Meghan Markle’s British antecedents can be traced as far back as the 1400s on her father’s side, it is her mother’s line of descent from slaves in the American South that has aroused more fascination as the British royal family prepares to welcome the first non-white member to its senior ranks.
Markle, who has described herself as “a strong, confident, mixed-race woman,” has talked and written at length about her black ancestry, both in her blog and in a piece published in Elle magazine.
In the Elle article in 2015, Markle wrote of her slave ancestry, saying: “You create the identity you want for yourself, just as my ancestors did when they were given their freedom. Because, in 1865—which is so shatteringly recent—when slavery was abolished in the United States, former slaves had to choose a name. A surname to be exact.
“Perhaps the closest thing connecting me to my ever-complex family tree, my longing to know where I come from, and the commonality that links me to my bloodline, is the choice that my great-great-great-great grandfather made to start anew. He chose the last name, ‘Wisdom.’”
No documents or artifacts referring to a Markle ancestor by the name of “Wisdom” have been located by the numerous genealogists, researchers, and investigators who have attempted to delve into Markle’s maternal lineage. Indeed, all the available documentation suggests the story of “Wisdom” could turn out to be a family legend as the paperwork so far uncovered suggests that Meghan’s great-great-great-grandfather was named Steve Ragland and his wife’s name was Texas.
The only written record of their existence so far discovered is a brief entry on the death certificate of their son, Jeremiah Ragland.
Genealogists contacted by The Daily Beast on Monday said that family histories attempting to explore slave origins often end in similar gaps as record-keeping was frequently poor, or not preserved.
It appears that Texas and Steve’s marriage was interracial, as a Census entry describes Jeremiah, who was living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as “mulatto”—in a reflection of the racist Jim Crow laws of the time.
Much of the most compelling research was carried out by Massachusetts-based genealogist Elizabeth Banas, who was commissioned by Dailymail.com to research Meghan’s family history.
Meghan’s grandfather was Alvin A. Ragland, who died in 2011 at the age of 81.
His father (her great-grandfather) was Steve R. Ragland, who was born in 1908 and died in Los Angeles in 1983, and worked at a laundry in Chattanooga. Her great-great-grandfather Jeremiah was born in 1881 in Clayton in Georgia and died in 1944 in Chattanooga.
It is his death certificate, also published by dailymail.com, that states his father’s name was Steve Ragland and his mother’s name was “Texas.”
His death certificate says that he was a tailor, and many of the Raglands appear to have worked in department stores and laundries.
Markle has frequently addressed her genealogical history, writing in another article: “I was home in L.A. on a college break when my mom was called the ‘N’ word. We were leaving a concert and she wasn’t pulling out of a parking space quickly enough for another driver.”
Writing for Elle, she added: “Being biracial paints a blurred line that is equal parts staggering and illuminating.
“While my mixed heritage may have created a gray area surrounding my self-identification, keeping me with a foot on both sides of the fence, I have come to embrace that. To say who I am, to share where I’m from, to voice my pride in being a strong, confident mixed-race woman.”
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day last year, Markle published a moving piece of writing on her now-shuttered blog The Tig, exploring the overt and covert racism she and her family have experienced throughout their lives.
Her father’s ancestry is simpler to trace and, like many British families, there are several links by marriage to the British royal family (although to attempt to cast them as cousins as some outlets have done may be laying it on a bit thick).
Indeed, Markle is likely related through her father to this Daily Beast correspondent as she has an ancestor by the name of Martha Sykes, who comes from the northern county of Yorkshire, where the Sykes family has been based since 1067.
The 36-year-old has ancestors from the county, according to a Channel 4 documentary When Harry Met Meghan: A Royal Romance.
The show traced Meghan’s father’s family history back to his great-great-grandmother, Martha Sykes, who was born in Yorkshire and left with her parents, Thomas and Mary, during the reign of Queen Victoria, to settle in the U.S. at the age of 1 in the 1860s.
A copy of the 1870 Census from the Mahanoy Township in Schuylkill County, in Pennsylvania’s eastern anthracite coal country, shows the family living with 3-year-old Martha.
On Monday, Harry and Meghan appeared for their first public photocall, appearing together in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace, which was much loved by his late mother, Princess Diana.
When asked by reporters when he knew she was “the one,” he replied: “From the very first time we met,” adding that he was “thrilled, over the moon” at the engagement.