The purpose of this study was to elucidate the genetic origin of minor histocompatibility (H) antigens. Toward this end common inbred mouse strains, distinct subspecies, and species of the subgenus Mus were examined for expression of various minor H antigens. These antigens were encoded by the classical minor H loci H-3 and H-4 or by newly identified minor H antigens detected as a consequence of mutation. Both minor H antigens that stimulate MHC class I-restricted cytotoxic T cells (Tc) and antigens that stimulate MHC class II-restricted helper T cells (Th) were monitored. The results suggested that strains of distinct ancestry commonly express identical or cross-reactive antigens. Moreover, a correlation between the lack of expression of minor H antigens and ancestral heritage was observed. To address whether the antigens found on unrelated strains were allelic with the sensitizing minor H antigens or a consequence of antigen cross-reactivity, classical genetic segregation analysis was carried out. Even in distinct subspecies and species, the minor H antigens always mapped to the site of the appropriate minor H locus. Together the results suggest: 1) minor H antigen sequences are evolutionarily stable in that their pace of antigenic change is slow enough to predate subspeciation and speciation; 2) the minor H antigens originated in the inbred strains as a consequence of a rare polymorphism or loss mutation carried in a founder mouse stock that caused the mouse to perceive the wild-type protein as foreign; 3) there is a remarkable lack of antigenic cross-reactivity between the defined minor H antigens and other gene products.