It was not that long ago in the calendar of American history that if an individual was known to have Cherokee blood, it was hidden. It was considered a shame to have “Indian blood.” However, in more recent years, researchers are always hoping to find Cherokee blood intermingled with the white man’s blood.
In looking at many family trees one will find “descended from a Cherokee princess” or such. Today, more and more Americans claim descent from at least one Cherokee ancestor than any other Native American group. Stories are told and re-told about our long-lost Cherokee ancestors. It doesn’t matter to them that this might not be the case.
With the advent of DNA testing, many of these tales are laid to rest. I also had suspicioned that one of my maternal ancestors had Cherokee blood, but never stated this as a fact. She just “looked Indian.” But, alas, when the results of my DNA testing came back – nothing.
Census records, not yet released to the public show that in 2000, 729,553 Americans self-identified as Cherokee. By the 2010 census, this number had claimed to 819,105! How?
Let’s look briefly at the Cherokee. They were an Iroquoian-speaking Native American and lived in the Southeastern part of the United States – Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama. They had been there since A.D. 1000. When first identified by the Europeans they discovered that the Cherokee had well established communities and long-held traditions. They lived in small towns and all belonged to one of seven matrilineal clans. Cherokee women, often pictured as basically servants to their husbands, had rather great political and social power.
By the 17th and 18th centuries, the Cherokees changed in their social and cultural traditions. One change was in marriage. Marrying outside of the clan occurred more frequently as more and more Europeans settled in the New World. Sometimes the Cherokees embraced these marriages as a way to solidify relations between the two cultures – a “security blanket” so to say.
There were no records kept of these European-Cherokee marriages. It is known that for the European trader, having a Cherokee wife was of great benefit. It would be easier to sell or trade guns, clothing and other goods.
Surprisingly another custom soon began by the 18th and 19th century. Many of the richer Cherokee began the adoption of “racial slavery.” They bought black slaves from American slave markets. Almost 7% of Cherokee families owned black slaves by the mid 1830’s. This is a very small percentage but has led to the mixture of black and Cherokee lineage. Many stories were told in the early 20th century by descendants of these marriages – of how the black slaves accompanied the Cherokee on the forced removal in the 1830’s. Over 17,000 Cherokee and their slaves made the trek known as the “Trail of Tears.”
Although these 17,000 plus were sent to their new home, many didn’t stay in the Indian Territory. It was during the 19th and 20th century that they traveled from the Indian Territory to places like North Carolina to visit; others migrated throughout North America. The Cherokees were well educated in the Territory and many children were enrolled in various schools. It appears that the Cherokee traveled and re-settled more than any of the other Native American tribes.
Enter the federal government. They began adopting a system called “blood quantum” to determine the Native American identify. The Native Americans were required to prove their heritage – Cherokee, Navajo or Sioux. Excluded were those with “one drop of Negro blood.” This testing was done to determine who was eligible for land allotments following its decision to end Native American self-government. In 1934, Franklin Roosevelt adopted the Indian Reorganization Act. However, the Native Americans wanted to define “blood” on their own terms, not the government terms. The Cherokee joined together with other American activists to study and work out their own definition.
There were groups such as the National Congress of American Indians and it was a difficult task to prove eligibility for membership. The claim of descent from an Indian princess seems to have begun here. It must be noted that the Cherokee never had any social system that included a title such as princess.
So why do so many claim Cherokee ancestry? One possibility is that the Cherokee fought against the federal government’s effort to remove them from their homelands back in the 1820’s and 1830’s. The white man didn’t appreciate the Cherokee (or any tribe), only seeing them as a blockage of the white man’s expansion into the western parts of the country. And it was about then, that having Cherokee blood became what I’d call as romantic. It was much like the south in the 1840-1850’s fighting for self-government. Whites began claiming they were descended from a Cherokee great-grandmother – who often was of course, a princess. By so claiming, white southerners were legitimating the antiquity of their native-born status. Why, they were sons or daughters of the South, fighting against the federal government like their “ancestors” had done.
The oral history tale had begun – and continues to this day. Why, it proves that you are an American!
Today, the Cherokee Nation, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Eastern Band of Cherokees has a population of 244,700. Tribal governments provide its members with health services, education and housing assistance. There are even Cherokee language apps sold by Google and Apple. Most of current day Cherokees live in communities in eastern Oklahoma or in the Great Smokey Mountain area in North Carolina, but you will find them in big cities too.
So, do you have Cherokee blood? Possibly. This is not to say that all are bogus claims. With the DNA testing, it is easier to determine. But … descended from an Indian princess? Doubtful. You will find MANY daughters named Pocahontas in the earlier family trees. Were they named that as being a descendant of Pocahontas – or because the mother liked the name?
Much of the statistical information for this tip came from “Why Do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood? By Gregory D. Smithers.