The Surname Game
by Christina Berry

      "What's in a name? that which we call a rose
      By any other name would smell as sweet;
      So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
      Retain that dear perfection which he owes
      Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
      And for that name which is no part of thee
      Take all myself."

Pretty words, but, unfortunately, my dear Juliet, there is a lot in a name. If my only love had sprung from my only hate then I would probably share the sentiment. However, family feuds are, for the most part, a thing of the past. And in this era of genealogical discovery a name is a very important clue.

I am frequently asked if this name or that is a Cherokee name. The bad news is that because intermarriage was very common throughout Cherokee history almost any name could be a "Cherokee" name. The good news is that there a handful of "Cherokee" names which go back for many generations. If you can trace your family line to one of these names you may find quite a lot of documentation to help you with your search. However, there is a catch: some of these common "Cherokee" names are not Cherokee at all. One of the most common Cherokee names, a name which can be traced back through many generations, is Smith. But not all Smiths are Cherokee, obviously, so determining if your Smiths are among the Cherokee Smiths is the challenge.



Smith is just one example. Many well-known Cherokee family names have European origins -- Ward, Ross, Rogers, McDaniel, Berry, and Hicks to name just a few. Intermarriage between Cherokee and early English, Irish, and Scottish traders and settlers helps to explain the frequency of such names in Cherokee genealogy. However, the concern with these names is that many people around the world may share the surname but not the Cherokee ancestry. In my own heritage I see this. My Cherokee ancestry comes from the Ward-McDaniel family line on my mom's side of the family. I get my last name, Berry, from my dad's Irish side. My Berry line is not Cherokee. However, there are dozens of Berrys listed on the Dawes Rolls. So, even though I'm named Berry and am Cherokee, my Berry ancestors are not Cherokee. It's important that we not to assume that all Smiths are Cherokee, just because some Smiths are Cherokee. Also, keep in mind that the Cherokee was not the only tribe to intermarry with European settlers. In some cases these surnames are common in neighboring tribes as well.

There are also well known Cherokee names which are, in fact, "Cherokee" names. In some cases these names are English translations of Cherokee names or are in some other way truly Cherokee. Some examples are Bushyhead, Cornsilk, Corntassel, Kingfisher, and Mankiller. Bushyhead is a family name which dates prior to the American Revolution with a Scottish ancestor who had wild red hair and married into the Cherokees. Mankiller was the name given to the person in charge of protecting the village. If you find one of these names in your ancestry you can feel pretty confident that you have Cherokee ancestry. Proving it to the government, however, could be a different story.

When you are trying to trace your family ancestry it's a good idea to follow the surname. In many cases its origins will tell you a lot about your family.


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