To Be Or Not To Be...Cherokee
by Christina Berry
If there is any particular rule to keep in mind when researching your genealogy it is to be realistic, and to not eliminate possibilities before you have explored them. I have received several e-mails and queries over the years from people who are researching well known Indians who are not Cherokee. Quanah Parker was not a Cherokee; he was a Comanche. There is a difference -- a big difference. The Cherokee tribe is one of the best known Indian tribes in the world. It seems like everyone has a Cherokee ancestor, but is that realistic? Could it be possible that many of the people who think their ancestors are Cherokee are actually descended from different Indian tribes? I would answer yes to that question. This article addresses the possibility that perhaps some of the people who are researching Cherokee ancestors are actually looking in the wrong tribe. This article is intended to help people explore all possibilities and what to consider when eliminating possibilities.
Why the Cherokee?
So why is it that the Cherokee are most often named as the likely culprit when a great aunt or great-grandmother mentions the family Indian heritage? I believe there are several possible explanations. One is that, as I mentioned before, the Cherokee are one of the best known Indian tribes by name recognition. There have been cars, clothing lines, and even hit songs named after or based on the Cherokee people. How many of you are humming the Paul Revere and the Raiders classic "Indian Reservation" right now? The Trail of Tears is one of the best known, and most often told, stories of the atrocities visited upon the Native American population by the US government. I think that because of this notoriety it is possible that when a family is passing down the story of their Indian ancestors they assume that those Indian ancestors are Cherokee, simply because they may not know the names or histories of any other tribes.
Another possibility, and one which is far less innocuous, is that people may have wanted to hide, or in some way lessen, their Indian heritage. Because for many years the Cherokee, along with the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole, were referred to as "civilized," or more specifically the "Five Civilized Tribes," it is possible that people claimed to be Cherokee rather than be associated with an "uncivilized" tribe. This is a rather disturbing possibility, but one which is highly possible, if not probable, when you consider the intolerant political and social climate of the United States which has only in recent decades become more open and accepting of diversity.
Really, there are all sorts of reasons why non-Cherokees might be trying to trace their Indian heritage through the Cherokee tribe. Unfortunately, it is a waste of time. Pre-colonial America held 500 Indian Nations, and each one of these Nations had/has its own history and experience. Each tribe references it's own unique documents for tribal genealogy. If your ancestor was Comanche, then will not appear on the Cherokee records, and vice versa. With that in mind, one of the first and most important steps in tracing Indian heritage is to verify that the ancestors you seek are in fact Cherokee.
How is this done
This verification I refer to may sound simple, but it is actually somewhat difficult when you consider that the Cherokee have very few records and were disbursed over so much of the country. So if you cannot find your ancestors on one of the Cherokee rolls, it does not necessarily mean your family was not Cherokee, just not documented. The key is to never eliminate a possibility too soon. What follows below are a few suggestions to consider when trying to locate a possible tribe.
1.) Learn the History - The first step would be to learn a bit about the history of the Native people in the US. Most books tend to focus on one tribe or region but there are two video series which are very good and broad based (The Native Americans and 500 Nations). Either of these video collections will give you an overview of many of the different tribes throughout the Americas. Knowing a bit about the history can help you to find where your family history fits in.
2.) Pay Attention to Geography - While today the Cherokee people populate virtually every corner of the planet, this was not always the case. Before removal westward the Cherokee people lived within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation which encompassed parts of Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Alabama. After removal the Cherokee people spread out to include North Carolina, Oklahoma, Eastern Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, and most of the southern states. While only the Cherokee in Oklahoma and North Carolina were able to register as official members of the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokees, there were people of Cherokee decent spread out throughout a large portion of the United States. However, the Cherokee were still largely based in the southern states. In other words, if your Indian ancestors are from the South Dakota area at the turn of the century, chances are they are not Cherokee.
3.) Learn the Names - You would be surprised to know how many people are looking for their ancestor, Quanah Parker, on this site. Quanah Parker was a Comanche Chief. His father was Comanche and his mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was white. As far as I'm aware, Quanah has never been associated with the Cherokee Indians. While there is nothing wrong with posting queries for ancestors of another tribe here, it is pretty much a waste of time. Other descendants of Quanah Parker are most likely not going to think of looking on a Cherokee web site for queries about their ancestors.
In addition learn the common Cherokee surnames. There are a handful of Cherokee surnames which almost every Cherokee can find a connection with -- the Cherokee Nation is surprisingly small. Some of the more common Cherokee names (but by no means all of the common names) are Lowrey, Ross, Ridge, Rogers, Starr, Vann, Watie, Ward, McDaniel, Smith, Bushyhead, Adair, Crittenden, Cornsilk, Gunter, Sizemore, Hicks, and Kingfisher. Now just because you are looking for Jane Smith, this doesn't mean you have Cherokee ancestors - many of the common Cherokee names have Scottish, Scots-Irish, or English origins. But if you are looking for a person named Rogers who was born in Cooweescoowee District, Indian Territory in the late 1800s then you have yourself a Cherokee ancestor. And if his name is Will then you have yourself a famous Cherokee ancestor.
The most important thing is to explore. If you family passes down a story that your great great great . . . grandmother was Cherokee then by all means look at Cherokee records and information. But don't eliminate the possibility that she might actually be Chickasaw or Iroquois, or Seneca, or Comanche.
Title: Cherokee Roots: Eastern (Volume 1)
Description: Indexes all rolls of the Eastern Cherokee, taken from 1817 to 1924. This records those Cherokee living east of the Mississippi River.
Title: Cherokee Roots: Western (Volume 2)
Description: Indexes all rolls of the Western Cherokee, taken from 1851 to 1909. This records those Cherokee living west of the Mississippi River.
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