It is one thing to know you have Cherokee ancestry, but it is quite another to prove Cherokee heritage. Unfortunately there were very few records kept of the Cherokee people prior to their relationship with the United States, and even then the records were hardly complete. As a result, finding proof of Cherokee heritage is very challenging.
There were a few census records taken within Indian Territory, but by far the most useful documents for proving Cherokee ancestry are the rolls. There seems to be a lot of confusion about the Cherokee rolls. Why were they taken? Who was on them? What do they mean today?
There were eighteen rolls which recorded the Cherokee and Cherokee Freedman from 1817-1949. The rolls were often taken as a result of land or money distribution due to new treaties or US policies relating to the Cherokee. These rolls, coupled with the Federal Census of Indian Territory in 1860 and 1900 and the Cherokee Nation Census of 1880, are the only official records of those people who lived in both eastern and western Cherokee territories.
Finding your ancestors on these rolls means that your family is Cherokee, plain and simple. However, nothing in Cherokee genealogy is that simple, and thus I arrive at the complicated part — if you do not find your ancestors on these records it does not mean that you are not Cherokee. Err…that was a triple negative and poorly worded. In a nutshell, these records were not complete.
Why? Well, many Cherokee moved away from the Nation for various reasons (intermarriage, immigration, treaties…). Because they were not living within the boundaries of the Nation, they would not be recorded on the Cherokee rolls. Also, some Cherokee who were living within the Nation boundaries decided not to enroll on later rolls because they’d grown weary of the broken treaties and false promises that often accompanies them.
Regardless of the limitations, the rolls (and a few Indian Territory census records) remain the only primary source documents of Cherokee genealogy. The Cherokee rolls are:
Rolls Before and During Removal
- Reservation Rolls 1817
Recorded the Cherokees who chose to accept a plot of land on the Cherokee reservation (Eastern Band).
- Emigration Rolls 1817-1835
Recorded those Cherokee who chose to “emigrate” to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River in present day Oklahoma and Arkansas (prior to the Trail of Tears.
- Henderson Roll 1835
Recorded those Cherokees who were to be removed to Indian Territory on what would later be called the Trail of Tears.
Post Removal Rolls
- Mullay Roll 1848
Recorded the Cherokees who remained in North Carolina after removal.
- Siler Roll 1851 – Eastern
Recorded Eastern Cherokee entitled to per capita payment.
- Old Settler Roll 1851 – Western
Recorded those Cherokee (still living) who had emigrated to Indian Territory prior to removal.
- Chapman Roll 1852 – Eastern
Recorded the Eastern Cherokee who actually received payment from the government (reference to Siler Roll).
- Drennen Roll 1852 – Western
Recorded those Cherokee who came to Indian Territory in 1839 on the Trail of Tears.
- Act of Congress Roll 1854 – Eastern
Small roll of names added to the Siler Roll.
- Swetland Roll 1869 – Eastern
Recorded those Cherokees, and their descendants, who were listed on the Mullay Roll as residing in North Carolina.
- Hester Roll 1883 – Eastern
A roll of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians which provides a good deal of detail about those listed.
- Churchill Roll 1908 – Eastern
Additional roll of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians which also included a list of those rejected from the Eastern Band.
- Dawes Rolls 1898-1907 – Western
The final roll of the western Cherokee. The roll ended the Cherokee Nation and allotted the land to the roll signers. This roll is the basis for tribal membership in the Cherokee Nation.
- Guion Miller Roll 1909 – Eastern & Western
For Cherokees (east and west) excluding the “Old Settlers” who were effected by numerous treaty violations and might be eligible for a monetary award as a result of the treaty violations.
- Baker Roll 1924 – Eastern
The final roll of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee in anticipation of allotment. The land was not allotted and the reservation still exists. This roll is the basis for tribal membership in the Eastern Band.
- Keetoowah Base Roll 1949 – Western
The base roll of the United Keetoowah Band, a small band of Cherokee living in northeastern Oklahoma along with the Cherokee Nation. This roll is the basis for tribal membership in the United Keetoowah Band.
There were also three rolls which recorded the freed slaves living within the Cherokee Nation post Civil War.
- Wallace Roll 1888 – Western
A schedule of names of Cherokee freedmen of the Cherokee Nation.
- Kern-Clifton Roll 1896-1897 – Western
A schedule of names of Cherokee freedmen of the Cherokee Nation, this roll was created to fill in the omissions of the Wallace Roll.
- Dawes Rolls 1898-1907 – Western
The Dawes included a Freedman section. The roll ended the Cherokee Nation and allotted the land to the roll signers.