The Cherokee are currently the largest federally-recognized native tribe in the United States. Although they originally lived in the Southeastern United States, they were among the people forcibly relocated by the policies of President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s via the Trail of Tears. Today, many of their descendants are headquartered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. They were known as one of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” and were known to have closely interacted and assimilated with the settlers in their areas. They even started becoming U.S. citizens as early as the 1810s and 1820s.
The Cherokee are particularly known for having the first written language of any North American native group, developed by a man named Sequoyah in the early 19th century. As a result, the literacy rate for the Cherokee was quite high – better even than that of the Southern white settlers.
The strategy used in researching a person’s Cherokee ancestry can be quite different than researching other ancestry.
Unlike European tradition, the Cherokee family is matrilineal. This means that families are traced maternally, and that a person is considered a Cherokee if his or her mother was Cherokee, not necessarily the father. The Cherokee people are divided into clans, named as follows:
- Anigilohi (Long Hair)
- Aniwodi (Paint)
- Anitsisqua (Bird)
- Aniwaya (Wolf)
- Anigodagewi (Wild Potato)
- Aniawi (Deer)
- Anisahoni (Blue)
A person’s clan membership was considered private and personal. Though not secret, they were also never formally recorded by the tribes. Unfortunately, if the clan name was not passed down through the generations, there is no way to determine it today.
The Cherokee concept of surnames was more fluid, and there are no surnames associated directly with membership in a clan. For example, the children of a famous Cherokee leader may have borne their father’s surname (in the European tradition), but they were actually members of their mother’s clan, which was different.
Although determining Cherokee heritage can be difficult, many helpful rolls and enumerations were kept by various government entities beginning in the early 1800s. Some were created before the removal and others afterward, but all can be valuable resources. Native Americans were also recorded in regular historical documents, such as federal censuses and vital records, and the more intermarriage that occurred, the more they may be found in government records.
If you want to determine whether you have Native American ancestry, here are some suggestions:
- Do regular genealogy research. Just searching your ancestry can help point you in the right direction as far as whether your ancestors could have been Native American. For example, we’ve had clients come to us with the belief that an ancestor was Native American, only to learn that the ancestor’s parents were born in Europe.
- Find your ancestor in all available U.S. censuses and check the race recorded (but keep in mind that most Native Americans at the time preferred to “pass for white” and reported themselves as white or mulatto to census takers rather than claiming Native American status). In addition to regular federal censuses, a database of Indian census rolls from 1885-1940 is available at Ancestry.com.
- Get a DNA test. A test can give you an estimate of the various origins of your ancestry and can be a great starting place. Also, after some research has been performed a DNA test at that point can be extremely helpful because you’ll have a specific goal in mind and information to work off of.
- Search histories – colonial, state, and local.
- Check Cherokee rolls. There are a number of records which list individuals who were Cherokee between about 1810 and 1925. These were often related to land allotments and relocations. The Dawes Roll, one of the more famous Cherokee lists, can be searched here.
Finally, it’s always helpful to dispel some common myths about Cherokee ancestry:
- The “Cherokee princess” – according to the official website of the Cherokee nation, this concept of royalty never existed. Most people use this term when referring to the daughter of a chief, but to do so would be inaccurate.
- If you have certain physical characteristics, you must be part Native – we’ve heard it commonly claimed that because a person has dark hair, brown eyes, high cheekbones, or an olive complexion that they believe they have Native American ancestry. While this certainly could be the case, using a phenotypic description solely to make claims about one’s heritage has a high likelihood of being incorrect. There are many other ethnic groups throughout the world which also possess those physical characteristics. Either way, a DNA test is a very helpful route to take to know for sure, and we can help in selecting and analyzing that test.
Though sometimes trickier than researching other groups, finding a Native American ancestor can be extremely rewarding when done correctly. Like any other form of genealogy, it requires a case built of strong evidence.