So you think you’re part Native American? As one of the Native American specialists here at ProGenealogists, I receive almost daily inquiries about our services from people who specifically want to trace a Native American ancestor. Perhaps your family tree is also decorated with similar stories. My own family had such a tradition. Supposedly my great-great grandmother, Mary Ellen (Williams) Meador, was half Cherokee. As a kid, my siblings and I used to dress up in Indian garb, set up a little make-shift teepee by the stream on our farm, and run around with the excitement that “we were part Cherokee!”
When I first started family history at the age of 12, this story was actually the spark that got me going. I was determined to prove this family legend true so that our family could take our rightful place within the Cherokee Tribe. I don’t wish to bore you with all the details surrounding Mary Ellen’s ancestry, but suffice it to say, after a long and arduous research process spanning over many years, I was able to trace her ancestral lines back into Colonial Virginia and North Carolina to the early 1700s. No sign of any Native American blood, and realistically, there’s no reasonable place where it could fit.
I admit that as my research unfolded this was a difficult reality to accept. All the summer days of childhood spent in the little make-shift teepee now seemed in vain! I’m okay now. However, it was, and has been, even harder for other relatives to swallow my conclusions. Many older family members have had this tradition a part of their lives a lot longer than I ever did. “But, Grandma always said…” is usually the response.
Our firm works with many clients every year who wish to explore the validity of their supposed Native American ancestry. In working with hundreds of such cases over the years, we have found that less than five percent pan out in the way the client hopes. In fact, most research cases end with compelling evidence to prove that the traditions are inaccurate.
So why do so many Americans have very strong traditions of a Native American ancestor when the majority prove to be incorrect or unfounded? I don’t have all the answers to this question, but I do have some ideas.
From the beginning of European settlement in the Americas, the common attitude towards the natives was typically one of pious disdain and prejudice. According to most settlers, the Native American way of life was not good enough, their traditions were incorrect and the race needed to step aside and make way for the establishment of the European colonies. We’re all familiar with stories throughout history of various Native American tribes being violently pushed from the lands, tricked into signing treaties, treaties being broken, etc. The stories are humbling, and fortunately, Native Americans today are highly respected and admired. However, this attitude shift in the social spectrum did not occur, for the most part, until the late 1800s.
I find that most incorrect family traditions of Native American ancestry stem back to a time period from about 1890 to 1920. During that time, the old Native American way of life became intriguing and somewhat romanticized in American society. Prior to this time, it had been embarrassing for a person to be of Native American descent, but now it was “cool” and even, at times, coveted to have a Native American ancestor.
I think that many of those strong family traditions surrounding Native American ancestry developed in a variety of ways. Here is one example, and one that I think is most common. An aged relative may have casually said something like “I’ve always wondered if I’m part Indian because of my darker skin,” or, “Indians used to live where our farm now sits.” Such statements could have been translated by younger family members as “We have Indian blood.” Such seeds of family traditions are unfortunately difficult and even impossible to prove at times. However, since most family traditions of Native American ancestry prove to be incorrect, it’s obvious that the story had to start somewhere. I like to think that most started with a misunderstanding.
This post is already long enough. However, because there are many out there who have family traditions of Native American ancestry, I wanted to outline some of the elements that these family legends usually have in common. Most inquires that I review contain at least three. Over the next few weeks I will make follow-up posts and take a few of these points to look at them more closely. We will look at the facts and how such family traditions may have emerged. Hopefully, this will help you in being able to evaluate the validity of your family lore. The common elements that we will explore are as follows:
- The supposed tribe of descent is usually Cherokee.
- The ancestral family at some point lived in the southeastern or mid-Atlantic states.
- There is often a claim that an ancestor walked the Trail of Tears (infamous removal of the Cherokees from the southeast to Indian Territory).
- There is typically some connection to Indian Territory or Oklahoma.
- Usually there is a claim that some ancestor appears in the Dawes Rolls.
- Someone in the family, usually Grandpa, once had either a CDIB card (Tribal ID card) or Native American land grant papers, but destroyed it/them.
- Family physical features include darker-toned skin, dark hair, dark eyes, thin and patchy facial hair, high cheek bones, etc.
- Somewhere there is often a “Cherokee Princess” in the family tree.
- There are sometimes photographs of ancestors in traditional Native American dress.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series!