So Your Great-Great Grandmother was a Cherokee


These images are from one of my favorite books on the Cherokee, The Cherokee people : the story of the Cherokees from earliest origins to contemporary times by Thomas E. Mails. Notice the cougar tail on the warrior’s belt.


In Slate magazine there is a great article entitled, “Why do so many Americans think that they have Cherokee blood?” This is something that I run into all the time with patrons whether they are white or black. My first thought when they say that a great great grandma was a full blooded Cherokee is, “Why a Cherokee? They didn’t live in Eastern NC.” If she was a Native American around here she would have been an Algonquin or a Siouan or a Tuscarora. But being part Cherokee in the US has come to be the Holy Grail of genealogy and the article tries to explain why this is and it is fascinating.

First, unlike many other tribes, the Cherokee had a tradition of exogamous marriages, which is marrying outside of their clan, and sought to marry European traders in order to seal alliances and secure reliable sources of European trade goods. This produced a large mixed-race population that wasn’t mirrored by other tribes.

Wealthy Cherokees adopted the European racial slave system and bought African slaves. Some of these Africans traveled with the Cherokee after their removal in the 1830’s and may have created interracial families.

The Cherokee traveled widely and took advantage of educational systems that put them in contact with whites and blacks, which could have led to intermarriage.

White southerners came to have an idealized, sentimental view of the Cherokee after their removal and their resistance to the federal government. And these whites in the 1840’s and 1850’s thought that by alleging a Cherokee ancestor or a “princess” they would be “… legitimating the antiquity of their native-born status as sons or daughters of the South, as well as establishing their determination to defend their rights against an aggressive federal government, as they imagined the Cherokees had done. These may have been self-serving historical delusions, but they have proven to be enduring.”

These myths and actual pairings of the Cherokee and other races have caused these beliefs to persist today.

But I think that race is a social construct and none of the different peoples that have lived side by side in the American South for to the past 500 odd years have existed in a vacuum, populations have always exchanged genes (called admixture) and even in the face of the rigidly stratified South this holds to be true.  I have seen the evidence  in patron’s and extended family member’s autosomal DNA tests.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s