Cherokee Ancestry – The Most Persistent Native American Family Legend

Cól-lee, a Band Chief, painted at Fort Gibson in 1834 by George Catlin who refers to the subject as Jol-lee in Letters and Notes. Also known as John Jolly who died in 1838.

“An aged and dignified chief. … This man … as well as a very great proportion of the Cherokee population, has a mixture of red and white blood in his veins, of which, in this instance, the first seems decidedly to predominate” (Letters and Notes, vol. 2, p. 119, pl. 217).

Does Your Family Have a Cherokee Story?

It seems that just about every family with a lineage east of the Mississippi before about 1800 has a Cherokee Indian ancestor – at least according to oral history passed down in the family. I certainly did, even though the person in my tree who was supposed to be Native was subsequently proven to have no Native ancestry. In that process, I did, however, find different lines that have been proven to be Native using genealogical records along with mitochondrial and Y DNA testing.

Does your family have a “Cherokee story”? Has DNA testing proven or disproven your family lore? Have you been disappointed by an ethnicity test? Have you had any luck proving that lineage with traditional genealogical research? Many people are disappointed that their family has claimed Cherokee heritage, sometimes for generations, but they have been unable to corroborate that information by either genetic or traditional research methods.

There are lots of reasons this might happen, including the possibility that your ancestors weren’t Native. But that’s not the only reason. A recent article in Slate is one of the best I’ve read that presents the reasons without undue drama or prejudice.

Before you read the article, I want to make four things crystal clear:

  • Having no discernable Native DNA in ethnicity tests does NOT mean you DON’T have a Native ancestor. It only means that you need to do traditional genealogy to find that ancestor, combined with Y and mtDNA testing of relevant family lineages. Y and mtDNA is the only way to prove or disprove who in your tree was Native other than through genealogy research, unless that Native ancestor was in a very recent generation.
  • Showing small percentages of Native DNA in ethnicity tests does NOT mean you DO have a Native ancestor. Small amounts can be noise or can be residual from a common Asian population source. For example, I have seen German people with as much as 3% Native American DNA, which clearly isn’t. You need more evidence before confirming Native ancestry.
  • Without additional research, you cannot prove your lineage to a tribe using DNA – no matter what any company tells you, although Y and mitochondrial DNA matching may lend important clues. Family Tree DNA is the only testing company that combines Y and mitochondrial testing, matching and maps.
  • No matter how much Native DNA you have, only a tribe can tell you how to qualify for their membership – and each tribe’s rules differ. You’ll need to contact the tribe directly for that information. DNA identified as Native through DNA testing for genealogy (alone) will not qualify you for tribal membership in any federally US recognized tribe.

For a comprehensive list of resources, please refer to Native American DNA Resources.

Now, for the Slate article:
Why Do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood?

Enjoy.

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20 thoughts on “Cherokee Ancestry – The Most Persistent Native American Family Legend

  1. Thank you, Roberta, for sharing insight and the Slate article. My great-grandfather was born at Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma. He, my grandfather, dad, uncle, and cousins all look related to the Cherokee men I’ve seen in images. I’ve just begun the research so haven’t proven lineage one way or another. But I do follow the “Cherokee descendant” conversations. One possible explanation suggested that the Cherokee people were actually Euopeans who arrived on these shores 1000 years ago. I see that as a very interesting theory and look forward to research that may uncover more. Thanks again! Peggy

    On Wed, May 16, 2018, 9:51 AM DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy wrote:

    > Roberta Estes posted: ” “An aged and dignified chief. … This man … as well > as a very great proportion of the Cherokee population, has a mixture of red > and white blood in his veins, of which, in this instance, the first seems > decidedly to predominate” (Letters and Notes, vol.” >

      • Roberta, I’ve tried to find information on what burials have been tested on the East Coast. I feel like the only potential missing link might be via the eastern tribes that were so decimated / assimilated by white settlers in Virginia & North Carolina etc. Are there pre-columbian burials from the Pamunkey, Nansemond or other tribes that inhabited the coast? I’ve not even been able to determine whether verified burials from such tribes exist, let alone the long shot of whether any tribal descendants have (or would) consent to DNA testing of the remains.

  2. Great article! There is a Facebook page, “Cherokee Indians-Research+Genealogy” that has researchers that will do free look ups and they are quite knowledgeable about Cherokee Indian records and families. But, a bit of a warning, they can be quite brutal if you argue with them. If your ancestor that you believe, or were told, was Cherokee didn’t live in Oklahoma during the Dawes – Guion Miller rolls era don’t contact them about a look up. And, don’t mention that your ancestor “looked Indian.” As far as The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is concerned, to be Cherokee your ancestor would be on the Dawes roll for western or The Baker Rolls for eastern period.

    Thanks,
    Joe McCulloch

  3. My father’s family has long had a tradition of Native American ancestry. My great grandfather, I am told, was often asked “what tribe” he belonged to. However, the story appeared to evolve over the years, and one of the most elaborate renditions of it was that my 2nd great grandfather went “out west” with the U.S. Cavalry after the Civil War. There he met and married his Sioux wife, and brought not only her but her entire family back to Pennsylvania.

    Unfortunately, research taught me that several elements of this story were quite wrong. First, I obtained my 2nd great grandfather’s pension file. According to the file, his *only* service was during the war — he never went “out west” with the cavalry.

    Second, I located my 2nd great grandmother’s family in the 1850 and 1860 censuses, before the Civil War had even begun. They were already living in Central Pennsylvania, and were listed as “white” (which, by coincidence, also happened to be their surname).

    Third, when my father’s DNA was tested at 23andMe, it came back as 100% European. Now as you say, this doesn’t prove that my father had *no* Native American ancestry, but it makes it pretty close to impossible that his grandfather — my great grandfather — was half Native American.

    There’s another side to this story, however. Whenever someone in my immediate family, or even one of my cousins, mentioned the supposed Native American connection, my mother would mention that she’d heard that her family had some Native American ancestry. I’m afraid most of us tended to dismiss that as “me-tooism”.

    But as it happens, all of my siblings came back with around 2% Native American ancestry according to 23andMe, all from our mother. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2002 and was never tested herself — though she’d have found it really cool, except for the spitting part.

    Anyway, as I did more research along her lines, I found an ancestor on her mother’s side named Magdalaine Pany Baudreau. According to the record of her marriage, Magdalaine was the daughter of Jean Baptiste Baudreau — who had accompanied Pierre LeMoyne d’Iberville’s 2nd Expedition — and “une Indienne”, or an “Indian woman”. Jean Baptiste’s son — also named Jean Baptiste — also had a Native American mother, whose name was Suzanne; however, it isn’t clear whether Magdalaine and her brother had the same mother.

    I have since found that many of my cousins at Ancestry and elsewhere who share this same ancestry also show a “trace” amount of Native American, or sometimes even more than a trace.

    In addition, it appears now that I inherited two or more of my Native American segments from my maternal *grandfather*, while other segments clearly came from my grandmother. On my grandfather’s side, it is possible that this is traceable to George All Sizemore and/or his wife Agnes Shepherd.

    So I’ve actually had both experiences — not finding Native American ancestry where I expected to; and finding it where I didn’t.

    • Hi Gary,
      I loved reading your family history 🙂 !
      I’ve had similar unnexpected discoveries :
      my mom who was 1/2 Irish, is Not. She’s not even Scotch or Welsh or British.
      My dad’s family is Native but no one can find records, or dna.
      Turns out that Both my mom and dad are Native to the Americas!
      My mom from Siberia to Alaska (many many years back) and my dad fthrough Central America (originally from Europe/Mediteranian, and Persia) .
      My parents’ dna is not evidently “Native American” , yet both their families also lived with American or Canadian tribes at one point.
      It’s been fun to figure out this puzzle 🙂 .
      Thanks for sharing 🙂 !
      -Irene.

    • You allude to an excellent point – that for those lucky enough to have some French Canadian ancestry, the baptismal, marriage and burial parish records are almost complete, back to the 1600s. Mixed marriages were almost always recorded as such, with “Indienne” or tribal affiliation, such as Algonquin noted. I tested 1/2 of 1% Native at 23andMe, and zero at FTDNA and Ancestry.com. But I found in the Quebec records the apparently well-known 1644 marriage of 8th great-grandparents Martin Prevost, a Frenchman and Marie-Olivier Manituoabeoich, an Algonquin woman. Well known because it was the first recorded mixed marriage in early Canada.

      It’s a shame descendants of Cherokee mixture are not so fortunate to have such complete records.

  4. Great Article! My paternal grandmother always claimed to have Jewish & Cherokee Indian ancestry. She was born in Rowan Co, NC and descended from a German immigrant named Wendell Mueller (Miller) who was alleged to have had several children with a Cherokee woman. Seventeen descendants of this couple applied with enrollment with the Cherokee Nation and were all denied. A tremendous amount of research as been done on this family, but nothing to conclusively prove or disprove Native ancestry. DNA testing has extremely little, if any, Native American. My father actually shows a small amount of Subsaharan African in his DNA (curiously, he & I do show small amounts of Ashkenazi with some of the testing companies.

  5. Thank you Roberta E,

    This is so very cool 🙂 .

    Everyone from my dad’s dad’s side of my family grew up knowing that they are Native American … but no one knows how!
    I test at large as slightly indigenous … from Oceana/Paupau.

    Recently, I discovered from Oklahoma trival rolls that my scattered relations were enrolled in a few tribes there, including Cherokee. However, my family’s recognized and known tribe (Wyandot) does not have any records I could find yet. [Wyandot/Wendat peoples in Oklahoma were originally from Lake Huron area and friends with French. Then they were forced to immigrate to Oklahoma, “the end of the trail”.]

    The “civilized” tribes in Oklahoma, and in other Southern US States, had slaves from Africa. After the civil war, they refused to accept the court-ordered released slaves as full tribal members. I was shocked to learn about this!
    I grew up learning that Native Americans accepted everyone into their tribes as members (for example through friendship, marriage, etc). But I guess after the Civil War, the “civilized” tribes became fussy. Anyway maybe that’s why some tribes fuss today about memberships, its embarrassment from having embraced slavery. Do you want to live next door to someone who you treated as a non-human yesterday …

    Anyway – – just last week I finally opened up GedMatch heritage software pages and found out about my BERING-IAN dna , and also AMERINDIAN dna (from central america).
    Well – I knew I was from NE Europe, Siberia, Finland
    (for Russia to Alaska) .
    Also I’m few percents Asian, 30% Mediteranian, and 10% Persian
    (for Spanish to Americas).

    THANK YOU VERY MUCH
    for your article today, because with your new dna family research clues, I Am On My Way to solving this family mystery 🙂 ! ! !

    -Irene.

  6. I grew up with vague stories from my aunts about a “dark-skinned grandmother”. After researching back for quite a few generations, I suspect they were talking about the Fryrear grandma who was probably either Corsican or Italian – the descendants are still arguing. A bit darker than the English, Irish, Swiss, German and French making up the rest of the ancestors I guess.

  7. It seems like a good time to remind everyone of all the captured native Americans from New England that were shipped off to be enslaved in the Caribbean after the King Philip’s war in 1676. I’m sure many future DNA puzzles were created at that time.

  8. Most fascinating discoveries! One great grandmother to my daughter was supposed to be Cherokee and that family talked a lot about it. “Black hair” etc. So in the south it’s VERY popular to make such a claim. As for me. I haven’t got ANY Asian or Western Hemisphere DNA. Now! My chart came back 9% Ashkenazi Jewish. While I’d be proud indeed if that were true, I think what is happening is that the present day geneologists using DNA are loading present day Israeli DNA and calling it “Ashkenazi”. The Ashkenazi Jews have only been in Israel since 1948! They are all “newcomers”. I think my DNA indicates Middle Eastern, i.e. Sephardic. Does this sound right? In every other respect my DNA is entirely Mediterranean and I mean all the ports of call!

  9. Since my maternal ancestry converges in the areas of TN, NC,SC and the fact that one ancestor, Charkes Kilgore Lewis, was a well document Methodist circuit rider in the pre-Removal era and from whom she got abundant autosomal DNA, plus his wife Susan Hobbs has a surname that appears in the British notices concerning people illegally occupying Cherokee lands 50 years before that, and there are Hobbs on the Dawes rolls, i’m inclined to think that there’s where I’d start looking for NA ancestry once I pick up reliable indicators of Mom having Hobbs segments. The good news is two other direct descendants of this couple finally turned up in Myheritage. So i will be thinking that would be a good starting place.

      • My Hobbs family is long rumored to have “Indian” in them. DNA is just really supporting this notion. I did find a lateral family, in the Hobbs line in Oklahoma. I found that by starting in Oklahoma and working backwards. My great grandmother was always instructed to cover her skin the in summer time, so she would not darken. She would not talk about the “Indian” and you could tell it was something that made her terribly uncomfortable. There is .5 South Asian in my mother, and .3 African, but the way I am figuring it out, this would be about 8 generations back, and I am not really sure the Hobbs family was here that long ago.

  10. Thank you SO very much for this article. My family is beyond frustrated with our “Native American” line and years of diligent research have returned bupkis. The thing that bugs me the most is this question: why would my ancestor (Martha Mariah Benson) who was born the year the Trail of Tears began, and her younger brother, Edwin, both tell their children and grandchildren they were Native American if they were not? In my great-grandmother Emma Hyatt’s personal effects there’s a photo of her grandmother Mariah and on the back Emma (or my grandfather on her behalf) wrote “full blooded Cherokee” and then later crossed out “full” and wrote “1/2.” Correspondence with descendants of Emma’s sister confirm they were also told Mariah was part Native American. In those days in Oklahoma, it wasn’t something that was spoken of with pride as we tend to do now.

    Our family completely lost touch with her brother Edwin’s family after his wife died of consumption and Edwin disappeared into a bottle and ended up committing “suicide by sheriff” back in Alabama in 1892. His oldest son, John Benson, was sent “out west” to live with family but in the absence of an 1890 census and the lack of a unique name, none of John’s children or grandchildren had been able to trace his whereabouts prior to 1930 when he showed back up in Alabama with a wife. It turns out I had the other half of their missing picture: John Benson as a mysterious “boarder” living in Oklahoma with his cousin Edwin Benson’s (named after John’s father) estranged wife and kids. Then while scanning Emma Hyatt’s photo collection, I turned over the black & white portrait of a young couple in their best clothes and found “John and Ona Benson” hand written on the back. John Benson married Harriett Ona “Onie” Norris in 1911 in Vinson, Oklahoma and thank goodness she had such a unique name!

    I was able to trace John and Ona back to Alabama and discovered their youngest daughter was still living. She explained her father had told his children they were part Native American because his own father, Edwin, frequently referred to himself as a “half-breed.” This is definitely not a label someone would have given themselves in the mid to late 1800’s unless they believed it to be true. Moreover, we had three distinct branches of our Benson family who hadn’t been connected with one another for over 50 years related the same oral tradition of Native American ancestry.

    Here’s our dilemma… there is not one shred of evidence that it’s “true” by traditional standards: Not one single family member on any roll, Dawes or otherwise. Not even trace amounts of Native American DNA from Martha or Edwin’s descendants. While we have no known living Benson males to offer YDNA samples, our autosomal DNA matches other Benson families from further back in time who do and there are no NA haplogroups among them. Martha Mariah’s mother was Mary “Amanda” Hall, possible daughter or granddaughter of Meredith “Merry” Hall of Greenville, SC who is rumored to have married a Native American woman, however Mariah’s great-granddaughter carried her mtDNA and 23andMe says her maternal haplogroup is K1a1b2. I can no longer even find where I located the rumor in the first place, nor have I been able to prove Amanda’s parentage.

    For our family, it’s not about trying to claim membership in a tribe or asking for benefits we don’t need. It’s about the nagging, persistent sense of having lost connection with a heritage that every member of the long-separated branches of our family acknowledges we feel in our souls. There’s undeniably something missing from each and every one of us, and it’s been missing for a long time. We simply seek validation that our ancestors did not lie to us, that they were not lying to themselves, and to find that missing piece of *who we are* as people, who we are as a *family* so that we, and the generations that come after us, can finally feel whole. I had hoped I’d find that missing piece before my grandfather passed away, but I’m running out of time… and I’ve already run out of places to look.

    -Sunny

    • For the record, nobody in our family has ever mentioned the word Princess, claimed to be descended from any chiefs, nor have they made any attempt that I’m aware of to romanticize the rumored NA connection. It was instead treated as somewhat of a family secret that the older generations in our family had difficulty prying out of their own parents and grandparents.

      Martha Benson told her granddaughters she was part Native American. Those family members may have assumed it was Cherokee, but all DNA connections I’ve been able to find for our family to people whose ancestors were on NA rolls or who made claims that were denied points to Creek / Muskogee. However, there have been some connections to confirmed Cherokee tribal members as well, we just don’t appear to carry markers that are currently defined as NA. Edwin Benson didn’t live long enough to ever answer his children’s questions and only the “half breed” moniker exists with no accompanying rumor of tribal heritage.

  11. I’m beyond confused about my mtDNA and genetic results. I did 23andMe, it says I’m 100% European, just white as all, mainly British and Irish.

    Here is where I’m stuck, how can a 100% white European whose family has been in America since Jamestown, have a mtDNA Haplogroup ot L3e2b2? Isn’t b2 a new world marker?

    Can you help with me understanding this, or was the test wrong. I did my sample collection first thing in morning before I ever even talked to anyone. So I don’t think my saliva could have been contaminated.

    Thanks for any help,
    Christal Ellard

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