A Report of Research on Lumbee Origins by Robert K. Thomas – Part 2 – Cherokee Theory

A continuation of Robert K. Thomas’s Report of Research on Lumbee Origins.  This was transcribed from a photocopy of an original report at the Wilson Library, UNC, Chapel Hill, NC in June of 2012.   Any comments I have will be made at the end of these transcriptions and it will be evident that they are mine.  To see more about Robert K. Thomas, go to:  http://works.bepress.com/robert_thomas/

The second hypothesis of Lumbee origin was promulgated by a Mr. McLean, a member of a prominent family in Robeson County, an amateur historian and like McMillan, also of Scots background.  He tried to trace origins of the present day Indians of Robeson County to the Cherokee tribe.  His main evidence for this origin was that in the early 1900s many of the Indians of Robeson County, themselves, said they were Cherokees.  However, it is my contention that the Indians of Robeson County had picked up this tribal name in the first half of the 1800s from local whites.  Indians generally learn the name which is applied to them from their neighbors and there is a great deal of evidence to show that at least by Civil War time, whites in Robeson County thought that the Indians of Robeson County, at least the Indian part of their ancestry, stemmed from the Cherokee tribe.  In fact, there is some testimony from the Robeson County attorney in 1875 before a Congressional committee in which he says that the mulattoes as he termed them, in Robeson, were a mixture of Cherokee and Portuguese.

If one looks at Cherokee traditions there is no evidence whatsoever that Cherokees ever got as far east as Robeson County, except perhaps on war parties, and have no tradition of having relatives in Robeson County whatsoever.  In fact, Cherokees are very tied to a mountain environment.  The eastern half of the Cherokee Nation in the Indian territory included, before statehood, part of the Ozark region while the western half was very rich prairie farming and ranching land.  There were few Cherokees in the western half (p 7) of the Cherokee Nation before the Civil War.  After the Civil War none of the traditional Cherokees moved into that area although a few people of mixed background who were very acculturated relocated there and became ranchers.  Cherokees as a whole are very tied to the southern mountains, as an ecological zone.  I cannot imagine  Cherokee migrating to an area like Robeson County.  Such a move would necessitate a tremendous adaptation to a strange and uncongenial ecological zone – the herbs would not be the same; the plant food in the woods wouldn’t be the same; the animals would be different; etc.  Clear creek water, which is very important in the Cherokee religion, is absent in Robeson County.  Cherokees today have no notion of ever having lived east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  As I say, I think Lumbees picked up a Cherokee designation from whites earlier in the century and McLean simply built on that idea.  Now he does present some evidence, some Lumbee traditions, which would lead one to believe that he may have been speaking of the Cheraw Indians.  In fact, John Swanton who was a famous anthropological expert on southeastern Indians, hypothesized in that 1930s that the Lumbees were descended from the Cheraws and this is how the Lumbees had gotten the notion that they were Cherokees; that is, the two tribal names had become confused.  This is a possibility and later in my paper I will present some evidence which convinces me that the Lumbees are, in part, descended from the Cheraw.  But by and large, I think the Cherokee identification for many Lumbees in McLean’s time simply was taken over earlier from whites.

About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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4 Responses to A Report of Research on Lumbee Origins by Robert K. Thomas – Part 2 – Cherokee Theory

  1. I have first cousins who are identified as Lumbee. I love them very much. But something I find odd about folks when they discuss the Lumbee is the propensity to suspend intellectual inquiry into their origins. Much the same as someone who heard through family lore that their great whatever was a Cherokee princess, so they look incessantly at every record hoping to see that person so identified. They make the grandest of research mistakes and that is assuming. The same is true for the Lumbee. Instead of looking at the Lumbee as blank slate, everyone just assumes they are Indians and then looks for the empirical evidence that will prove it. When that doesn’t show up, the assumption remains. I don’t know if the Lumbees are Indians or not, I haven’t seen any research that suggests definitively they are. There is plenty of evidence they are of African descent. Which of course begs the question, if Hally Berry were living in 1880, might she have been identified as an Indian?

    • Adam says:

      Because they are Indian. Indian is legal term in the United States and the corn to the Indian arts and crafts act state recognized tribes qualify as being Indian and there are some other things they get for being a state recognized tribes such as scholarships in the medical field in certain instances. Again Indian is a legal term

    • Adam says:

      I don’t speak an aboriginal language, have gray eyes and light brown hair, am I Indian? Yes, I am. Not Lumbee either. I’m aware of my mixed heritage, it doesn’t “un-Indian” me.

    • Aaron says:

      Technically we’re Lumbee but we’re actually Indian. I remember the first time my dad had to come to the school. He walked through the door and this really dark Lumbee girl leaned over and whispered “Your dad’s a Mexican!?”. And that pretty much sums up what it’s like being an actual Indian in Robeson County. It’s so uncommon to see people that look like us that when we do WE assume they’re Mexican… and they usually are. Anyway, we were speaking on the subject at my grandmother’s one day and I mentioned it and she stopped me dead in my tracks and clearly stated that we were “not Lumbee”. She said we are Cherokee and Saponi. Then she proceeded to tell me a story about how they came to her mother’s door and asked her to sign a paper saying that she’d get some money when they got federally recognized. So she signed.

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