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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About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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6 Responses to Cherokee Ancestry – The Most Persistent Native American Family Legend

  1. Jim Young says:

    Thank you for this post, and others that I have read. I have been wandering through my genealogy for a few years and never really considered a Native American ancestry, but believing that I have C3* M217, P44, Z1453, my search found an article of yours from 2014. I am, admittedly, a complete novice but am intrigued. I will continue searching and following your posts.

  2. Caleb says:

    I am trying to research an ancestor named Luie Bean who lived in Tennessee in the late 1800s with her husband (who’s name was Frances Marion “Pete” O’Neal) and she was supposed to be a full blooded Cherokee medicine woman. Can anyone help me? If you did I would so greatly appreciate it

  3. t-rants says:

    I tried to get to the Slate article but my browser (I’m on an ipad pro, using Safari), wouldn’t open because of too many redirects.
    Is there a date for the article so I can try to look it up directly?

    I’ve tested both with Family Tree DNA and now the mitochondrial testing with My Heritage (think that’s the correct though it may be ancestor.com), but as far as I know it doesn’t show any native blood. I was told by my father and his nephew that my dad’s mom was Cherokee, how much or little I don’t know, though my father had such typical (excuse the reference) features, as do and my brother, that is easily believable that he indeed had a believable claim, i.e. High cheek bones, eyes that are small and heavy cover lid…won’t last more.
    Mainly I was trying to get to the article and found it interesting that I too being from east of the Mississippi specifically Florida, have a native American story in my background that I believed until told differently by the Family Tree group manager.
    Thanks for your interesting article.

    Tony

  4. Mouse says:

    Would it even be worth doing a DNA test for Cherokee since there is so much white blood mixed in? My mom was always told her parents were Cherokee & half Cherokee and in trying to trace her ancestry, I’ve found her mom and grandmother listed in several census as living in Indian County and listed as “Indian”. I’ve found it impossible to find recorded info on her mom’s family (birth, marriage, etc), any suggestions?

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