Genealogy Myths: The Indian in the Family

14 Mar 2013

Genealogical myth week continues with the story of the Indian in the family. Sometimes it is just a generic Indian, sometimes it is an “Indian Princess” or, more specifically, a “Cherokee Princess.” Now, let’s leave aside the fact that Native Americans did not have crown heads of state, and therefore had no royal princesses (why let facts muddy the waters of mythology?), these tales just don’t pan out.


Cover of the Japanese Version of Cher’s hit song Half-Breed. Cher purportedly has Cherokee ancestors.


I remember an interaction many years ago when I was working in the microtext department at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. A patron came in and needed help finding her Indian ancestor. One of her great-great grandmothers was an Indian from northern Maine. We asked her the name of the person she was looking for, which she gave to us. We quickly found her death record in Maine, and census records stretching back from 1900 to 1850. Her death record and all of the later censuses agreed that she was born in Maine and her parents were born in Massachusetts. All of the records showed that she was white. The woman argued with us that this couldn’t be her ancestor (even though she was married to the proper man, lived in the same small town, and all succeeding family records gave this woman as the wife and mother).  It could be right because she wasn’t an Indian. I asked her how she knew this woman was an Indian. Her response: “My psychic told me.” Well that settled it. Why bother with records and impartial original sources when you have a psychic on your side.

By the nineteenth century, Native Americans in the United States had been pushed back to just a few limited areas, predominately in the west. If you had ancestors in places like Oklahoma in the late-nineteenth century, it is possible that you may have Native American ancestors. The primary thing to do, however, is to look at the records of your people.

Not that America discriminates, but it has done so since before the Mayflower arrived in 1620, and continues to do so today. As a result of this discrimination, you will eventually find evidence of your native ancestors if there actually are any in your family tree. They are treated differently in government records, and in the early days even church records and other sources will label Native Americans as such (using a variety of terminology) in their records.

High cheekbones are not a sign of Indian ancestry. There are plenty of Europeans with high cheekbones. Photographs of ancestors on reservations are not evidence of Indian ancestry. They could just as easily be Christian missionaries. Photographs of ancestors in Native American garb are not evidence either. How many times have you been to a fair or carnival where there is a booth for you to dress up in period clothing to have your photograph taken. That is not a twentieth-century invention, let me assure you.

French-Canadian families are filled with the tale of an Indian in the ancestry. My paternal grandfather used to tell us how his grandmother was descended from Indians. I did my best to disprove the story, but was unable to unequivocally do so before he died, but his grandmother’s great-grandfather was illegitimate. The thought of a white European girl bearing the child of a Native American man (in a location where the Native Americans no longer lived) and have it go unrecorded seems quite a bit far-fetched. Multiple DNA tests have revealed not a shred of Native American ancestry in my genes.

I wrote an article about this a few years ago, and it was the cover story of American Ancestors magazine. My mother was in the hospital for heart surgery at the time, and I brought her a copy to read in the hospital. She proudly told her cardiologist about this while I was there the next day. The cardiologist informed me that she herself had a great-grandmother who was a Cherokee princess. I asked where the great-grandmother was from (praying that she would say Oklahoma). She said with a completely straight face “Hoboken.” I determined that since my mother had not yet had her surgery, I would refrain from saying anything so as not to annoy the doctor before the surgery.