Researching your Cherokee roots begins with an understanding of Cherokee genealogy. This differs in certain ways from standard genealogical practices in that the Cherokee were sometimes listed as white or mulatto on U.S. government census and sometimes were not included at all. There were additional census (rolls) of the Cherokee, as well as payment schedules, land allotments, and other documents that help locate our ancestors. Cherokee land ownership records changed as the U.S. government created commissions to determine who was "Cherokee" and who was not. Individuals were listed by Cherokee names that were often written as they sounded to the census taker. It can be helpful for you to have some understanding of Cherokee history as you begin to research your ancestry. The information on this website will help you locate your Cherokee roots and you may be eligible for tribal citizenship.
Some history you should know about your ancestors
The Cherokee were not originally one tribe but were separated into bands by geographic features and language dialects. They were only brought into some sort of unity when the English, weary from dealing with so many "heads of state", withheld vital trade goods until the Cherokees selected an "Emperor", through whom the British could deal. The person crowned as "Emperor" of the Cherokee was called Moytoy.
The five Chickamauga Cherokee were in the towns of Runningwater, Nickajack, Chickamauga, Tinsawatie, and Elijay were closely aligned with the Spanish and fought with other Cherokee who were friendly with the British. The Chickamauga gave in after their leader was assasinated. But the Americans wanted to punish the Cherokee who had sided with the British and began to grab land.
Around 1790 some Cherokee decided to leave the area and set up their tribal government west of the Mississippi. They settled in the area of Arkansas and begin to make treaties with the United States. These Western Cherokee are known as the Old Settlers. For the next 30 years the government took more and more land while pressuring the Eastern Cherokee to move west also. At the same time those Cherokee families in west pleaded with the Easterners to join them.
Another group of Cherokee headed by Chief Drowning Bear split from the rest of the tribe and settled in North Carolina. These are the Cherokee who avoided the Cherokee removal known as the Trail of Tears. Today these are known as the Eastern Band.
The Old Settlers soon realized that the mixed blood Cherokee who had arrived were beginning to take control. Two white missionaries, Evan and John Jones helped Cherokee full bloods Pig Smith and Creek Sam to form the traditionalist Keetoowah Society. As the American civil war approached the Keetoowah were allied with the missionaries against slavery and separated from the slave holding mixed bloods.
Stand Watie, a Cherokee Confederate General, Treaty party leader, and relative of the Treaty party leaders who were assassinated, pressured mixed blood Chief John Ross into siding with the confederacy. He and his troops rampaged through the Cherokee country killing, pillaging and burning the homes of those he blamed for his relative's deaths. After the war the Cherokee were split by so many elements that it barely survived. The Keetoowah led by Pig Smith's son Redbird became a secret society called the Nighthawks.
Today the Cherokee are divided into three federally recognized tribes. The Eastern Band, the Cherokee Nation and the Keetoowah.
The Eastern Band
The Eastern Band of Cherokees traces its origin to the more than 1,000 Cherokee members who eluded forced movement westward in 1838-39 by remaining in the mountains. Approximately 300 of these individuals were living on tribal lands in 1838 and claimed U.S. citizenship. Other tribal members living in Tennessee and North Carolina towns were not immediately found and removed. Throughout much of the 1840s Federal agents searched the mountains of North Carolina in attempts to remove the refugees to the Indian Territory. By 1848, however, the U.S. Congress agreed to recognize the North Carolina Cherokees' rights as long as the state would recognize them as permanent residents. The state did not do so until almost 20 years later. The area called the Qualla Boundary was established in 1882. The Eastern Cherokee land consists of approximately 56,668 acres in five counties in North Carolina: Cherokee, Graham, Jackson, Macon, and Swain Counties.
Cherokee residing in the east after the western migration of the majority of the Cherokee Nation (see Cherokee Removal) filed three suits in the U.S. Court of Claims to press their claims for funds due them under their treaties of 1835, 1836, and 1845 with the United States. The court awarded more than 1 million dollars to be distributed to all Eastern Cherokee alive on 28 May 1906, who could prove that they were members of the Eastern Cherokee tribe at the time of the treaties. They also had to prove that they were descended from members who had not been subsequently affiliates with any other tribe. These suits resulted in the Guion-Miller roll, the applications of the Cherokee East of the Mississippi, and the Cherokees of North Carolina.
The Western or Oklahoma Cherokee (Cherokee Nation)
An act of Congress approved March 3, 1893, established a commission to negotiate agreements with the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Cherokee Indian tribes. The commission became known as the Dawes Commission, after its chairman Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts. The commission's mission was to divide tribal land into plots which were then divided among the members of the tribe. As part of this process, the Commission either accepted or rejected applicants for tribal membership based on whether the tribal government had previously recognized the applicant as a member of the tribe and other legal requirements. Applicants were categorized as Citizens by Blood, Citizens by Marriage, Minor Citizens by Blood, New Born Citizens by Blood, Freedmen (African Americans formerly enslaved by tribal members), New Born Freedmen, and Minor Freedmen. Learn more about the Dawes rolls and see examples at left.
The United Keetoowah Band
Mostly descendants of "Old Settlers", Cherokee who migrated to Arkansas and Oklahoma about 1817, before the forced relocation of Cherokee from the Southeast in the 1830s under the Indian Removal Act. Many of its members are traditionalists and Baptists. The United Keetoowah Band requires all members to have verifiable Cherokee descent either from a person or people on the Dawes Roll or the UKB Base Roll of 1949. The UKB, beginning in the 1970s, gave some people honorary associate members, to recognize their services to the nation. Such memberships did not entitle the persons to voting or any other tribal rights, and had nothing to do with claims of Cherokee ancestry. Associate memberships were given in honorary appreciation to several people, but the tribe ended this practice in 1994. While some such recipients were given a tribal enrollment card with a number, they were never considered official members of the tribe, and did not receive tribal benefits. They no longer appear on official tribal rolls.
Traditionally the Cherokees were a matrilineal society. The home, family, children, inheritance, family ties, and clan membership are under the absolute control of the women. Women were considered the head of household among the Cherokee, with the home and children belonging to her should she separate from a husband, and maternal uncles were considered more important than fathers. Property was inherited and bequeathed through the clan and held in common by it. It was forbidden to marry within one's clan or to someone in the clan of one's father. A Cherokee could marry into any of the clans except two, that to which his father belonged, for all of that clan were his fathers and aunts and that to which his mother belonged, for all of that clan are his brothers and sisters. Interclan marriage was considered incest and punishable by death at the hands of the offender's own clan.
Cherokee born outside of a clan or outsiders who were taken into the tribe in ancient times had to be adopted into a clan by a clan mother. If the person was a woman who had borne a Cherokee child and was married to a Cherokee man, she could be taken into a new clan. Her husband was required to leave his clan and live with her in her new clan. Men who were not Cherokee and married into a Cherokee household had to be adopted into a clan by a clan mother; he could not take his wife’s clan.