When white Americans claim Native American descent, why do they so frequently think that their ancestors were Cherokee, rather than some other tribe? I’m not talking about tribal affiliation but instead genetic ancestry.
It has a lot to do with their ancestral history and settlement patterns.First, the bulk of people that falsely claim to be Cherokee are from older colonial roots. They are heavily British Isles stock, mixed with German and a dash of Hugeunot French. They moved in from the eastern seaboard settlements in VA, NC/SC, and GA. They pushed generally west, although one exception is a southern movement of settlers coming from southern PA and MD, moving into VA and then down along the eastern flank of the Appalachian Mountains into central Carolinas, or even into GA, in the latter half of the 1700s.Following the Revolutionary War, American (White) settlers flooded west, taking up recently ceded - or even unceded - land….steadily pushing for the further reduction of Cherokee territory. It was a steady and relentless process.Notice how much land the Cherokees claimed at point of contact and how much they ceded?Of course, the bulk of this land was never settled by the tribe, and it was actually contested or claimed by other tribes. But, the Cherokee were powerful enough to lay claim to it, and have the European powers recognize them as the dominant land holders. So, they treated with them and conducted various land cession treaties starting in the 1720s onward.So, a lot of Americans with lore of Indian blood will simply go to a map and point to where their ancestors may have lived or passed through, and they see large swathes as “Cherokee.” This then propels the theory that unnamed “part-Native” ancestors were probably Cherokee. Because, after all, it “used to be Cherokee territory.”But, they will ignore the timelines and demographics involved. They’ll determine vague ancestors were Cherokee by nothing more than wild theorizing.Additionally, this is a reflection of their own cultural heritage (which is old colonial Northern European). Many of these families that pushed west as early settlers, from these colonial seaboard settlements, didn’t leave a lot of records. And they left even fewer for female ancestors. Sometimes, they left NO records for the female lineages. Further, literacy wasn’t all that high and many families didn’t keep very long or detailed family trees. A family bible might be used to record a few births and deaths for a short range of generations, but normally it isn’t too extensive (a family bible would eventually get passed down in a particular branch, and at some point, the descendants would stop recording their details in the older bible and the wider family wouldn’t have access to it, or they’d forget about it completely). So, knowledge of lineage was not as extensive, or it didn’t extend back too far in many cases.In this atmosphere a lot of stories were built up about unknown or mysterious ancestors. And a lot of speculation was going on. Beyond that, details can get easily skewed or theorizing turns in to “fact.”Alternative narratives tend to fill in the gaps, or even attempt to cover up more taboo or unsavory aspects. So, an illegitimate baby that mysterious and suddenly shows up in a family is said to have been a “Cherokee baby, the parents gave up because they were on the Trail of Tears.” Or, something to that effect. This was the cover story that deflected away from the reality: the farmer’s 15 year old daughter that got pregnant by an unknown male in the neighborhood or a hired hand. Or, it could be even more serious social taboos, like rape or black-white mixing. A darker baby from a White-Black sexual union would be described as an “Indian/Cherokee” to explain darker features. Again, that was the cover story.In any event, at some point being ‘part-Cherokee‡ simply took on a certain charm or gave people a sense of authenticity. A legitimate tie to the land, etc. Or, it gave people something exotic to talk about or claim. It would be used to explain someone’s temper or inability to hold liquor, or bravery, or not being afraid of heights, immune to cold, etc. All kinds of odd things. “It’s that Indian blood!” It also just made the family stories more interesting or romantic. It became entrenched as a sort of folk belief. Certain communities in Appalachia in particular seem to think having a little Indian blood is a sort of default. So, it becomes a collective identity.Anyway, all of these elements get compounded and once the stories get entrenched they expand through the generations. And it’s rather amazing how they ripple through each generation and get carried forward, almost completely intact.I mean like this:A parent tells a child, “My mother was said to be part-Cherokee through her mother.” This child grows up and then the details get entrenched. She tells her kids, “My grandmother was at least half Cherokee.” Over time, the story changes…then “great-grandma was a full blood.” Then, the process can start over. The person with this lore tells the kids, “Ya know, we got some Cherokee blood in the family. Your grandma was a Cherokee.”And the odd thing is that once it gets passed on like this and entrenches as a sort of personal identity, people don’t like to research the claims and vet the details. In fact, it goes beyond that. They will often deny the facts or what research might clearly show. And they rationalize why the supposedly “Cherokee” ancestor isn’t show up with tribal affiliation or listed as white. So, at that point, they begin to craft alternative reality narratives. That’s when you get the various stories about “hiding out” or “Passing for white.” Or, their family didn’t want to register “with the government”…ass if their lack of affiliation and status in the record trail was a result of some principled stance or formalized protest against enrollment. Or, if they were listed as white on records, they had to “hide.”Finally, the reason there are so many White Americans falsely claiming Cherokee ancestry is because their ancestors put in -collectively- hundreds of thousands of erroneous or outright fraudulent applications during Dawes Roll enumerations or Guion Miller (Eastern Cherokee Claims Settlement). There was a lot of media coverage back in the day that was highlighting that Cherokee descendants were eligible for a monetary pay out. All you had to do was claim some blood, and you’d get some cash. So, this brought out a ton of poor Whites, trying to put in these applications. There was no legal repercussion, so what did they have to lose?Anyway, these applications were uniformly rejected. Yet, how many modern descendants that see their ancestors applications will believe they were lying or being shady? Not many! Most will still cling to the original claim of “Cherokee blood” And they will assume that the rejection was just based on capricious or harsh bureaucracy. They will likely think that their ancestors at least believed in the veracity of their “Cherokee blood.” And it’s probably just a matter of it being a little further back, or harder to prove in the records. But, it’s probably in there somewhere!