The Cherokee Princess Myth

Navajo girl in traditional clothing, Grand Canyon

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My great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess!

How many of you have heard a similar statement made by one of your relatives? As soon as you hear that "princess" label, the red warning flags should go up. While they are sometimes true, stories of Indigenous ancestry in the family tree are often more fiction than fact.

The Story Goes

Family stories of Indigenous ancestry often seem to refer to a Cherokee princess. What's interesting about this particular legend is that it seems to gravitate toward the princess being Cherokee, rather than Apache, Seminole, Navajo, or Sioux. It's almost as if the phrase "Cherokee princess" has become a cliché. Keep in mind, however, that many stories of Indigenous ancestry could be a myth, whether it involves the Cherokee or some other tribe.

How it Began

During the 20th century, it was common for Cherokee men to use an endearing term to refer to their wives that roughly translated to "princess." Many people believe this is how princess and Cherokee were joined in the popular Cherokee ancestry myth. Thus, the Cherokee princess may have really existed—not as royalty, but as a beloved and cherished wife. Some people also speculate that the myth was born in an attempt to overcome prejudice and racist feelings regarding interracial marriages. For a White male marrying an Indigenous woman, calling her a "Cherokee princess" may have been an unfortunate attempt to appease racist family members.

Proving or Disproving the Cherokee Princess Myth

If you discover a "Cherokee Princess" story in your family, begin by losing any assumptions that the Indigenous ancestry, if it exists, has to be Cherokee. Instead, focus your questions and search on the more general goal of determining whether there is any Indigenous ancestry in the family, something that is usually untrue in the majority of such cases.

Begin by asking questions about which specific family member was the one with Indigenous ancestry (if no one knows, this should throw up another red flag). If nothing else, at least try to narrow down the branch of the family, because the next step is to locate family records such as census records, death records, military records and records of land ownership looking for any clues to racial background. Learn about the area in which your ancestor lived as well, including what Native American tribes may have been there and during what time period.

Indigenous census rolls and membership lists, as well as DNA tests can also potentially help you prove or disprove Indigenous ancestry in your family tree. See Tracing Indigenous Ancestry for more information.

DNA Testing for Indigenous Ancestry

DNA testing for Indigenous ancestry is generally most accurate if you can find someone on the direct paternal line (Y-DNA) or direct maternal line (mtDNA) to test, but unless you know which ancestor was believed to be an Indigenous person and can find a descendant down the direct paternal (father to son) or maternal (mother to daughter) line, it isn't always practical. Autosomal tests look at DNA on all branches of your family tree but, due to recombination, are not always useful if the Indigenous ancestry is more than five to six generations back in your tree. See the article "Proving Native American Ancestry Using DNA" by Roberta Estes for a detailed explanation of what DNA can and can't tell you.

Research All Possibilities

While the "Cherokee Princess" story is almost guaranteed to be a myth, there is a small chance that it stems from some type of real Indigenous ancestry. Treat this as you would any other genealogy search, and thoroughly research those ancestors in all available records.

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Powell, Kimberly. "The Cherokee Princess Myth." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-cherokee-princess-myth-1421882. Powell, Kimberly. (2021, February 16). The Cherokee Princess Myth. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-cherokee-princess-myth-1421882 Powell, Kimberly. "The Cherokee Princess Myth." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-cherokee-princess-myth-1421882 (accessed March 1, 2021).