The Cherokee Princess Myth

Navajo girl in traditional clothing, Grand Canyon
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My great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee Indian 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 Native American ancestry in the family tree are often more fiction than fact.

The Story Goes

Family stories of Native American ancestry often seem to refer to a Cherokee princess.

What's interesting about this particular legend is that it almost always seems to be a Cherokee princess, rather than Apache, Seminole, Navajo or Sioux - almost as if the phrase "Cherokee princess" has become a cliché. Keep in mind, however, that almost any story of Native American ancestry may 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 as "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. For a white male marrying an Indian woman, a "Cherokee princess" may have been a little easier to swallow for the rest of the family.

Proving or Disproving the Cherokee Princess Myth

If you discover a "Cherokee Princess" story in your family, begin by losing any assumptions that the Native American 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 Native American 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 Native American 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.

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

DNA Testing for Native American Ancestry

DNA testing for Native American 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 Native American 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 Native American ancestry is more than 5–6 generations back in your tree.

See 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 Indian Princess" story is almost guaranteed to be a myth, there is a chance that this cliche stems from some type of Native American ancestry. Treat this as you would any other genealogy search, and thoroughly research those ancestors in all available records.