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Why Your Great-Grandmother Wasn't A Cherokee Princess

Question: Why do we have this family myth about a Cherokee princess in my lineage, when there's really no such thing?



It seems like a lot of young people these days are searching for an elusive ancestor who was a Cherokee princess. Usually they reveal this family history proudly to a bunch of Indians in a chat room or mailing list somewhere and get laughed off the Internet.

Why? Well, there is no such thing as a Cherokee princess. They're not real. We never had princesses, and we still don't, unless you count the winners of beauty pageants.

But, I don't like to call people liars for no reason. So giving these seekers of their family history the benefit of the doubt, here are some possible explanations for anyone who has been told they have a Cherokee princess in their family tree.

1. "Princess" may be a very poor translation for the daughter of a chief. Cherokee chiefs were not kings. They were chosen by the community, and there were always multiple chiefs, both peace chiefs and war chiefs, at the same time. The daughter of a chief was more like the daughter of a mayor or a governor than a princess. She certainly wasn't going to inherit any throne. But many people were ignorant of this, and Americans have been fascinated by royalty for a long time, so it is likely that "chief's daughter" or even "prominent person's daughter" may have gotten translated as "princess" by mistaken or romantic-minded white people.

If your research finds that your grandmother was actually the daughter of a chief, then why not say "My great-grandfather was Chief So-and-So," which is more accurate and more interesting anyway.

2. "Princess" may be a very poor translation for an important female politician, such as a female peace chief or Beloved Woman. (Nanyehi, Nancy Ward, was the last and most famous Cherokee Beloved Woman.) These were not hereditary positions either--peace chiefs were popularly elected, and the Beloved Woman was honored by the council through courage in war. But again, these positions may have been misunderstood or romanticized.

If your research finds that your great-great-grandmother (or great-great-great-grandmother-- this was a long time ago that we had Beloved Women or female peace chiefs) held one of these positions, well, read all about her, she would have been an interesting and powerful woman, and it is really too bad to trivialize her as a "princess." Your friends will be more impressed by the true story anyway.

3. "Princess" was a popular term of endearment early in the 20th century. Your great-grandfather may have called your great-grandmother his Cherokee princess, not because she was royalty, but because he loved her. Isn't that sweet? I think maybe that makes a better family story than the princess one anyway. But this actually has happened more times than you'd think. (Similarly, a lot more Cherokee women were recorded with the name "Rose" than were actually named "Rose," because her white husband or father called her his Cherokee rose.)

4. Your white ancestor may just have told his family his wife was a Cherokee princess to alleviate racist tensions. There were a lot of people who weren't real happy with their sons taking Indian wives. In fact, another thing that may be frustrating your genealogical search, is that a lot of men claimed their Indian wives were Cherokee when they actually belonged to another tribe because Cherokees were considered more "civilized" than other Indians by white Americans. So the "Cherokee princess" may have been an ordinary Lenape citizen, or something, and her husband was trying to make her new inlaws or neighbors more accepting of her.

5. Or, it's possible that your ancestor may not have been American Indian at all, but rather African-American. One of our readers wrote us recently to tell us that her "Indian princess" ancestor had turned out to be African-American, and when she did more research into it, "Indian princess" and "Cherokee princess" were sometimes used in the South as somewhat derogatory terms for light-skinned mulatto women (similar to "high yellow.") This appellation may have been passed down in your family by people who were unaware of its original meaning.

In any event, unless you have a record that your ancestor was the daughter of a chief (or, more rarely, a Beloved Woman or other important female personage), she probably was not. That doesn't mean she wasn't a "real" Indian, though. The "princess" part was probably simply appended to the family story about her at some point. It doesn't have any bearing on whether she herself actually existed or not.

But either way, you would be best served by dropping the princess story from your genealogical queries. Cherokees, and other Indians, who might be able to help you are not going to take you seriously if you approach them with such an unrealistic story. Imagine if someone from Ireland told you about some relative of his who he insisted was descended from the fairies, or owned the Brooklyn Bridge. You could think of some plausible reasons why he might believe this, but it will still seem silly to you. Being told about Cherokee princesses will always seem silly to us. If your ancestor really was the daughter of a chief, well, then say so. Otherwise, just say she was a Cherokee. Believe me, that will sound all the more impressive for potentially being true.

Orrin.



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