Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Myth of the Indian Princess

Many people have a family tradition along the lines of "my third great grandma was a Cherokee princess".  I have heard it several times, but here is the bad news;  there is no such thing as a Cherokee princess.  In fact, there is no such thing as any Native American princess.

Native American tribes did not have lines of royalty.  Perhaps your ancestor was the daughter of a chief, but that didn't make her a princess.

I have many clients ask me to find the truth behind their Native American family stories.  In every case thus far, the people who think they are of Native American heritage are NOT and the ones that had no idea they were of native stock, ARE!  Isn't that funny!?

When I started researching the Cole side of my family about 10 years ago, I feel over backwards when I found the census below.

1900 Federal census, Harlan County, Kentucky
You should note that I consider myself "white" and I am blonde and blue eyed!  Wash, born May 1893 is my great grandfather.  Want to see a picture of him?

George Washington "Wash" Cole, born about 1893

So you can imagine my surprise at the census above after viewing the column for race.  That is a "B" my friends and "B" stands for Black.  I was going to need to do more research.  Take a look at other census records for Wash Cole and his ancestors.  The Jacob Cole listed in the census below is Wash's father.

1870 Federal Census for Harlan County, Kentucky
The family could not be located in the 1880 census, but above is the 1870 census and below is the 1860 census.  Note that Jacob Cole is 2 years old in the 1860 census and though it is beyond a little weird, his mother is the 18 year old Eliza and his father is the 61 year old.  I know, I know...that story is for another time!

1860 Federal Census for Lee County, Virginia

Both the 1870 and 1860 census records record some form of "Indian", though that was not a standard answer option on this form.

Lastly, the 1850 census.  Note that John Cole is the father of Jacob Cole.  He had been married before and by this time, his wife had left him with the children.  Eliza-age-15 is NOT the same Eliza listed above in the 1860 census.  This Eliza, age 15, was his eldest daughter.

1850 Federal Census for Knox County, Kentucky
As you can see, in 1850 the family is listed as "M" and that is for "mulatto".  Mulatto does not necessarily mean a mix of "black" and "white", but rather a mix of any two races.

How do I explain this?  I guess my family wasn't always "white"!  Most likely, they were of Native American descent.  My grandfather never claimed he was an "Indian" and no one in the family had any idea. Why?  I speculate that being an "Indian" in the hills of Virginia and Kentucky during this time frame was not something you would go around talking about.  After all; we know the stories of the forced move to Indian Reservations were true.  The family lived as white people for the most part and did not find themselves being forced to move.

I began to research the family ties to Native American tribes.  The Cole's had all tried to apply as "Cherokee's by Blood" in 1898 in hopes to gain land from the government.  I first checked the Dawes Roles.  This is an index.  Once you find your targeted ancestor, you then need to find the Application for Enrollment packets.  These can be found on  It was here that I found each of the application files for my family members.  These applications led to a great deal of genealogical data.  It mentioned a grandfather by name who I did not have and children that I did not know about.  The family was ultimately denied enrollment by the Cherokee Nation.  The names of our earliest know ancestors could not be located in the censuses taken in the 1830's of the Cherokee Tribes.  My family members had left the area prior to 1830 as did many people trying to escape possible removal that seemed inevitable.

But wait, there's more!  Just recently, I ran across a webpage that suggests that my "Appalachian Indians" might not be Cherokee at all, but Shawnee!  It was suggested that a break off of the Shawnee tribe happened in the late 1700's and some went south and found friendship with the Cherokees.

I am fortunate enough to have two uncles who are direct male descendants of the known "Indian" ancestor and we are having their DNA tested (stay tuned for the results!).  Though DNA can not tell me which tribe we are from, it can indicate if the targeted male ancestor was Native American, African-American, or European.

So the moral of this story is:  Don't go around saying your grandma was a Native American princess, because people are laughing at you.  And if you think you are Native American, look for something to back it up...even if it turns out your aren't, you will have fun trying and might find gems of genealogical information along the way!

Read more about finding your ancestors on the Dawes Rolls and the Applications for the 5 Civilized Tribes at:


  1. Amie, my people are from the same neck of the woods! Mine are all from SE KY, SW VA, NE TN, and NW NC.

    Are you familiar with the term "Melungeon"? Many of mine fall into this category. Anyone with darker skin, even olive skin tone, could be classified. My sister would have been one of them. They weren't allowed to own land or go to school, they wore long-sleeved shirts and hats all the time. And, in the 1930's, a Dr. Plecker issued an extermination order against them.

    It's a sad, sad tale of the people from that area that had to hide. Sometimes, the fact that we can't find many records on them might give us the clue we need concerning them.

    Great post!

  2. Peggy - You are so right! Yes, another one of my lines falls into the Melungeon group. My people intermarried with them quite a bit.


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