The Myth of the Cherokee Princess, or Family History Revised

I’m going to throw this out there, because while I’m sure a million of you have heard this story, I am sure some have not, and if I can save someone the embarrassment of telling this story in public and having someone else cry “BS”, then it’s worth it.

The stories always go something like this:
You have an ancestor (vague connection) who was Cherokee, and not just any Cherokee, she was a Chief’s daughter, a Princess! She died on the Trail of Tears, and there’s a memorial to her….somewhere.
The family tales tend to be always women, and always women of some notable, story-worth tale. And yes, I have had unknowing people tell me stories like this at least twice. In my family she wasn’t a princess but here father lived off the Nation and her mother on it so at a young age, she would ride a horse to visit between her parents. One day a wolf chased on her horse, and she found an abandoned houses to shelter her and her horse until of the wolf ran away. It was inferred that she was riding between Oklahoma and Southeastern Missouri!
Most likely the truth of the story is that her mother was not living on a reservation (she remarried twice and all three men were white) and if this young girl did visit others it was likely it was no more than one county distant. As for the wolf, I don’t know. But after listening and learning,it’s very common that these family stories are like fish stories-they get bigger with age.
It is likely that many, many of the stories of Cherokee princesses were really Choctaw, Seminole, or even, as in the case of the “Melungeon” people, of African ancestry.
Stories in many cases changed because to be “Indian” was dangerous, but to be “Portuguese” was exotic and acceptable. It is also common that’s while great great grandpa may have played down his native blood, consecutive generations play it up. Not out of meanness and not out of trying to get enrolled, but honestly, at least in my family, out of a sense of pride. But the stories really do get bigger with time.

Recently I had a friend mention that he just found out that a deceased grandparent was Cherokee. I cut straight to the point and said, don’t listen to the family stories, go straight to her closest relative and ask if she was enrolled on the Dawes Rolls, and if not, chalk it up to family tales. And in fact, this friend did just that, and found his grandmother was indeed enrolled, and so now he has an established fact to build his thoughts and perceptions, and family tales on. The documentation gives credibility to the stories. Without documentation, family stories cannot be verified, and should always be taken with a large grain of salt.

In my family history, that young lady that supposedly fled the wolves was my great great grandfather’s sister. My father was lucky enough to inherit two large photo portraits of my great great grandfather, John Willis Goddard, and his 2nd wife, Hannah Parilee Gibson, my great great grandmother.
These portraits hung on the wall of my parents bedroom growing up, and sometimes I would just stare at the old man (he’s under 40 in the portrait!) and wonder about him. He has very piercing eyes, and he does look “Native”. He has very dark hair, high cheekbones, darkish skin, and the assumption was that he was Cherokee. But was he?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
When I was about 12, I was still in “Camp Fire Girls” and we made a simple buckskin looking dress for ourselves out of poplin. Just for fun one Saturday, I put darker makeup on my face and braided my long brown hair. I had a choker and two beaded hair ornaments that I had made, so I put all of this on, and ran into my dad coming out of the bathroom. He looked stunned. I can’t remember what he said, but he wanted to take my photograph, and I remember him being proud. Of his ancestry, maybe, of his look-alike daughter, maybe, but I know it was a special moment to him. It became a special moment to me too, and because those “Cherokee” stories were some of the rare few anyone in my family ever told, those stories became special to me. Part of my perceived identity. But that does not make them true?
Even a few years ago, there was no real or common way for anyone to refute the stories a family would tell. Even now, you can say you are anything you want, and really know one will know, no one will force you to tell the truth, but now, with the common DNA test getting less expensive, there is a whole new world, not only of genealogy but ancestry in general. Now instead of going to a library to do research, you go on line, or learn about autosomal and mitochondrial DNA, and you can match numbers and DNA strands with total strangers. And DNA doesn’t lie.
Or does it? I don’t even know for sure what the DNA tests are really covering. In one place I read that it’s only a certain generation back-like eight generations. So how do they know whom my fourth cousins are? I realized today that I need a “DNA for Dummies” class or something because all of the genetics information is really over my head.
But I’m hooked, and I think this “sure science” is what really sucks us in. If we can just find that one ancestor, that one bloodline, we will know who we are! I would love to find out anything about my maternal grandmother’s family because I know literally nothing about who they are, what their traditions were or where they came from. To me it feels like I am missing part of my maternal spiritual inheritance. And what of someone who feels good about who they are only to open up their email one morning to find that they have a new match, and this person is sure to be their father-when they thought they knew their biological father.
Even small amounts of new information, like being .1% Cherokee instead of 12%, or being “Middle Eastern” (which is a very large and vague can of worms), what does that switch do to your identity? What do you do if in one night you go from attending pow-wows to feeling like you should check out a synagogue or a mosque?
It seems like in this computer-data age we are playing-no juggling with emotionally double-edged swords. Yes, genetics can tell you the biological truth and widen your horizons, but what about a woman who’s sibling isn’t really related, or a father who died never knowing his son…?
I think that there should be more of a warning on ancestral DNA-type tests. People don’t really realize how subtly or how drastically it can change your entire sense of who you are. But it doesn’t have to.
Ultimately, the people who raised you, those that loved you, and the culture you grew up in ARE who you really are, and they are never a lie, no matter what a DNA test says. This is very much like finding out you are adopted. Does the mom that raised you suddenly stop being your mom? No, but having a second mom or second family can broaden your idea of who you are.
It can be a really painful process, even to learn something small that you did not know.
Ultimately we each have to find that place in ourselves where no piece of information or lack thereof can change who we really are. When we know that part of ourselves, we can have fun with the journey, but for those who are seeking to be validated or shaped by others, even dead ancestors, it may be a painful journey.

Edit, 2019 Update-The man pictured above DOES have African Ancestry.  DNA showed this. If you want more information on how “Cherokees” have African ancestors, Google “Cherokee Freedmen”
And his ancestry is likely a LOT more complicated than just “Cherokee”. I know his ancestry includes Lumbee, Melungeon, and a family group that still exists today, that claims a particular Native heritage, but that researchers into Y-DNA can not connect with any other Native group. In other words, we don’t really know who they are.  And also I’ve identified that everyone I have a photo of related to this guy seems to look “Eskimo”…and I do carry Siberian DNA…my thought is maybe many generations previous they were from the far north in what is now Canada, and merged at some point as they came south into another tribe. Who knows. DNA and paper trails are not that good yet.