Cherokee Genealogy before 1800

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Surname/tag: Cherokee, Native_Americans
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Families and communities. The Cherokee, along with most indigenous people, were matrilineal. During the 1600’s and 1700’s they lived in about 60 small agricultural communities spread over some 200 miles, each largely independent from its neighbors. Each community had its own headman (or chief) and other leaders, who were chosen by the community, not by descent. There was no central government. Clan relationships determined a person’s behaviors. Families were made up of women and other members of their clans. Women could not marry a person of their own clan, so in the Cherokee culture the biological father was not a blood relative. The men responsible for bringing up a boy were his mother’s brothers, and if she didn’t have brothers, other men of her clan who lived in her village took on the responsibility. While some couples had long-lasting marriages, marriage as we know it was not a Cherokee concept. A couple stayed together only as long as both were happy with the arrangement, and both men and women had children with multiple partners.
Cherokee names. Cherokee people did not have ‘surnames’, family names, or even given names as we know them. Although people had personal items like clothing, weapons, and household goods, land could not be owned and there was no concept of inheritance or descendance. A Cherokee person’s name could – and did – change over a lifetime and a Cherokee person might be known by multiple names at the same time. A person’s true name was usually known only to close family/clan members. A childhood name would be replaced by an adult name, usually associated with a significant event in the person’s life. A later event or a bout of illness often resulted in a new name. Men (and some women) might be known by a title based on their position in the village – i.e. ‘Raven’, ‘Mankiller’, or ‘Beloved Woman’. People had names used only at home, nicknames given by others, and English translations of their Cherokee names and titles. Starting in the middle of the 18th century, some mixed-blood Cherokee added the name of their biological white father to the mix and others adopted (or were given) the name of an admired white person. Missionaries gave people new names when they were baptized. Some 19th century Cherokee used patronymics in response to the request for a surname. The names we associate with early Cherokee people were recorded by whites who sometimes attempted to write them phonetically, sometimes wrote what they believed was an English translation of the name, and sometimes wrote down a title as a name. There was no standardized spelling at this time, even for English names and words, and Cherokee men often appear in a single record with different spellings of a name.
White Traders and their Families Trade between European colonists and local Indians began as soon as the settlers arrived. In many cases food provided by the Indians kept the settlers alive. Colonists soon learned that Indians could also provide valuable furs and deerskins. Regular trade with the Cherokee began about 1700, mostly from South Carolina. Since the Cherokee considered anyone who was not Cherokee to essentially be a non-person. white traders (also colonial government officials and British soldiers) often took Cherokee wives in order to gain status with the tribe. These partnerships lasted sometimes just for a season and sometimes longer. The Cherokee considered the children of any Cherokee woman to be Cherokee, with the father often of little importance, so most of these relationships and any resulting children are unrecorded. Some traders lived in the Cherokee Nation for long periods of time, established homes, and acknowledged their Cherokee children, even some of those who also had white families. By the time of the Revolutionary War some mixed-blood children were following the European custom of using their white father's name as a surname and we begin seeing those names in records.
Recordkeeping prior to the 1800’s. The Cherokee did not have a written language until 1821. Before then, everything written about the Cherokee was filtered through the eyes and ears of white people, very few of whom spoke or even understood the Cherokee language. Records of the Cherokee prior to 1800 consist solely of the journals, correspondence, and memoirs of white men, and the treaties and recorded actions of colonial and early American legislative bodies. There are no birth, marriage, death, church, or family Bible records. The only censuses taken in the 18th century were simple headcounts done by village. There are occasional rare statements by a Cherokee person included in historical records which mention a family relationship, but there are not many historical records relating to the Cherokee before 1750. The first whites to take an interest in Cherokees as families were the missionaries who arrived late in the 1790’s.

Primary Sources (mostly transcripted or reprinted):

  • Adair, James. The History of the American Indians. London, 1775; reprint with introduction by Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr. Johnson, New York: Reprint Corp, 1968. digitized at GoogleBooks Adair
  • Alvord, Clarence Walworth, and Lee Bidgood. The First Explorations of the Trans-Allegheny Region by the Virginians, 1650-1674. Cleveland, Arthur H. Clark, 1912. Includes account of Needham and Arthur, first whites to travel to a Cherokee town and return
  • Bartram, William. Travels in North America. New Haven, Yale University Press. digitized transcript at Bartram
  • Bonnefoy, Antoine. Journal. Bonnefoy was a captive of the Cherokee in 1741-42. digitized transcript at Bonnefoy
  • Chicken, George. Journals 1715-1716 and 1725. digitized transcript at Chicken
  • Conversation between his Excellency the Governor of South Carolina and Chuconnunta a head man of the Cherokees Whose name formerly was Ouconecaw. Recorded by Richard Smith in 1756, transcript in the “Journal of Cherokee Studies” Vol. XXVI, pp. 15-23 (this is the man known as "Attakullakulla")
  • Cuming, Alexander. Journal of Sir Alexander Cuming. Transcript in Williams.
  • Grant, Ludovic. Historical Relation of the Facts. 1755. Transcript in the “Journal of Cherokee Studies” Vol. XXVI, pp. 2-23.
  • Herbert, John. Journal of Colonel John Herbert, commissioner Indian affairs for the province of South Carolina, October 17, 1727, to March 1727/8 transcript digitized at Herbert
  • Timberlake, Henry The Memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake. Duane King, ed. Museum of the Cherokee Indian Press, Cherokee, N.C., 2007
  • Williams, Samuel Cole. Early Travels in the Tennessee Country, 1580-1800 Johnson City, Tennessee, Watauga Press, 1928
  • Native Americans in Early North Carolina – ed. Dennis Isenbarger, published by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Department of Archives and History, 2013. Includes transcripts of primary documents from the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • Villainy Often Goes Unpunished – Indian Records from the North Carolina General Assembly Sessions 1685-1789. William L. Byrd, III, Heritage Books 2012. Transcripts of General Assembly records.
  • Calendar of Virginia State Papers
  • Colonial Records of North Carolina – multiple volumes published by the North Carolina Archives.
  • Colonial Records of South Carolina – multiple volumes published by the South Carolina Archives. Series 2 are the Indian Papers.
  • South Carolina Archives SCDAH has documents relating to early white traders

Other references:

  • Brown, John P. Old Frontiers. Southern Publishers, Inc. Kingsport, TN 1938
  • Conley, Robert. A Cherokee Encyclopedia. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2007; The Cherokee Nation, A History University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2005. [Note: Conley’s books are easier to read than the more scholarly texts listed, but also are not as well-researched and contain more factual errors.]
  • Hoig, Stanley. The Cherokees and their Chiefs. University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville 1998
  • Mooney, James. History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee. American Bureau of Ethnology 1891 & 1900, reprint Historical Images, Inc. Asheville, N.C. 1992
  • Journal of Cherokee Studies. Museum of the Cherokee Indian Press, Cherokee, N.C.



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