Researching Cherokee Ancestry

“I’m part Cherokee.” I have heard people say this all my life, and I used to say it myself until a DNA test showed otherwise. The question of who is part Cherokee (or another tribe) comes up publicly at times, such as when Elizabeth Warren recently claimed Cherokee ancestry. The question also surfaces for many family historians. If you are researching Cherokee ancestry you think you may have, it is important to know why you are doing so. While the research process is similar regardless of purpose, it is much more stringent if you wish to claim tribal citizenship than if you are simply curious. I will be focusing on Cherokee ancestry, but the general issues are similar across tribes.

By the way, after writing this blog, I found the wonderful book Cherokee Proud: A Guide for Tracing and Honoring your Cherokee Ancestors, by Tony Mack McClure. It offers considerably more detail than this blog entry, so it this entry whets your interest, I recommend the book.

Historically, it was up to tribes to determine the rules for citizenship. And historically, as the Cherokee Registry explains, Cherokee were multiple bands rather than one tribe. They began to unify when trading with Europeans, who at one point halted trade because they were tired of dealing with many different tribal heads and wanted one “emperor.” Even after that unification, relationships with whites pushed different bands to move in different directions. My point is that, while you might assume Cherokee ancestry means one thing, in a historic context, it does not, and it is helpful to know something of that context.

As part of its conquest of tribes, the U.S. federal government set its own rules for tribal membership, using blood quantum, or percent of a person’s biological ancestry that can be documented as belonging to a tribe. Blood quantum is normally established by documenting direct lineage to someone officially enrolled as a tribal member. In 1893, in the context of dissolving tribes and allocating individual plots of land, the U.S. Congress established the Dawes Commission, or Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole). Four kinds of enrollments pertained particularly to the Cherokee:

  • Citizens by blood, 
  • Citizens by marriage,
  • Freedmen (former black slaves of Indians), and 
  • Indians of other tribes adopted by Cherokee

The rolls closed in 1907. While some Cherokee refused to participate, the great majority were enrolled. Tracing your Cherokee ancestry largely means tracing biological links between yourself and someone on the Dawes Final Rolls.

In 1934, the U.S. government elevated the concept of blood quantum with the Indian Reorganization Act, which established who could be recognized as Native American and be eligible for financial and other benefits under treaties, or sales of land. So, to be federally recognized as having Cherokee ancestry, individuals need a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB).

The question of who counts as Cherokee is complicated further by the Cherokee Nation’s recognition of First Families of the Cherokee Nation when its constitution was ratified in 1939. First Families include citizens according to the Dawes Final Rolls, as well as intermarried whites, whites living in the Cherokee Nation under permit, Freedmen, and others who had been granted Cherokee Nation citizenship. One can be a member of the First Families, but not a citizen as defined by blood quantum. 

Blood quantum as the criterion for Cherokee citizenship resulted in the loss of citizenship of descendants of African American Freedmen in the 1980s. Following the Civil War until that time, the U.S. government agreed to allow former slaves to be counted as Cherokee citizens, with or without Cherokee blood. Since the early 1980s, rulings have gone back and forth. As of 2012, descendants of Freedman are not counted as tribal citizens.

So how to you find out whether you have Cherokee ancestry? Start the same as you would for documenting any other kind of ancestry. Beginning with yourself, work backward, documenting names, dates and places of births, marriages, deaths. (Be aware that on the U.S. census, Cherokee have been sometimes listed as white or mulatto, sometimes not recorded at all.) For Cherokee ancestry, you are looking for roll and roll number. If you can’t find that and want to apply for citizenship, you need to collect actual documents showing biological relationship to someone who was enrolled.

Birth, death and marriage records can be found in the U.S. Census, the Oklahoma Division of Vital Records, and county clerk offices. Probate and land records are also in county clerk offices. These forms of primary documentation are essential. Secondary source documents (bible records, obituaries, newspaper articles, diaries, biographical histories) help but don’t substitute for primary documents. 

Several websites offer guidance.

The Cherokee Nation provides information about tribal citizenship, eligibility for tribal membership and downloadable citizenship forms, as well as explanations of the Dawes Final Rolls of Citizens of the Cherokee Nation, and specific directions of what to submit to document your biological relationship to someone. If you are in Oklahoma, you can also visit the Registration Department to research the index and rolls yourself.

The Cherokee Family Research Center of the Cherokee Heritage Center provides similar information. In addition, it gives directions as to how to document membership in First Families of the Cherokee Nation. You can also find specific information about several historic cemeteries, including who is buried there.

Cherokee Registry maintains a database of registered Cherokee, as well as a useful brief history of the Cherokee.

Native Web – provides useful links for Cherokee and other tribal ancestry research.


  1. Howard White says

    I descend from a Cherokee named RIDGE who is on the census of Cherokees in North Carolina at Brasstown North Carolina in 1835. His wife was not living and I don’t know her name.
    Ridge was held at Fort Butler and moved to the Delaware district. He applied for payment of his land in Ellijay and Brasstown in 1842.
    His son Thomas served in the Creek Civil War in 1813 at the BATTLE OF HILLIBEE under Gen White and was recognised for his service by General White. At that time he was known as THE WHITE’S LIEUTENANT. At the BATTLE OF HORSESHOE BEND he served in Capt Russells Spies. That unit went on to Gen. Jacksons FORT JACKSON and served as Bodyguards for Gen Jackson.
    The log house at Brasstown occupied by him has been researched by the University of NC and still stands and is occupied. BUT THE CENSUS IS ALL I HAVE.
    Should I persue with the FIRST FAMILY RECOGNITION.

  2. That is a very good question that I do not have the background to answer, myself. The author whose work I drew on quite a bit is Tony Mack McClure, who is recognized as knowledgable about tracing Cherokee ancestry. I tried to find his contact information. I wasn’t able to do so, but he is a member of the Tennessee Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association. What I recommend doing is contacting them to locate him, and posing your question to him.

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