White Americans love to say they’re part Cherokee. Experts say identifying as Cherokee gives people a feeling of being native to America, but that doesn’t explain how they get the idea. There are a lot of theories here, as you might expect.
RF Tree Genealogy suggests many of these people have Melungeon ancestry. The Melungeons were mixed race communities in the area around Cumberland Gap and East Tennessee. Their ancestry, going back to Colonial Virginia, was a mix of White, Black, and Indian.
Their swarthy complexions led them to develop defensive explanations. To explain their skin color, they said they were Black Dutch, Portuguese, Turks, Moors, or Indians–anything that would give them cover for being part African.
Melungeon descendants in East Tennessee intermarried with backwoods Scots Irish in the years before the American Revolution. Among the Scots Irish, a darker complexion was often explained by having a “Cherokee grandmother.”
The Melungeons were in the wrong area to have had Cherokee ancestry. The geography and migration patterns don’t work. But the Cherokees were one of the Five Civilized Tribes so Cherokee ancestry was accepted as being more respectable than other tribes.
We end up with a modern world where many people who claim to be part Cherokee aren’t really, although they probably do have distant Indian and African ancestry in Colonial Tidewater Virginia. Ironically, they have even more ancestry among the Scots Irish, the frontiersmen and Indian fighters who as a group were the most aggressive about taking Indian land.
- RF Tree Genealogy, “‘Cherokee’ Ancestry“, YouTube (Apr. 23, 2018).
- Melungeons (Oct. 20, 2013).