Cherokee Indians are an important part of the rich heritage and history of the United States, and finding Cherokee ancestors could lend great meaning to your sense of identity, creating a sense of community with others who share similar roots. Because of the history of reservations and removal in the 1830's, including the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee Indians who used to reside mostly east of the Mississippi River were split, with the majority moving to reservations west of the Mississippi River. Only a few Cherokee Indians remained in the east. Because of this history, finding your ancestors and tribe could be a coast-to-coast search, though the fruits of your labor will reward you with a more complete family tree and sense of belonging.
The first step in finding your Cherokee ancestors is to begin the enthralling process of compiling a broad family tree that paints a picture of who came before you. The internet offers several websites, like Ancestry and MyHeritage, that help people compile family trees spanning many generations, allowing you to discover blood relatives you didn't know you had. Many of these websites charge a fee for their services, but it's usually much less expensive than traveling to various government offices in order to access the records the old-fashioned way. If you want to apply for Cherokee citizenship, a family tree showing blood relation to a registered tribal member is required. As you find public records indicating that family members are likely Cherokee, compile a list of names, cities of residence and the years these family members were living.
Search the Rolls
From the 1800's to the1900's, there were several periods of census for Cherokee tribal members living both east and west of the Mississippi River. The final Baker Roll and Dawes Rolls are compilations of several earlier rolls and give the most data on who tribal members were. You can access the Dawes Rolls on the Oklahoma Historical Society website and the Baker Roll on the Ancestry website. It is a bit like a treasure hunt as you search the rolls one by one for each ancestor you discovered in your family tree. If you discover that your ancestors are not listed on the rolls, it doesn't mean they're not of Cherokee descent. They could have opted out of registering or may have been living apart from a reservation. In cases of uncertainty, a blood test can help you confirm that you have Cherokee heritage and add some certainty to the findings from your genealogical research.
Find Your Tribe
There are three Cherokee tribes currently recognized by the U.S. Government. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma both serve tribal citizens who live west of the Mississippi River. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina serves the smaller number of Cherokee citizens who remain east of the Mississippi River. If your relatives were listed on the Baker Roll or Dawes Rolls, you will have a good idea of the geographical location of your ancestors and can choose the tribes to first try contacting based on this information. If your relatives were not listed on the rolls, there is still a chance that they could be listed on private tribal membership rolls.
Apply for Enrollment
When you have compiled a family tree showing Cherokee lineage and have located your ancestors on the rolls, you can apply for possible Cherokee tribal citizenship. Some tribes also require a blood test showing 1/16th Cherokee heritage for membership. The contact information for tribal leaders in all three Cherokee tribes can be found through the U.S. Department of the Interior website. In addition to providing a sense of belonging, identity and heritage, tribal membership grants you access to tribal services and opportunities to serve other Cherokees through tribal positions or leadership.
- U.S. Department of the Interior: Trace Indian Ancestry
- U.S. Department of the Interior: Establishing Indian Ancestry
- U.S. Department of the Interior: Genealogical Research
- U.S. Department of the Interior: Tribal Enrollment Process
- U.S. Department of the Interior: Indian Affairs: Tribal Leaders Directory
- U.S. Department of the Interior: Benefits and Service
- U.S. Department of the Interior: Cherokee Ancestry
- U.S. Department of the Interior: Information on the Dawes Rolls
- Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians: Enrollment
- Oklahoma Historical Society: Search the Dawes Final Rolls
- Cherokee Nation: Citizenship
- Cherokee Nation: A Brief History of the Trail of Tears
- NCGenWeb Project: NC Cherokee Reservation Genealogy
- National Archives: Native American Heritage: Baker Roll, 1924-1929: Eastern Band of Cherokee
- Ancestry: U.S., Cherokee Baker Roll and Records, 1924-1929
- Other archival resources of Cherokee tribe members are available. Kent Carter's "Wantabes and Outalucks: Searching for Indian Ancestors in Federal Records" is a resource recommended by NARA. Visit the websites of the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Cherokees for additional genealogical resources and information.
Anne Kinsey is a Certified Trauma Recovery Coach and missionary, residing in rural North Carolina. She is the founder of Love Powered Life, a nonprofit organization with the mission of creating loving community for trafficking survivors and their families. Anne has enjoyed writing for publications like Working Mother, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle, Bizfluent and Career Trend. She resides in rural North Carolina with her husband, three children and a house full of furry friends.