THE GREATEST JOKE in “Indian country,” as it is called on occasion, is that every white family has a legendary Cherokee Princess in its family tree. There have been many excellent articles about it, that abound with the usual stories of high cheekbones and straight black hair.
According to those in the the know in the ancestry testing business, about 30 percent of Americans believe this. It’s definitely part of the allure of DNA testing — is the family rumor true? — and imagine the disappointment when “none” comes back. I can speak honestly about this because, let’s face it, it’s more or less my own story.
With a few exceptions. We never had a Cherokee princess myth in my family. For one, my grandmother was from northeastern North Carolina (actually, she was raised just over the state line in Virginia, and she was actually born in a house right on the border).
This is the house:
There were no Cherokee living in northeastern North Carolina, and in fact the names of the local tribes were sustained mainly by geographical names or political units: Nansemond County, the Chowan River, the Meherrin River, Tuscarora Beach.
Interestingly, some of the people who retained an Indian identity in this area claimed to be Cherokee. Descendants of Tobias Lassiter (1749-1803) of Gates County, North Carolina, for instance, claimed that he was a “Cherokee Indian of the Nottoway Tribe.” (I am as certain as I can be the the Lassiters did have indigenous heritage, but they were most likely linked to the Chowanoke. There was an 1814 marriage between Henry Lassiter and Betsy Robbins, for instance.)
My grandmother did mention the possibility of having Native American ancestors on a few occasions. One was when she saw a special on the Lost Colony. She mentioned to me that her family had been in North Carolina since its settlement, and she wouldn’t be surprised if some of the Lost Colonists were among her ancestors. Another time, when she was older, she said she was quite sure she had some Native American ancestry, based on how her father, Tom Pittman, looked. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” she said.
It was a bit of a stunning admission from someone who had grown up in the pre-Civil Rights South, where if a white woman passed a black woman on the sidewalk, the black woman was expected to get down into the road and let her pass. I could never really get a sense of how my grandmother felt about these issues. When I asked her about that era, she would say, “That’s just how it was.” And yet she was the one who called me in November 2008 and reminded me to go out and vote for Barack Obama for president.
So we had no myth of a Cherokee Princess. As I did my genealogical research, I came upon the records for various members of her father’s family who were listed as mulatto or black in various instances. The first one I found was for Elvy Collins (1806-1870), the first cousin of my ancestor Graham Collins, who was listed as black when he died. (Elvy was a “double first cousin” in that his father was the brother of Graham’s father, and his mother was the sister of Graham’s mother.) This happened about 13 years ago, when I just started using the Ancestry.com website to piece together these families. You can imagine how curious I became upon finding this. I knew I had to research it more.
Puzzled relatives who were discovering the same records didn’t know what to make of it. Some of them thought these were clerical errors, others thought there must be other people who were the same exact ages and had the same exact names. So suddenly, we had a real mystery on our hands. Not only did I have a relative who looked like he was something other than European, but I had records that showed some of his relatives weren’t, at least according to those who took the records.
After years of research, and with the help of DNA, particularly matching tools on GEDmatch, I have been able to show, to at least my own satisfaction, that this Collins family was matching people from the “free colored” Weaver, Hall, and Owens families from Princess Anne County and Norfolk County in Virginia. In fact, I was able to narrow in on a piece of chromosome 13 that was being painted as Amerindian, liaise with the match on that segment, and look at his family tree to see he descended from an Owens from Norfolk and Princess Anne, one of the “mulatto” families from these counties.
These were poor families, scraping out a living in a remote, swampy part of Virginia, or on occasion, across the line in North Carolina. There was not a princess among them, let alone a Cherokee. In the 1850 US Federal Census for Nansemond County, my ancestor Graham Collins (the great grandfather of Tom Pittman, shown above), reportedly could neither read nor write. They were not Cherokee, but descendants of the local Nansemond people, sometimes referred to as Yeopim and as Poteskeet. These were coastal Algonquians, who spoke a language similar to that spoken in New England. They emerged out of Canada and spread down the coast from Maine to the Hatteras Banks.
At what point they crossed over into European society is unclear. There were plenty of members of the Nansemond Bass family, for instance, who, upon leaving the Norfolk area, were considered to be white by census takers. I will be studying the tax lists of Norfolk and Princess Anne Counties in the future to better understand the relationships between these families. I do wonder how many families with the “Cherokee Princess myth” actually trace back to the mixed-race families of Virginia and the Carolinas.