As European colonialism engulfed Cherokee Country during the 17thand 18th centuries, however, Cherokees began altering their social and cultural traditions to better meet the challenges of their times. One important tradition that adapted to new realities was marriage.
The Cherokee tradition of exogamous marriage, or marrying outside of one’s clan, evolved during the 17th and 18th centuries as Cherokees encountered Europeans on a more frequent basis. Some sought to solidify alliances with Europeans through intermarriage.
It is impossible to know the exact number of Cherokees who married Europeans during this period. But we know that Cherokees viewed intermarriage as both a diplomatic tool and as a means of incorporating Europeans into the reciprocal bonds of kinship. Eighteenth-century British traders often sought out Cherokee wives. For the trader, the marriage opened up new markets, with his Cherokee wife providing both companionship and entry access to items such as the deerskins coveted by Europeans. For Cherokees, intermarriage made it possible to secure reliable flows of European goods, such as metal and iron tools, guns, and clothing. The frequency with which the British reported interracial marriages among the Cherokees testifies to the sexual autonomy and political influence that Cherokee women enjoyed. It also gave rise to a mixed-race Cherokee population that appears to have been far larger than the racially mixed populations of neighboring tribes.
Europeans were not the only group of outsiders with which 18th-century Cherokees intermingled. By the early 19th century, a small group of wealthy Cherokees adopted racial slavery, acquiring black slaves from American slave markets. A bit more than 7 percent of Cherokee families owned slaves by the mid-1830s; a small number, but enough to give rise to a now pervasive idea in black culture: descent from a Cherokee ancestor.
In the early 20th century, the descendants of Cherokee slaves related stories of how their black forebears accompanied Cherokees on the forced removals of the 1830s. They also recalled tales of how African and Cherokee people created interracial families. These stories have persisted into the 21st century. The former NFL running back Emmitt Smith believed that he had “Cherokee blood.” After submitting a DNA test as part of his 2010 appearance on NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are, he learned he was mistaken. Among black Americans, as among Americans as a whole, the belief in Cherokee ancestry is more common than actual blood ties.
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