by Kevin Cloud Brechner
In the late 1700's and all through the 1800's many Cherokees adopted the European tradition of using surnames and passing the name on to their children. Many chose European surnames such as Adair, Vann, Starr, Price, Grant, Hicks, Guess, Ward, Smith, Taylor, Ross, or Boudinot.
Some Cherokees translated the meaning of their Cherokee names into the English equivalent word, such as Bean, Walker, Bear Paw, Tadpole, Wolf, Locust, Flea, Cricket, Rider, Pumpkinpile, Acorn, Housebug, Pigeon, or Smoke. In most Cherokee cases the names made reference to a single animal, insect, plant, or part of the environment, as opposed to the compound names common to many other Indian tribes like He Who Thinks, Holy Bear, Little Beaver, White Buffalo Calf Woman, or Thunder Over the Mountains. Compound names did appear among the Cherokees but not as frequently, like Goingsnake, Bellowingsnake, Dreadfulwater, Going Up Stream, Big Drum, Arrowkeeper, Broken In Two, Swimmer, Buck Scraper, Old Blanket, White Man Killer, or Tobacco Mouth.
In addition, some Cherokees anglicized their Cherokee names by translating the Cherokee language sounds into the English alphabet. Examples are Oo Ta Wo Ta, Ooh Lah Nea Tah, Ahquatageh, Ko Tut Tih Nih, Kow Wee Te Tee, Te Ke Nas Ki, Tehital Leh Ih, Wah Wha UU Ta Ainih. As you can probably see from just these few examples, the possibilities are great for inconsistencies, confusion, multiple spellings of the same names and errors.
Many of these names first were translated to English writing when the U.S. government and military census roll takers were out in the field enumerating the Indian Nations. This problem was in no way exclusive to the Cherokees or even Indians for that matter. It was experienced to some degree by all the tribes and by the non-English speaking immigrants to the United States at the ports of entry like Ellis Island, when they had to declare a name. Errors naturally arose as a result of the different census takers' ears for translating the Cherokee sounds into English syllables. It also led to variability from roll to roll in how an individual person's name might be spelled. An additional problem was that the original Cherokee territory was so large that regional dialects developed. This too probably influenced the variability in the census takers' recordings.
Another related problem was the lack of standardization in the use of English letters to represent sounds. For example, are "U", "Uu", and "Oo" the same sounds? Are "Te" and Teh" the same sounds or different sounds? Are "Aw" and "Ah" the same or different? Is "Lil Lih" the same name as "Lilih"? Both names appear on the 1883 Hester Roll. Is "Oosowee" the same name as "Oosowih"? How about "Oooo So Wee"? All three names appear on the 1908 Churchill Roll.
A final problem is the natural evolutionary change of the Cherokee language. The demands of the last 150 years have led to many changes in the language. Foremost, of course, is Sequoyah's invention of the Cherokee Syllabary, After many false starts to develop a written language, he finally settled on a series of symbols to represent the different syllable sounds. This led to almost full tribal literacy in a remarkable short time. It also had the tendency over time to force regional differences out of the language. The same symbol was used to represent two similar yet slightly different sounds, such as "g" and "k" sounds, and "t" and "d" sounds. Holmes and Smith (1977) point out several flaws in the Syllabary. None-the-less, the drive to save the Cherokee language, when so many native tongues were lost, led to the standardization of the English spelling of Cherokee words. The Cherokee-English Dictionary published by the Oklahoma Cherokee Nation made great strides towards the maintaining the existence of the language for future generations, but it also eliminated many of the well-established ways of representing Cherokee names in English. For example, "Oo" was commonly used to represent the "u" sound, like in the English word "moon." The Cherokee dictionary now spells all those words with a single English "u". The Cherokee Syllabary alphabet has no symbol to represent the consonant "ch" sound, so those words are given the Cherokee Symbol for either the sound "tsu" or "tsv".
These problems come back to haunt researchers when tracing back genealogical records. A case in point was when I was asked to search Cherokee records for the relatives of people living today with the modern surname of CHUKALATE. That particular spelling was not found listed on any of the rolls. But the following similar names were found:
CHUC KA LUKA CHOO CHO LUT TAH CHOOALUKE CHU CHA LA TAH CHU CH OL LA TEH CHU KO LA TO CHU CHA LA THE CHUCALATE CHOO QUA LA TIH CHUCULATE CHUH KA HEH CHUCUERLATE CHOO KO LUT TO YIH CHUKERLATE CHOO CO LA TAH
Several other names were also similar, but not nearly as similar as these.
This makes it very difficult to accurately trace lineage back in time. Careful
scanning of the details of the application files of the rolls is important.
As another example, while researching the surname CLOUD I discovered at least
six different spellings for the Cherokee version of that name:
CHOO LO KIL LEH
OO LAW GIH LUH
OO GEH WE YOO
OO LAW GILL
OO GU LAW GA LUH
Whenever you are searching any Native American genealogy resources, you must be alert to possible alternate spellings. You must recognize that somewhere in the 1880's many Native Americans took on new names or anglicized versions of their native names. Before that time, it was not common practice to hand your surname on to your children.
It may become necessary for you to hire a native speaking Cherokee researcher to interpret the variation in names. That person can try to link the English spelling to Cherokee syllables to help determine whether the variations between two similarly spelled names represents the same name spelled differently, or two different names. For those people tracing Cherokee roots, it may be a frustrating barricade to cross, but the good side is you will learn a little bit about the structure of your native tongue.
Blankenship, Bob, "Cherokee Roots, Volume 1: Eastern Cherokee Rolls and Volume 2: Western Cherokee Rolls, 2nd Editon". Cherokee, NC: Bob Blankenship, 1992.
Chiltosky, Mary Ulmer, "Cherokee Words with Pictures" Cherokee, NC: Mary Ulmer and G.B. Chiltoskey, 1972.
Feeling, Durban, "Cherokee-English Dictionary", Edited by William Pulte in collaboration with Agnes Cowen, Charles Sanders, Sam Hair, Annie Meigs, and Anna Gritts Kilpatrick Smith, Tahlequah, OK: Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, 1975.
Holmes, Ruth Bradley and Smith, Betty Sharp, "Beginning Cherokee, 2nd Edition", Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
Mooney, James, "History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees" (1885), 1898. 1932), Reprinted: Asheville, NC: Historical Images (Bright Mountain Books), 1992.
Starr, Emmet, "History of the Cherokee Indians and Their Legends and Folk Lore" (1921), Reprinted Tulsa, OK: Oklahoma Yersterday Publications, 1993.
Woodward, Grace Steele, "The Cherokee Indians" Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.
Please note: This paper is public domain and may be used by anyone, with the provision that if you use it for profit, you send half the profits to the Indian reservation or reserve closest to you.
Census Records | Vital Records | Family Trees & Communities | Immigration Records | Military Records Directories & Member Lists | Family & Local Histories | Newspapers & Periodicals | Court, Land & Probate | Finding Aids