Elizabeth Warren has claimed Cherokee ancestry, but has she got proof?

Elizabeth Warren’s Genealogical Challenge


Elizabeth Warren has been taking a lot of heat lately for claiming Native American ancestry. But what do the records say? And what do they mean?

Christopher Child, a genealogist with the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, reported on May 1 that he found an 1894 Logan County—in what was then Oklahoma Territory—marriage license application that proved Warren’s Cherokee connection. According to reports, Child said the marriage application had been submitted by William Crawford, the brother of Elizabeth Warren’s great-great-grandfather, Preston Crawford and on the application, William Crawford said he wished to marry Mary Long, and that his mother, O.C. Sarah Smith, was Cherokee.

But two days ago, a document—a marriage license between William Crawford and Mary Long—was posted on Breitbart.com by Michael Patrick Leahy, a Breitbart News contributor, and editor of Broadside Books’ Voices of the Tea Party e-book series.

The document came from the ReJeania Zmek, the court clerk of Logan County, Oklahoma and it shows a place to indicate “color” but neither the bride nor groom did so. Leahy says the marriage license application Childs says proves Warren’s Cherokee connection “has been exposed as non-existent.”

“When asked specifically if marriage license application documents were created in Logan County in 1894, she [Zmek] said she is almost certain they were not,” Leahy reports on Breitbart.com.

Is there another document that says Crawford’s mother was Cherokee? Leahy says there are no records that support that claim. “We know that between 1794 and 1799, Wyatt Smith and Margaret "Peggy" Brackin Smith had a little girl they named O.C. Sarah Smith. There's no evidence that “Peggy,” O.C. Sarah’s mother, was Cherokee, and her father's father—Andreas Smith—was the son of two Swedish immigrants, Hans Jurgen Smidt and his wife Maria Stalcop, who settled in Delaware shortly before Andreas' birth in 1731,” Leahy explains on Breitbart.com.

And so, Warren, whether she likes it or not, finds herself smack dab in the middle of a genealogical morass. These types of findings and research hurdles are what fuels the millions of amateur genealogists and the growing popularity of sites like Ancestry.com and shows like “Faces of America” and “Who Do You Think You Are?

Now, back to Warren. Leahy goes on to say that even if O.C. Sarah Smith was Cherokee, she was only half Cherokee, making Warren, 1/64, not 1/32 as most reports have recently stated.

Leahy doesn’t stop there. He says “it is more likely that O.C. Sarah Smith had no Cherokee heritage. Census records that listed O.C. Sarah Smith Crawford (her married name) as a resident of Tennessee in 1830, 1840, and 1860 classify her as white, not Indian.”

That’s not surprising though, considering that a reference to Indian on the Census form didn’t start until 1880. The 1850 Census gave options for white, black or mulatto.

“The U.S. Census records starting with 1880 included a reference to Indians, but may or may not be accurate. Earlier records sometimes regard Indians or mixed bloods as MU (mulatto) and again are not necessarily accurate,” said Myra Vanderpool Gormley, a certified genealogist specializing in Cherokee and Native American history. “There are various Indian rolls from about 1885 that identify Indians by tribe and name. Most of them pertain to Indians living on reservations and not in the general population.”

It wasn’t the only time American Indians were lumped into a group they didn’t belong in either. Walter Ashby Plecker, registrar of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912-1946, was instrumental in crafting the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. He argued that there were no full-blooded Indians left in Virginia, so everyone in the state should only be able to claim one of two racial backgrounds: Caucasian or “negro.”

And as David Treuer pointed out in his opinion piece in The Washington Post, many Indians have identified as whites to have access to more opportunities. “From the mid-19th century, the beginning of the reservation period, up through the early 20th century, regardless of how people identified themselves, being classified by the U.S. government as an American Indian automatically curtailed one’s rights,” he said.

Again, back to Warren. Even though there is a place on the aforementioned Logan County marriage license to identify “color,” this isn’t the case on all forms, as they vary by county and state.

Gene Norris, a genealogist with the Cherokee Heritage Center sent ICTMN a copy of an 1893 marriage license of Warren’s grandmother, Hannie E. Crawford, to her grandfather, Harry G. Reed, from Sebastian County in Arkansas. “You will note from the digitized image that Arkansas county marriage records show no reference to race, ethnicity or color nor does it indicate that Hannie E. Crawford is a Cherokee citizen, only that her residence was Indian Territory,” Norris said.

This further muddles the picture of Warren’s genealogical past. Just saying one lives in Indian Territory doesn’t make them an Indian. “Anyone could live in Indian Territory at any time,” Norris said. “When the U.S. federal government took the U.S. federal population Census for 1900, Indian Territory was divided into two sections, non-Indian population and Indian population, 61 percent of the Cherokee Nation’s population were not legally considered Cherokee but U.S. citizens who had migrated from other states such as Arkansas, living in the Cherokee Nation.”

Many observers have seized upon the inexactitude of record keeping, but in the end it has stymied those who wish they were of Indian ancestry and are looking for ways to become tribal citizens.

Not only does Leahy say O.C. Sarah Smith Crawford was not Cherokee, in a follow up article about Warren’s ancestry he says that Smith Crawford’s husband, Jonathan Crawford, was a member of the Tennessee militia who rounded up Cherokees and herded them into government-built stockades in Ross’s Landing, which is now Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ross’s Landing was a point of origin for the Trail of Tears.

“These were the troops responsible for removing Cherokee families from homes they had lived in for generations in the three states that the Cherokee Nations had considered their homelands for centuries: Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee,” Leahy says.

Leahy went on to say that Jonathan Crawford did not accompany the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears, but his association with American Indians didn’t stop at Ross’s Landing either. Leahy reports that Jonathan Crawford served with the same Tennessee militia once more in Florida when the group fought the Seminole Indians during the Second Seminole War in November, 1837.

Leahy also points out that none of Jonathan Crawford and O.C. Sarah Smith Crawford’s other seven children ever claim their mother was Cherokee.

There is one more piece to the Warren genealogical tale.

A Buracker & Boraker Family History Research Newsletter published by R.C. Boraker of St. Albans, England from March 2006 asks “Is there also Cherokee blood?” Under that heading, the newsletter reads: “Eldon Boraker told his children that his mother, Ella May (Crawford) Boraker, had one eighth Indian blood in her veins. That means her great-grandmother, Sarah (Smith) CRAWFORD who married Jonathan H. Crawford, must have been a full-blooded Indian.”

The newsletter goes on to say: “The first name or names of Jonathan’s wife is a mystery. In some records it is ‘O. C. Sarah Smith’ (according to Al Donica and Donald Richardson) and in the 1960 census for Bledsoe County, Tennesee she is listed as ‘Neoma Crawford’ (but ‘Nioma’ in the index). What do the initials ‘O.C.’ stand for and where did they come from? Was Sarah also called ‘Oma’ as a shortened version of Neoma? Lynda Smith uses the combined name ‘Neoma (Oma?) C. Sarah SMITH’ in her reports. What was Neoma’s or Sarah’s Indian name? Could it have been ‘Osee’ or ‘Osie’? Lynda Smith said, ‘When Neoma’s son William J. Crawford married his second wife Mary LONG in Oklahoma, he stated on his marriage application that his parents were Johnathan Houston Crawford and O. C. Sarah Smith and that his mother was Cherokee Indian.’ Ella May CRAWFORD lived on an Indian reservation as a child.”

The newsletter goes on to tell a story about Ella May Crawford who lived on the Indian reservation in Oklahoma. (See the newsletter below)

Leahy calls Lynda Smith, who is quoted in the newsletter, a “well intentioned amateur genealogist with a creative imagination.”

So it would seem that Warren’s Cherokee ancestry is based on family stories, which oral history does carry some weight in genealogical circles. Many people do have stories about Native American ancestors, but could Warren become an enrolled Cherokee citizen based on them? No, she could not.

According to Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton, deputy executive director for Cherokee Nation Communications, even if that marriage license said O.C. Sarah Smith was Cherokee, it alone would be insufficient. Warren would have to have an ancestor on the Dawes Rolls and then show state-certified documentation, like birth or death certificates, that she is related to that person, to be eligible for citizenship. Though Krehbiel-Burton admits, people are missed who should be citizens.

“Not every Cherokee was on the Dawes Rolls, so there are people who have legitimate Cherokee genealogy but are ineligible for citizenship,” she told ICTMN. “It isn’t a perfect system, but it’s the best we’ve got to by.”

She said the nation’s registration department gets an average of 1,200 applications for citizenship each month.

Related Articles:

Elizabeth Warren and the Politics of Being Indian

New Documents Surface Relating to Elizabeth Warren’s Native Claims

Brown Calls for Warren to Release Academic Records to Clarify Native Controversy

Video: Elizabeth Warren’s Controversial ‘High Cheekbones Comment

Elizabeth Warren Finally Teaches a Lesson on Native Identity

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mariesandvig's picture
Submitted by mariesandvig on
Please remember that we, Indians, did NOT regularly appear in the Census until we became citizens in the 1920's! The census counts citizens, not 'Domestic Dependents.' And among ourselves, the test we use is enrollment. If you're not Indian enough to be enrolled your not Indian. This makes you either a descendant or a wannabe. I think this woman claimed preference she isn't entitled to to help her get a job. And yes, I am enrolled.

fslafountaine's picture
Submitted by fslafountaine on
There was too much miscegenation and resulting children between Native Americans and the British colonists and French colonists to really know who has Native American ancestry. The intense warfare between Native Tribes and colonists created many single Native American women. The Native American men who survived the warfare sometimes had many Native American wives. The warfare also resulted in European women being captives of Native tribes and bearing children for those tribes.

rezican88's picture
Submitted by rezican88 on
Marie, you're wrong in saying "if you're not Indian enough to be enrolled your not Indian." Just plain wrong. What about the Chinook? What about the Lumbees? What about the Papago who live south of the US/Mexico border? Being enrolled just means that you're a member of a federally recognized tribe and meet the arbitrary standards set in place by the white government. You should know better, Indians are Indians, enrollment be damned! The US government doesn't recognize the tribe my family is from in Mexico, so does that mean I'm not Indian? As long as people like you adhere to these notions of "Indianness" that are defined by non-Indians, our people will continue to be separated....

ndncountry's picture
Submitted by ndncountry on
why should the US recognize a tribe from Mexico?

ndncountry's picture
Submitted by ndncountry on
There are plenty of enrolled members who have no idea of there own culture or of what it means to be an Indian.It takes more than a test to be an Indian where I come from

rezican88's picture
Submitted by rezican88 on
I did not say that the United States SHOULD recognize a tribe that is located in Mexico. My family comes from San Luis Potosí, which is pretty far away from the US/Mexico border. Bear in mind, however, that not all Tohono O'odham live in Mexico. Their lands lie on either side of the border and, along with several tribes, literally exemplify the old phrase, "we didn't cross the border, the border crossed us." So what is to be said of the "Indianness" of those people who live in Mexico, and are not recognized as being Indian by the United States? According to Marie Sandvig (the person to whom I initially responded), the "test" used amongst ourselves is "enrollment." But not all Indians are enrolled, and as you said, many who ARE enrolled don't know what it is to be Indian. The point I tried to make to Marie Sandvig is that the notions of blood quantum and enrollment were developed by the oppressive white system. Before the European invasion, nobody checked "blood quantum" to determine someone's identity. That is an imposed system of exclusion rooted in the goal of terminating Indians. As long as people like Marie continue to say that people who aren't enrolled are not Indian (and either descendants or wannabes), then our people will remain divided and squabbling over arbitrary, imposed, ridiculous definitions. I challenge Marie to find a Chinook individual and say that they are not Indian simply because they're not enrolled. I'd like to see how that argument plays out....