Dethroning Mary McDaniel, the Cherokee Princess

Like many families in the south, mine has its share of folklore. But the most pervasive story has been about Mary McDaniel Greene, "the full-blood Cherokee princess." The number of people in my family who believe this story is a significant factor in its pervasiveness. And we aren't alone.

Many families across the United States have perpetuated stories (without evidence) of the existence of Native American royalty, and their connection to it. This article goes into the pervasiveness of claiming Native American heritage you cannot prove. Similar to the camp of people who try to argue for benevolent slave owners of African Americans, those who claim Native American ancestry often do so from a combination of ignorance and racism. It's simply easier to legitimize the violent white expansion of the early Colonial and Antebellum periods if we can connect ourselves to the marginalized groups, and rewrite the story of their disenfranchisement. Controlling the narrative of occupation means we never have to confront the unpleasantness of the past. Claiming unproven Native American heritage is just another way of saying their land was really ours all along, and we have just as much claim to it now as they do anyway.

Addressing these perceptions not only as genealogists, but as recipients of Colonial heritage, is a much more relevant conversation to have before we try proving Native American heritage that may or may not exist. Until we do so, it's going to be impossible for us to be truly impartial about what we find. And I've already seen how true this is by the number of Mary McDaniel Greene descendants who are still trying to chase down that Cherokee connection, even if it means conflating her with someone else in the tribe with a completely different name.

Mary Greene/Jane Bird researchers, I'm looking at you.
Knock it off.

Proving and disproving Native American heritage happens on two fronts: exploring Native American records that exist, and using other existing records to construct or deconstruct the racial narrative. In trying to make any sort of connection to the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chocktaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole), the Dawes Rolls become a valuable resource. So too do the Indian Census rolls, which cover a much larger collection of tribes. They're both available to search and view on The National Archives and FamilySearch also have some relevant researching guides.

I don't want to spend too much time talking about this in relation to Mary McDaniel Greene, because it's simple enough to say I didn't find anything. At some point, finding nothing in records connected to Native Americans has to mean there is nothing to find. Which means we move onto the second front: constructing the racial narrative in what records we do have, and having enough social consciousness to believe what they say.

For starters, let's lay out what we know about Mary McDaniel, her son Willis Greene (my 2x great grandfather), and her other children from census records. She passes away young, so the only census on which she appears during her married life is the 1900 population schedule from Grainger County, Tennessee.

1910 U.S. census, Grainger County, Tennessee, population schedule, Civil District 10, p. 1-B (written), dwelling 14, family 14, Henry Greene and Mary McDaniel family; digital image, ( : accessed 28 Mar 2017); citing NARA Microfilm Roll: T623_1572.

Here's my transcription of the information, since the handwriting is difficult to read:

  1. Henry Greene, 24 (Married 8 years)
  2. Mary Greene, 26
  3. Carison, 8
  4. Alice, 5
  5. Rutha, 3
  6. Willis, 2 (My 2x great grandfather)
  7. Vestena, <1 year
  8. According to her living/nonliving children information, one unknown sibling is missing.

The race of every person on this record is listed as White. If Mary or her children were Native American, the census takers were instructed to delineate them officially as "Indian." Grainger County census takers also used the unauthorized "Mulatto" designation for those of mixed race. This would apply equally to those whose heritage was mixed with some combination of African and/or Native American ancestry. Note that it has not been applied here. The same thing remains true for Mary and Henry's children on the 1910 census after his second marriage, relocation, and subsequent appearance on the 1910 census in Rockcastle County, Kentucky.

It's also important to note some other details about my 2x great grandfather, Willis Greene, because they're going to become relevant later on. He was married to Laura Clark, daughter of John Clark and Nancy Bray of Claiborne County, Tennessee. Their original marriage record was destroyed, but his death certificate is available on Ancestry. Note another instance of him being listed as white.

"Tennessee, Death Records, 1908-1958," database, (, entry for Willis Greene; citing Tennessee Department of Public Health, death certificate 55-20023 (1955), Willis Greene; Division of Vital Statistics, Nashville.

With a birth year of 1873, together with the missing 1890 census, Mary McDaniel would only appear with her parents on the 1880 census. For more than a decade, I've been stuck in that position. All efforts to unstick myself were never conclusive because I simply didn't have enough information about her family. I did eventually find a clue on the delayed birth certificate for Rutha Belle Greene. Note here a third independent piece of evidence that Mary McDaniel's children were recognized as white.

"Tennessee, Delayed Birth Records, 1869-1909," database, (, entry for Rutha Greene; citing Tennessee Department of Public Health, delayed birth certificate no. D-515020 (1959), Rutha Belle Greene; Division of Vital Statistics, Nashville.

An affidavit for Rutha's birth was provided by her uncle, John McDaniel. It was the first clue I had that could positively connect Mary to her McDaniel family. But knowing that my Greene family appears pretty interchangeably between Claiborne, Grainger, and Hancock counties, I didn't want to make assumptions about where I might find them. Searching for all instances of John and Mary McDaniel as siblings on the 1880 census for all three counties was also inconclusive, especially since I didn't know John McDaniel's age. I did find a promising census record that at some point I put into my Ancestry Shoebox and forgot about.

The pieces of this puzzle didn't finally come together until I was searching through my cousin matches on AncestryDNA. Using the surname and location search feature, I was able to search through my matches' trees for anyone with the surname McDaniel who was also born in Tennessee. Eventually, I started seeing the same individuals repeating across multiple matches who were not yet connected to each other.

I started by looking at Thomas Jefferson McDaniel, and his descendants. No one matching Mary showed up among his daughters in any of the trees I looked at, so I went back another generation to his parents, James and Nancy McDaniel. Their names repeated across almost every tree I looked at. Systematically checking all of their sons, I found a likely match for Mary as a daughter of their son, Joel Joseph McDaniel. All of the supporting documentation I viewed in multiple trees listed all of these men and their families as white.

I was pretty sure I had the right family. Everything seemed to match up perfectly. And as I began looking more closely at his appearances on other census records, I saw it was his 1880 appearance in Claiborne County I had saved to my Shoebox. But the real kicker came when I was viewing his earlier appearances in the same county. Joel Joseph McDaniel appears within a 1 page range of John Clark in the 1860-1880 population schedules . On the 1870 and 1880 population schedules, he appears on the same pages as Elizabeth Manning, John Clark's former (unmarried) consort and mother to his Manning children.

Mary McDaniel's family were neighbors with Laura Clark's family for decades. I've had copies of these population schedules saved to my computer from my John Clark research for years without recognizing it. The answer about Willis Greene's mother and her origins have been in front of my face this entire time. But it took looking at my shared AncestryDNA matches to figure it out.

Piecing together what I've found for Joel McDaniel hasn't taken me very long, but for the sake of not making this post any longer than it already is, I'll be sure to follow up again, especially to confirm and fill in more details for his wife Jane, who I haven't yet mentioned. I'm also trying to determine the best way to outline the DNA matches I've found and their respective lines. Stay tuned for that, because I sense that it'll blow up several portions of my tree once I figure it out.

But the lesson for the day is one for anyone who claims Native American heritage. How many records have to appear, contradicting family myths and legends, before others will finally accept they might not be true? I don't have an answer to that. What I can say is Mary McDaniel, her children, her siblings, and her parents, her aunts and uncles, and grandparents, according to every document covering about a 100 year period, were all white. And if someone still thinks there's "an Indian in the woodshed" after that, no amount of evidence or logic was ever going to change their mind.

Burn their gedcom files to the ground!