“My great-great grandmother was a Cherokee princess.” This is a claim often heard in the United States when people seek to have a link to a romantic Native American past. Out of the 500+ tribes in the United States, it seems the Cherokees are the ones often used to justify a distant Indian lineage. Indeed, a sitting US senator used unverified claims of Cherokee ancestry, and thus “minority” status, to get into Harvard and propel her academic career forward. A presidential candidate even made fun of her ruse by calling her “Pocahontas.” The distant Cherokee lineage is so often cited by many people in the United States because the Cherokees played an important role in the early history of the US and for various reasons, they traveled to different parts of North America as the young United States grew and pushed them out of their lands. Also, in the early part of American history, many Cherokees intermarried with Europeans across a wide geographical area. Many people have heard of the Trail of Tears and the forced relocations of southeastern native tribes to Arkansas and Oklahoma. Very few people know of the Cherokees’ migration to Mexico and the impact they had on their new country. This is their story.
At the time of European contact, the Cherokee homeland consisted of the lands comprising parts of modern-day North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. The Cherokee language is part of the Iroquoian Language Group, which supports theories of anthropologists that the Cherokee originally migrated from the Great Lakes around 3,500 years ago. This would also support some Cherokee legends that tell of a great wandering from the shores of a large sea and the eventual settling down in the southern Appalachians. As a footnote, in 1809 the Cherokee language was the first native language outside of Mesoamerica to have a written language, as a man named Sequoyah developed what would be called the Cherokee Syllabary. As a leader, Sequoyah will play a small role in the story of the Mexican band of the Cherokees.
By the time Sequoyah had invented the Cherokee writing system, the tribe had already felt pressure from the young United States. Many Cherokees began to migrate out of their homeland voluntarily, to escape the growing American presence. In 1806, a small band of Cherokees founded a village on the shores of the Red River in Spanish-controlled Texas and later this same group petitioned the Spanish authorities at Nacogdoches to have a permanent settlement there. The Spanish granted them their request. Between 1812 and 1822 Cherokee immigration to Texas increased and by 1822 there were 800 Cherokees living in Texas. By then, Texas was a province of Mexico. The new central government in Mexico City denied the Cherokees their petition for land grants while at the same time encouraging more Indians from the southeastern United States to settle in Texas, to offset the increasing numbers of Anglo-American settlers coming to the province. In the War of Texas Independence of 1835 to 1836, the Cherokees tried to remain neutral. As president of Texas, Sam Houston sought an alliance with the Cherokee and drew up a treaty with them guaranteeing their lands and certain rights. The treaty was never ratified by the Texas legislature and the Cherokees felt slighted. Some saw the new Republic of Texas as just an extension of the same United States that they or their immediate ancestors had fled. Many felt more loyalty to Mexico, which, although did not grant them land, did let them live in peace. In 1838 a number of Tejanos, the Spanish-Mexican inhabitants of Texas, joined with some militant Cherokees to rebel against the new government of the Republic of Texas. This uprising was called the Córdova Rebellion after the former mayor of Nacogdoches, Vicente Córdova. Rumors spread throughout Texas that the Tejano and Indian uprisings were being supported by General Santa Anna of Mexico who wanted to take back Texas for Mexico. Under increasing scrutiny, the Cherokees in Texas felt the need to migrate again. The days of the Cherokee in Texas ended with the Cherokee War of 1839. In two battles the natives were defeated, relinquished their 600,000 acres of land and were formally driven out of Texas. Most went north to what is now Oklahoma, others decided to go south.
As mentioned before, the Cherokees started moving out of their homeland in what is now the southeastern United States when the European population increased. The first group of Cherokees to cross the Rio Grande into the modern country of Mexico did so in 1720 and settled in what is now the state of Coahuila. Between the 1720s and the time of the Texas Revolution – a period of over 100 years – the population of Cherokees south of the Rio Grande only increased slightly and many of the original migrants had intermarried and assimilated into the local indigenous and non-indigenous communities. After the Texas Revolution northern Mexico saw a new influx of Cherokees seeking a political asylum called amparo from the Mexican government, which was granted by the governor of Coahuila. Hundreds of people resettled in the Mexican states of Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Chihuahua with the largest group settling in the town of San Fernando, Coahuila, near the modern-day city of Zaragoza. Here, in remote northern Mexico, these refugees were allowed to set up their own limited tribal governments and kept pretty much to themselves.
The isolation of the Cherokee communities in northern Mexico was short-lived, however. Three years after the last mass migration of 1839, the refugees received an important visitor from across the border. It was Sequoyah, the originator of the Cherokee written language. He traveled to northern Mexico to try to encourage the Mexican Cherokees to unite with the rest of the tribe that had been dispersed to Oklahoma and Arkansas. The government of the Republic of Texas had regarded Sequoyah as an Indian agitator and a threat to the new republic. It had heard about Sequoyah’s activities in Mexico and sent an armed contingent across the Rio Grande to arrest Sequoyah and take him back to Texas where his future status would be determined. Although over 70 years old and suffering from a lung infection at the time, Sequoyah escaped in the middle of the night while he and his captors camped near the Rio Grande, and returned to the Cherokee community outside of Zaragoza. Three local and powerful hacienda families – named Platinos, Rodriguez and Salinas – gave Sequoyah shelter and hid him from the Texans who scoured the rugged terrain of Coahuila looking for him. Exhausted and ill, Sequoyah died in a cave in Coahuila just a few weeks after his escape. According to some sources Sequoyah had believed that Mexico was the ancient homeland of the Cherokees and the source of all the tribe’s knowledge and wisdom. As this is not based on any sort of verifiable history, Sequoyah’s statement may very well have just been based in part on the man’s deep affinity and good feelings for the people he met while in Mexico.
Very little attention would have been paid to the Cherokee refugees in Mexico and their descendants if not for two things that have happened relatively recently: A rise in indigenous consciousness in Mexico and an increase in people claiming Indian ancestry in the United States. In the 1990s the Zapatista rebellions in the southern Mexican states brought to the forefront of the Mexican national consciousness the neglected rights of the indigenous. In 1996 the Zapatistas and the federal government of Mexico signed the San Andrés Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture which recognized certain cultural and political rights of indigenous people throughout Mexico. On August 4, 2001, President Vicente Fox signed into law the amendments to the Mexican constitution affording these new political and cultural protections for Mexico’s native populations. A few weeks after the amendments were added to the constitution, the Cherokees of northern Mexico petitioned the governor of Coahuila for a formal recognition of “the strong continuing bond that exists between the Cherokees and the Mexicans.” Governor Enrique Martinez granted the recognition without hesitation. Some have alleged that the move to recognize the Mexican band of Cherokees was a backdoor way of getting federal recognition from the United States government for people claiming Cherokee ancestry living in Texas. The person behind the Mexican recognition of the tribe’s descendants in Coahuila is a man named Charles L. Rogers, a resident of Brownsville, Texas. Rogers, who also calls himself “Chief Jahtlohi Rogers” is head of a group calling itself “Cherokee Nation of Sequoyah of Mexico, Texas, and U.S.A., Reservation and Church.” This is a tax-exempt “religion-related, spiritual-development” group and is formally known as “The Cherokee Nation of Mexico Texas and Coahuila Reservation and Church.” While one cannot assume a person’s or a group’s real intentions, some have alleged that by creating an umbrella organization to include Cherokees on both sides of the border, this group is piggybacking off of the Mexican state of Coahuila’s recognition of that band of Cherokees to get US federal recognition of people claiming Cherokee heritage in Texas. With federal recognition would come a whole slew of benefits for “tribal members.” The Eastern Band of Cherokees located in North Carolina is one of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribal groups in the United States. In 2011, the Eastern Band established the Cherokee Identity Protection Committee and in October of that year published a list of over 200 groups across the US and Canada claiming to be Cherokee. This “fraud list” includes everything from a group of mostly African-American people located in the Bronx, New York, to a small encampment of people in Oregon claiming Cherokee ancestry and the right to be recognized by the government. “Chief” Jahtlohi Rogers’ “The Cherokee Nation of Mexico Texas and Coahuila Reservation and Church” is not on the list and neither is the band of Cherokees in northern Mexico. The list however, is not exhaustive and is constantly being updated and revised. On the Mexican side of the border, the Cherokee language is not recognized by the federal government of Mexico as an official indigenous language, and that is probably because the descendants of the Cherokee refugees have lost their language in the 170 years of living in Mexico. No matter what politically-motivated people may say, it is unknown just how many people in northern Mexico are descended from the Cherokees as they no longer form a cohesive cultural community. We will probably never know the impact of these refugees on northern Mexico or on the country as a whole. As a new indigenous consciousness continues to develop throughout Mexico, the fate of the Mexican Cherokee remains unknown.
Various online sources.