Southeastern Native Americans with Jewish DNA, but No Cherokee Heritage

Richard Thornton

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The substantial presence of Jewish, Middle Eastern and North African DNA in Cherokee descendants has been highly publicized, but several POOF members were also surprised to learn that they had Jewish or Middle Eastern ancestry.  They wondered if they were really Cherokees rather than being Chickasaws, Creeks, Choctaws, Shawnees or Seminoles. The answer we now have is, “Probably not. There are several ways that your ancestors and Sephardic families could have intermarried.”  

We are making a lot of progress in the research to explain Sephardic and Iberian ancestry among Muskogeans and Shawnees.  At the beginning of the project in the spring of 2013, it seemed to be a question that might never be answered, but the answers came in the 17th and 18th Century archives.  The historic evidence has been concealed, forgotten or ignored, but it is readily available on the internet and Colonial Era books. Here are the possible ways that Sephardic and Ashkanazi colonists joined your family tree. 

1. Dutch & Scottish Jewish traders:  Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish traders, based in New Amsterdam and the Delaware Bay began traversing the entire length of the Great Appalachian Valley, early in the 1600s. Immediately, the Shawnee, Tamahiti and Yuchi in that region would have been in direct contact with these traders. It was common practice for traders to marry into the families of their favorite clients. Dutch place names survive in several locations in the Southern Highlands.  There is even a landmark in the Atlanta Metropolitan Area with a Dutch name. 

A large number of both Sephardic and Ashkanazi Jews immigrated to Scotland when it went Protestant. The Calvinists in Scotland believed that the Jews were “God’s Chosen People” and therefore it was their duty to give them sanctuary.  Most of these Scottish and Ulster Scots Jews changed their last names to Scottish or English forms.  Many eventually migrated to English colonies in the New World.  Many of those, who emigrated, became Indian traders. Isolated from their Jewish communities, they lost their ancestral religious traditions. When the Great Awakening swept through early 19th century America, their descendants typically became Methodists, Baptists or Disciples (Disciples of Christ.) 

2. French colonists with Jewish ancestry:  When expelled from Spain and Portugal, many Sephardic Jews first went to France. They associated with the Protestants there. Most of those, who did not later migrate to the Netherlands, changed their names to traditional French forms. Some converted to Protestantism, while others both attended Huguenot services and observed Jewish traditions.  The situation in France for Protestants and Jews became increasingly unpleasant in the 1600s. Officially, neither group could legally immigrate to a French colony, but many did, by pretending to be Roman Catholics.  The contrabandeur, Jean La Fitte, was a Sephardic Jew. 

Many Jewish families prospered in New Orleans and Mobile. Many more French Huguenot and Cryptic Jewish Frenchmen became marines, so they could be posted in remote locations away from the suspicious eyes of the French church officials.  Captain Jean Baptiste Marchand, was from a Sephardic Jewish family that converted to Protestantism. Apparently, Marchand at least publicly converted back to Catholicism.  Otherwise, he could not have been an officer.  So those who pride themselves on being descended from Marchand and Seloy also carry the DNA of the Children of Israel. 

3. Chickasaw silver mines:  James Adair’s Chickasaw wife apparently was of substantial Sephardic heritage.  Many historians strongly suspect that Adair himself was of Jewish ancestry, since he was fluent in several dialects of Hebrew and could write in Hebrew.  His wife’s mother town was Ustanauli (or Eastonolee.) which was in northwest Georgia.  The Chickasaw town of Eastanolee moved to western Tennessee when the Cherokees decided to make their town’s location the site of the Cherokee capital, New Echota. 

Why Adair’s wife would be substantially Jewish seemed to be a conundrum until Marilyn Rae discovered a Chattanooga newspaper article from the 1920s. During the 1600s there was a silver mining operation at Fort Mountain, east of the site of New Echota.  The arched tunnel extends several hundred feet into the mountain.  So unknown to virtually everybody, including the stalwart Melungeon researchers, there was ALSO a Jewish mining colony in northwest Georgia in addition to several in the Georgia gold fields to the east. 

4. Talasee Creeks:  The homeland of the Talasee Creeks during the Late Mississippian Period was the Little Tennessee River Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. They spoke Itsate and were closely associated with their neighbors, the Chiaha. Their name, meaning “Offspring of Tula,” suggests that they either were the descendants of the original occupant of Etowah Mounds (E-tula) or else claimed descent from Teotihuacan in Mexico. 

The Talasee were pushed out of the Smokies in the early 1700s by the suddenly powerful Cherokee Alliance.  They originally settled in northeast Georgia.  Those who did not want to join the Creek Confederacy soon continued southward to the Okefenokee Swamp region when their lands in Georgia were sold to the new colony of Georgia. Eventually, the Okefenokee Talasee became known as Seminole. Their descendants live in Florida and Oklahoma today. 

The northeast Georgia Talasee formed a major province of the 18th century Creek Confederacy. Their principal chief, Hopoithle Mikko, wisely led them to be allies of the Patriots during the American Revolution. When much of his province was ceded to Georgia in 1785, Hopoithle led a major portion of his people to what is now Russell County, AL.  Later, some of the Talasee established a second town near Wetumka. So if you are a Creek with heritage from either one of those areas, you could be Talasee. 

Here is where it gets interesting.  I spent the winter and spring of 2010 camping along the Little Tennessee River Gorge.  While there, I discovered an inscription written in the Sephardic Ladino dialect that memorialized a Jewish wedding on September 15, 1615.  The boulder was at 5400 feet, overlooking the gorge.  It just dawned on me the other day, that I was also overlooking the original provincial capital of the Talasee.  It is quite probable that the descendants of that Jewish wedding and their Jewish neighbors moved south to Georgia.  They could have been mixed-heritage people from the very beginning, since mostly men traveled to the mountains to be miners. 

5. Bohurons: The Bohurons were a particularly warlike band of “Indians” in northeast Georgia, who mostly had Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic and Dutch names.  ALL local and state histories in Georgia label the Bohurons as being a band of Cherokees in northeast Georgia.  This puzzled me since the Bohurons were located in land owned by the Creek Confederacy until 1818.  Well, when you actually read the book that these 20th century histories claim to quote, the book clearly states that the Bohurons were members of the Creek Confederacy within the Talasee Province.  They apparently were descended from the European gold miners in the Georgia Gold Fields.  If your Creek ancestry was from the Georgia Mountains via Russell, Tallapoosa or Elmore Counties, Alabama, you could well carry Hebrew, Spanish, Arab, Turkish or Dutch DNA 

6. Sweet Home Alabama: The most consistent argument by some people against the presence of large numbers of Europeans and Middle Easterners in the 17th century Appalachians is the question, “Okay, where did they go?  Early Tennessee pioneers, John Tipton and John Sevier, mentioned seeing a few Jewish villages, but there were not many Sephardic Jews in northeastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, when the region opened up to Anglo-American settlers.” 

Paddle down the Tennessee River into northern Alabama, though, and you will find thousands upon thousands of Alabamans, who proudly trace their ancestry to a Dutch ancestor, who was one of the earliest settlers in the rugged, stony terrain, south of the Tennessee River. It was unsuited for the development of cotton plantations.  Some families openly claim that their ancestor was a Dutch Jew from eastern Tennessee or western North Carolina.  Most say that their ancestors were Black Dutch.  However, Svart Duits (Black Dutch) was the term that polite Dutchmen called their new Jewish neighbors.  

In the late 20th century several thousand Black Dutch descendants in the Lawrence County, AL area formed the New Echota Cherokee Band.  It is now Alabama’s largest “Native American” tribe.  Where they are located was always occupied by the Chickasaws, but the local histories have been thoroughly Cherokeenized to place the Cherokees in that locale when de Soto came through.  Actually, Hernando de Soto probably didn’t come through there, but one has to keep up with the Jones in North Carolina. 

To the southeast of Lawrence County, however, is a much larger area that was owned by the Creek Confederacy until 1814. Just as many or more “Black Dutch” from northeastern Tennessee and Georgia settled there.  Their descendants seem equally divided between claiming Dutch ancestry or Creek ancestry.  Those Black Dutch descendants, who look the most like the “Cherokees” in Lawrence County are the ones most likely to claim Creek Indian ancestry, because they think that is what an Indian is supposed to look like.  Well, by the 21st century most of us Americans are Heinz 57 varieties anyway. 

7. Mother Nature:  There is always the possibility that somewhere in your past that two people met and fell in love.  To them race, skin color or religious traditions were secondary to being with the person that they cared so much about.  In that case, no complex historical explanation is necessary.