Elizabeth Warren Ancestor Rounded Up Cherokees For Trail of Tears

I’ve ignored the mini controversy over whether Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren was entitled to claim minority status on the basis of being one-thirty-second Cherokee, for the very good reason that I don’t give a damn.  Now, though, some on the right have dug into her ancestry and discovered that the great-great-great grandmother who may or may not have been a Cherokee was married to a man who was  ”apparently a member of the Tennessee Militia who rounded up Cherokees from their family homes in the Southeastern United States and herded them into government-built stockades in what was then called Ross’s Landing (now Chattanooga), Tennessee—the point of origin for the horrific Trail of Tears, which began in January, 1837.”

Considering how little I care about people’s ancestry and how even less I ascribe good or evil deeds of people’s ancestors to them, this has zero bearing on my view of Warren as a candidate. Given the provenance of the research, I’m not even 100 percent sure it’s true. But I hope it is, just because it’s so damn funny.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Quick Takes, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. PJ says:

    Funny. Haha.

  2. But I hope it is, just because it’s so damn funny.

    Ha ha! Genocide kills me!

  3. Jeremy says:

    Seriously, why does anyone care about this?

    I have similar feelings towards this as when people start bringing up the topic that all modern day white people are guilty for crimes against Native Americans in the 18th century and should be punished. (No joke, I had a college professor say that.)

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Jeremy: I gather that the initial controversy has two aspects: Whether Warren got preferential hiring from claiming to be Native American (there’s zero evidence that she did) and whether this incident somehow diminishes her well-cultivated reputation for straight shooting. The latter would be mildly interesting if it hadn’t happened a quarter century ago.

  5. I expected more than “husband was apparently a member of the militia.”

    You don’t have a smoking gun there, you have a family tragedy. Well, even then just potentially. I assume they just found him on Militia rolls, and have no more. We probably have no idea if he was active in those years, if he was called up, if he obeyed, etc.

    So no, it’s not funny, and it would only be important if they’d found a Warren ancestor who called for, organized, or directed the forced relocation.

  6. Your headline is practically a crime, James.


  7. Dear idiot down-voter,

    Jame’s headline states as a fact “Elizabeth Warren Ancestor Rounded Up Cherokees For Trail of Tears”

    The body of his article says “Given the provenance of the research, I’m not even 100 percent sure it’s true. But I hope it is, just because it’s so damn funny.”

  8. (The honest headline is “Ancestor Accused”)

  9. Tillman says:

    It’s a blog, john. Not a newspaper. Just because newspapers don’t live up to their own standards sometimes doesn’t mean we should project them on bloggers.

    And it is funny, in a black comedy sort of way.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    Perhaps the word “ironic” instead of “funny.” Most people abuse and misuse “ironic,” so its a shame when an opportunity passes. Each time, an angel sheds a tear.

  11. anjin-san says:

    A disappointing effort from you James.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    Yes: it’s funny. Not the original crimes which obviously James doesn’t support, but the way this had played out politically. PC is the death of humor.

  13. Davebo says:

    I’m shocked, shocked I tell you, that one can no longer trust blogs like TheRightCoast or a premiere news empires like Breitbart.

    Actually I’m not shocked at all. Nor am I shocked that James thinks their “blockbuster stories” might actually be “100%” true.

  14. George Williams says:

    @James Joyner: Strait shooter? Considering she’s a staunch supporter of the the masters of demagoguery, Barack Obama, Nancy (we’ll have to pass the bill to see what’s in it) Pelosi, Harry Reid, Wasserman Schultz,I don’t know how you could call her a strait shooter. What a laugh! The Democratic party buys votes with promises. They are the party of spreading the wealth, as long as it’s not their wealth. Their leaders are hypocrites and closet Marxists..

  15. john personna says:


    I can’t imagine myself claiming that an ancestor was active, rounded up, based on such thin evidence.

    “Ancestor Accused” is funny enough and true.

  16. Last I checked, irony was a form of humor. And this (if true) is the epitome of irony.

  17. john personna says:

    @Chris Lawrence:

    I’ve watched a couple of those “ancestor” shows. It’s a common pattern that families have people on both sides of a conflict.

    Is it really ironic that grandmother times 3 was a Cherokee, and her husband was possibility put on the other side?

    I think the word is tragic. The only way you get funny or ironic (about him, or Warren) and not the charge is if you assume the guy cruelly turned on his in-laws with prejudice.

  18. john personna says:

    More likely the relocation was devistating to that family.

  19. Tsar Nicholas says:

    There’s a strain of dark humor embedded in that prospective irony pit, granted, but to my way of thinking the larger example of black comedy, so to speak, is “affirmative action” itself. That Warren and Harvard both deemed relevant her 1/32nd Cherokee ancestry speaks volumes about the extent to which leftism is a de facto mental disorder.

  20. john personna says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    You get that being a militia member, and being called up, is analogous to being a draftee, right?

    Would it be ironic if the husband of a woman of north Vietnamese extraction were drafted in the 70s?

    Should we all laugh if their children think themselves too Vietnamese? That their father was an “oppressor?”

    (And of course there is no evidence he was called up. The only “charge” is that he was a member, something we normally approve of.)

  21. PD Shaw says:

    Militias were not necessarily voluntary historically, but by the election of Jackson and the rise of the common man, I believe militias were primarily voluntary. (Lincoln volunteered in 1832) And militias in antebellum America primarily served two purposes: (1) conflicts with Native Americans, or (2) policing for runaway slaves in the South.* If Warren’s ancestor was in the Tennessee militia in 1837, he was probably voluntary and probably doing something entirely incorrect from today’s perspective.

    *Excepting during the War of 1812 and the Mexican War.

  22. Jenos Idanian says:

    This is a “family tragedy” for Warren? Well, as the formula goes, tragedy plus distance equals comedy.

    OK, lemme ‘splain this to you poor humor-challenged folks. It seems that Elizabeth Warren discovered, at some point, that one of her ancestors was possibly Native American. She then relayed that possibility as a fact to the rest of her world — liberal academia (but I repeat myself) where it is a decided advantage. In that world, people who are somehow tied to historically oppressed people are rewarded as compensation for past grievances — even if they never knew the people who were aggrieved. So Warren’s possible fractional ancestry was an advantage. (See Ward Churchill.)

    However, when she submitted herself to public scrutiny by becoming a declared candidate for public office, such claims suddenly became fair game for verification. And when it turned out that Warren lacked anything authoritative to back up her assertion, the possibility that she had fabricated the whole thing as a way to advance her career became a very real possibility. (There are documented cases of people fabricating a minority ancestor — in 1990, the Boston Fire Department fired two red-headed brothers who had claimed that their great-grandmother was black.)

    So her little story is crumbing. Entertaining, but not really funny.

    What makes it funny is when a genealogist looks into her past and finds a likely ancestor actually participated in the Trail of Tears — as a US soldier. That instantly changes Warren from “descendant of the oppressed” to “descendant of the oppressor.” That’s like finding out an Armenian Genocide activist who has spent years talking about how many of his family were murdered is actually a Turk. Or a guy who claims to be descended from American slaves actually being the descendant of a slave trader. It’s hysterical.

    And yes, this is all totally irrelevant — to most people. But to those who live and die by identity politics, it should be incredibly critical. For years, Warren’s supposed Native American (personally, I prefer “Aboriginal American” — it’s the most scientifically accurate) was a part of her professional identity. She was touted as a “minority” in a field where such were traditionally underrepresented, and still are. She was a (pardon the expression) “feather in the cap” to Harvard, who was under great pressure to hire more minorities when she applied.

    So, to now have not only her Native American status seriously questioned, but to have evidence (not proof, but evidence) that at least one of her ancestors was one of the brutal oppressors of Native Americans is a most delicious dessert of schadenfreude to those of us who have long been irritated at those who obsess over “identity politics.”

    Please, sir, may I have another?

  23. jgfox says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Of all the comments I have read over the last week, both here and abroad, yours sums up the issue most clearly and succinctly.

    I was going to post my comment … but why bother when your analysis is the best.

  24. @Jenos Idanian:

    Now, if we just assume basic human behavior and psychology, the relocation was a tragedy for that 3 times removed grand-couple.

    PD Shaw has actually made the argument that we can assume the guy joined to persecute his in-laws.

    That’s the kind of thing that drives me nuts about this modern look back. It is obviously, stupid, petty, and politically motivated.

  25. (PD, if you want to say this guy played such and such role, or held such and such position, you really better find some historic documentation. Otherwise, it is worse than a thin attack, it is an invented attack.)

  26. PD Shaw says:

    We know why people volunteered to join the Tennessee militia in the 1830s, it was to effetuate Jackson’s Indian Removal Policy.

  27. Davebo says:

    We know why people volunteered to join the Tennessee militia in the 1830s, it was to effetuate Jackson’s Indian Removal Policy.

    I don’t know that. Many volunteered to assist Texas in it’s war with Mexico. Regardless we are talking about only 1,000 or so TN militia members (3,000 federal soldiers).

  28. @PD Shaw:

    No one joined because his buddies did? Because the post-drill beer was good?

    Use a little basic human psychology here.

    And again, if you want to charge this guy with a role, find direct evidence of that.

  29. @PD Shaw:

    No one joined because his father did, and he saw it as a rite of passage?

  30. mantis says:

    @PD Shaw:

    We know why people volunteered to join the Tennessee militia in the 1830s, it was to effetuate Jackson’s Indian Removal Policy.

    You have an amazing talent for reading the minds of long dead people. Are you a certified medium?

  31. PD Shaw says:

    @mantis: Why did people join the U.S. military in 1941? We know the answer to these things. The Tennessee militia in the 1830s was (a) voluntary and (b) organized to remove Indians.

    It wasn’t to go to war with Mexico until 1846. There might have been some fugitive slave captures in some parts of Tennessee, but not likely in Eastern Tennessee.

  32. Jenos Idanian says:

    @john personna: Now, if we just assume basic human behavior and psychology, the relocation was a tragedy for that 3 times removed grand-couple.

    Yes, it was a tragedy for that couple. But as I quoted Carol Burnett, “comedy is tragedy plus time.” When one considers both how far removed (in time and lineage) from thic couple, and Warren’s own history, seeing this as comic is almost inevitable.

  33. @PD Shaw:

    Do you know the year he joined? Or again are you putting together a narrative to please yourself?

  34. FWIW, this is how they tell the story in Tennessee:

    The treaty called for their removal to begin two years from the date of signing, but the official Cherokee Council rejected the treaty and refused to leave their homes. Seeing the beginnings of a revolt on his hands, President Andrew Jackson banned all communication from Ross on the treaty. He then dispatched and called out state troops to enforce the agreement. His generals, however, balked at the orders and the Tennessee militia refused to aid them in disarming the Cherokee. The fact that the tribe had been sold out by a minority of their people did not set well with the militia members who had fought alongside the Cherokee in the War of 1812 and other campaigns.

    Emphasis mine.

    As mentioned in the story, Sam Houston resigned the Governorship and went on to become an Agent of the Cherokee. Davy Crockett and numerous others noted Tennesseans stood in opposition to Jackson’s illegal removal of the tribe and paid the political price for doing so.

    But hell, if you can have fun inventing a simpler narrative, why not, eh?

  35. al-Ameda says:

    May 11, 2012 … this just in ….

    BOSTON (AP) — Records show Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren identified her race as “white” on an employment record at the University of Texas and declined to apply for admission to Rutgers Law School under a program for minority students.

    Oops, Scott Brown was wrong

  36. jgfox says:

    See the article in Politico 5/15 in which she was touted by Harvard as:

    “But a 1997 Fordham Law Review piece described her as Harvard Law School’s “first woman of color,” based, according to the notes at the bottom of the story, on a “telephone interview with Michael Chmura, News Director, Harvard Law (Aug. 6, 1996).”

    Also today, Boston Globe walked back the 1/32 claim:

    Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in the May 1 Metro section and the accompanying headline incorrectly described the 1894 document that was purported to list Elizabeth Warren’s great-great-great grandmother as a Cherokee. The document, alluded to in a family newsletter found by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, was an application for a marriage license, not the license itself. Neither the society nor the Globe has seen the primary document, whose existence has not been proven.

    (Note: The correction references an article on May 1 which repeated the story; the correction now is appended at the end of the original online version.)

    Done and Done … to a crisp.