Jun 2, 2021

The Truth about Indian Princesses

Thousands of Americans have grown up with stories in the family that today’s family members are descended from a Cherokee princess. If you heard those stories in your family, there is one fact that you need to know about the story:

It’s a lie!

I am saddened to tell you that there was no such thing as an Indian princess, not in the Cherokee tribe nor in any other North American Indian tribe. They may have had Indian princesses in India, but not in North America. If you have a maharajah in your family tree then maybe you also have an Indian princess. If so, she did not live in North America.

The North American Indian tribes had no notion of royalty or anything like it. They did have chiefs, and a few of the chiefs may have even acted like kings. One Indian chief in Massachusetts and Rhode Island was even called “King Philip” by the English colonists in the 1670s. However, that title was bestowed by the white settlers. The Wampanoag leader’s name really was Metacom although the English settlers often called him Philip. When he talked several other tribes into joining him in a war against the whites, the settlers dubbed him “King Philip.” However, Metacom apparently never used that title.

The rules of chieftain succession varied from tribe to tribe. In some tribes, the eldest son of a chief may have become the new chief upon the death of his father. However, none of the tribes had kings, queens, princes, or princesses of any sort.

Perhaps the Indian woman who was most often called a “princess” was Pocahontas. She was the daughter of a powerful Algonquian Indian chief named Powhatan. However, Powhatan was not a king, and his sons and daughters were not princes or princesses. Pocahontas was not called a princess until after she married John Rolfe in Jamestown, Virginia, and then accompanied her husband on a trip to England. She was presented to King James I, the royal family, and the rest of London society. Apparently John Rolfe or someone else in the party decided to call her an “Indian princess” in order to increase her credibility amongst the English nobility. The title was fictitious.

The next time you hear someone claim to be descended from an Indian princess, I suggest that you quietly smile to yourself and let the person keep on talking. There’s no sense in debunking a perfectly good fairy tale if the other person wishes to believe it.

At least you now know the truth.