Uncovering Cherokee Roots with Robin Swayney, Genealogist at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian | Cherokee, NC

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Uncovering Cherokee Roots with Robin Swayney, Genealogist at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian

Twenty years ago, when Robin Swayney, Genealogist at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, moved back to Cherokee to be closer to her family, she became very interested in her own family history.

Robin was born and raised in Cherokee, and her family was well known in town. Her father, a talented woodcarver, was the local barber, and her mom was the local Avon lady. Growing up, Robin says with a laugh, she couldn’t get away with anything.

After high school, Robin longed for a big city experience and moved to Atlanta to pursue a degree in graphic design. That led to an opportunity to attend Guilford College in Greensboro, NC, on a scholarship, where she studied Fine Arts. After college, she did paralegal work for a construction law firm and it was around this time that she started missing her family. Her sister had a baby and she didn’t want to miss out on being an auntie. She decided to move back home to Cherokee where she could have a place of her own and do something different with her life.

Back home in Cherokee, Robin discovered she longed for more information about her history and culture.

“You reach a point in your adult life when you’re thinking: Where did I come from? Who am I? I know who my grandma and grandpa were. I wanted to know more, past my grandma and grandpa and my great-grandma and grandpa,” she said.

She attended a genealogy class one night at the library in Cherokee and started digging.

Putting the Pieces Together

Robin’s great grandfather had been married seven times, resulting in a large extended family.

“My grandmother could tell you every one of her half brothers and sisters and their children. I wanted to know more about how we were all connected because there were so many of them,” she said.

Her grandmother didn’t talk much about her father, and Robin wanted to find out more about him and his family. It “opened up curiosity” for her, and so she started working on a family timeline to help map out her family roots. Through her research, she followed a paper trail that led her on a quest to find out more about her family.​

“It is still a journey,” she shared. “I just found some church records that my great grandfather is in, and some old newspaper articles that he was mentioned in. But that’s the neat thing about genealogy. It’s documented. It’s real. It’s fun unlocking those things that genetics can’t hide.”

“It’s putting those pieces together to make your picture of who you are and where you come from. It’s those family stories you’ve heard all your life—it adds validity to them.”

Looking for That One Key

In her role as Genealogist and Archivist at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Robin gets to help others who want to better understand their family histories.

“Most of them are looking for that one key. They’ve heard all their life ‘so-and-so’ was part Cherokee or part Indian. They’re looking for that one key to open that door and go: We are (Cherokee).”

Robin uses different Cherokee Indian historic rolls (1817 to the present) to help people determine if their ancestors were documented as Cherokee Indian. For $20, those curious about their Cherokee lineage can fill out their family names on a lineage chart and make an appointment with Robin to purchase roll searches of those family names.

The service, Robin is careful to point out, is for genealogical information only and has no bearing on the Cherokee enrollment process. Membership in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is closed except to those eighteen years of age or under who can prove that they have an ancestor on the Baker Roll of 1924 and that they are at least 1/16th Cherokee by blood. For more information on the steps to enrollment, visit here.

Starting Your Cherokee Family Search

A lot of the records that Robin uses at the Museum are in national archives, so not everybody has access to them, but for those wanting to conduct their own research, the museum sells many excellent resources that can help people get started, including Cherokee Roots Volume 1, documenting members of the Cherokee tribe residing east of the Mississippi River from 1817 to 1924. Cherokee Roots Volume 2 documents Cherokee members who resided west of the Mississippi River. 

For those wanting to set up an appointment to begin your Cherokee family research with Robin Swayney, visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian genealogy page for more information. You can also call Robin at 828.497.3481 ext 1007 or email robin.swayney@cherokeemuseum.org.

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