Warren's Cherokee Claim Based on Family Newsletter; No Marriage License Application to Be Found

The slender thread upon which Elizabeth Warren’s claim that she is 1/32 Cherokee rests—a purported 1894 marriage license application—has been exposed as non-existent. Based on a review of the original marriage records found in the files of the Logan County, Oklahoma Court Clerk’s office in Guthrie, Oklahoma, and the statements of ReJeania Zmek, the Court Clerk of Logan County, Oklahoma, it is likely that the ephemeral 1894 marriage license application never existed.

“In modern times we keep marriage license applications,” she said. “The way they’re issued now, you do the application, then you do the license. We currently do keep records of marriage license applications,” she said, explaining that this practice didn’t begin until around 1950.

When asked specifically if marriage license application documents were created in Logan County in 1894, she said she is almost certain they were not. She added that, when looking at the records of marriages in Logan County, Oklahoma in the 1890s, “if there’s a license and then a certificate I would think the license would be the application as well. That would be my thought. I’m thinking they came in, got a license, got married.”

Ms. Zmek also confirmed that no other news organization had contacted her to date on any national topic or to inquire about the validity of this purported 1894 Logan County, Oklahoma marriage license application or anything related to the 1894 marriage of William J. Crawford.

On May 10, 2012, the Logan County Court Clerk’s offices made a copy of the original May 12, 1894 marriage license and the corresponding May 13, 1894 certificate of marriage of William J Crawford, great-great-grand uncle of Elizabeth Warren, and Mary E. (Long) Wolford (found on Book 2, pages 157 and 158 of the records of 1894 marriages).

The original marriage license does contain a column for the race of the bride and the groom, but both groom William J. Crawford and bride Mary E. (Long) Wolford left the column blank. You can see both the license and the certificate of marriage here, along with the County Court Clerk stamp of ReJeania Zmek, signed by a deputy in her office:

1894 Marriage License and Certificate

William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection first brought the existence of this marriage license and certificate to my attention when he forwarded the link of an online record of it he received from  the same reader who contacted him about Ms. Warren’s great-great-great grandfather Jonathan Crawford’s service in the Tennessee Militia, which rounded up Cherokees for the Trail of Tears.

On May 1, the Boston Herald reported that the Warren campaign “finally came up with what they claim is a Cherokee connection — her great-great-great-grandmother.

She would be 1⁄32nd of Elizabeth Warren’s total ancestry,” noted genealogist Christopher Child said, referring to the candidate’s great-great-great-grandmother, O.C. Sarah Smith, who is listed on an Oklahoma marriage certificate as Cherokee. Smith is an ancestor on Warren’s mother’s side, Child said…

Child — who originally could find no Native American lineage in Warren’s family when the Herald broke the story last Friday — said he uncovered a marriage certificate at 4 p.m. yesterday after fielding calls from countless media outlets and even Warren’s own campaign.

That same day, ABC News reported: 

Genealogist at the New England Historic Genealogical Society Chris Child set out to hunt down Warren’s ancestry last Thursday. In less than a week, he discovered documents citing an 1894 marriage record that lists Warren’s great-great-great grandmother, O. C. Sarah Smith as Cherokee, meaning that Warren is 1/32nd Native American.

Also on May 1, Noah Bierman at the Boston Globe reported:

A record unearthed Monday shows that US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren has a great-great-great grandmother listed in an 1894 document as a Cherokee, said a genealogist at the New England Historic and Genealogy Society.

The shred of evidence could validate her assertion that she has Native American ancestry, making her 1/32 American Indian, but may not put an end to the questions swirling around the subject…

But Monday afternoon, he said, he discovered a few links. Warren’s great-great-great grandmother, O.C. Sarah Smith, is listed on her son’s 1894 marriage license as a Cherokee.

The source document  discovered by Child was reported by the Herald as a “marriage certificate,” ABC News as a “document citing an 1894 marriage record,” and the Boston Globe as “her son’s 1894 marriage license.”

On May 2, the Boston Herald reported that the New England Historic Genealogical Society had changed its story.  Mr. Child was no longer the spokesman. In place of genealogist Chris Child was Society Spokesman Tom Champoux, who now called the source document “a[n] electronic transcript of a[n] 1894 marriage application,” without describing the source of that electronic transcript.

“Being Native American has been part of my story I guess since the day I was born,” said Warren [today.] …

Warren’s statements come as genealogists at the New England Historic Genealogical Society were unable to back up earlier accounts that her great great great grandmother is Cherokee. While Warren’s great great great grandmother, named O.C. Sarah Smith, is listed on a electronic transcript of a 1894 marriage application as Cherokee, the genealogists are unable to find the actual record or a photograhic copy of it, Society spokesman Tom Champoux said. A copy of the marriage license itself has been located, but unlike the application, it does not list Smith’s ethnicity.

But 24 hours later on May 3, and a mere 48 hours after the Warren campaign triumphantly repeated Chris Child’s incorrect description of the source document, CNN reported that an unnamed spokesman for the New England Historic Genealogical Society dramatically walked back the reliability of the source document even further. Instead of a “marriage certificate” or “her son’s 1894 marriage license,” as Chris Child reported on May 1, or “an electronic transcript of [a]n 1894 marriage application,” the source for the claim that William J. Crawford stated that his mother was a Cherokee was, instead, a 2006 family newsletter  where “OC Sarah Smith is said to be described as a Cherokee in an 1894 marriage license application.” Incredibly, the unnamed spokesman for the New England Historic Genealogical Society admitted that "the original [marriage license] application cannot be located" (emphasis added).

Technically, Mr. Champoux’s statement the previous day was consistent with this new statement from an unnamed source at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. A 2006 family newsletter could well have included a report of “a[n] electronic transcript of [a]n 1894 marriage application,” but Mr. Champoux’s May 2 statement clearly gave the impression that the electronic transcript in question was copied from an original document dated in 1894, which appears not to be the source at all.

Instead of an actual official vital statistic document, the evidence that William J. Crawford said his mother was a Cherokee was now said to be a marriage license application (from a period in time and place where no marriage license applications were either created or stored) that was referenced as family lore in a 2006 family newsletter.

On May 9, 2009, Mother Jones reported that:

The NEHGS based its claim on a March 2006 newsletter referencing research by a woman named Lynda Smith. The newsletter reports that while digging into her own ancestry, Smith found a marriage application in which William J. Crawford, a son of O.C. Sarah Smith, listed his mother's race as Cherokee.

The NEHGS considers the newsletter to be a legitimate source, says Tom Champoux, a spokesman for the group. "Genealogists do reference research conducted by others, with further verification sometimes provided," he said in an emailed statement. "In the case of Native American research, it's not uncommon for families to pass down family histories orally, especially with earlier generations, as paper evidence and primary documents were not kept." But in this case there is a primary document cited—the marriage application.

Here’s that March 2006 newsletter -- Buracker & Boraker Family History Research Newsletters Number 34, March 2006, published by R.C. Boraker of St. Albans, England -- which quoted amateur genealogist Lynda Smith as follows:

When Neoma’s son William J. Crawford married his second wife Mary LONG in Oklahoma, he stated on his marriage application that his parents were Johnathan Houston Crawford and O. C. Sarah Smith and that his mother was Cherokee Indian.

Ms. Smith's unsubstantiated statement made in this 2006 family newsletter written by a family historian based in England, is the entirety of the evidence, then, that Chris Child and the New England Historic Genealogical Society has upon which Ms. Warren's claim of ancestry rests. Such evidence doesn't pass the lowest rung of credibility.

Ms. Smith’s scholarship, however, is somewhat dubious. Indeed, she can best be described as a well intentioned amateur genealogist with a creative imagination.

Consider, for instance, the  misspellings, run-together words, and factual errors in this entry for William J. Crawford made in Rootsweb.com by Ms. Smith. The record (ID I1981) contains some inaccurate information about William J. Crawford. Though it places his birth date "Between 1830 and 1840," it lists the site as Bradley County, Tennessee, when it was in fact Bledsoe County, Tennessee.

This William Crawford is a mystery....He may be the William Crawford whomarried [sic] Mary E. Long in Oklahoma in 1894. The statement was made onthe [sic] marriage application that his mother was O.C. Sarah Smith and hisfather [sic] Jonathan H. Crawford. It is not known whehter [sic] William wasmarried [sic] before he married Mary Long. He would have been over 50 athe [sic] time of this marriage.

William J Crawford stated on his marriage lisence [sic] application when hemarried [sic] Mary E. Long that his father was Jonathan H. Crawford and hismother [sic] wasCherokee [sic] Indian.

The full page of Ms. Smith’s entry for William J. Crawford can be seen here (note: Ms. Smith’s email address has been redacted):

Rootsweb Entry

No response was received to emails sent to Ms. Smith.

On May 10, a spokesman from the New England Historic Genealogical Society told the Boston Herald that neither the organization nor any of its employees would make further statements on the question of Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry. This statement came despite a decades-long tradition of providing genealogical reports on national and Massachusetts political figures.

Email messages and phone calls to Mr. Child of the New England Historic Genealogical Society were not returned.

On Friday, May 11, Thomas Champoux of the New England Historic Genealogical Society responded by email to my request for an interview as follows:

Michael, NEHGS is not conducting research on Elizabeth Warren nor are we commenting beyond what has already been covered by the media. 

Thank you. 

Tom Champoux


However, most in the press are still reporting the media meme that the claim of 1/32 Cherokee heritage, based on earlier statements made by both Mr. Child and Mr. Champoux of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, is accurate.

For example, Fox News Contributor Liz Wiehl cited it in a May 8 appearance on the O’Reilly Factor, and on May 9, Clarence Page said this in the Chicago Tribune:

At least she's not lying about her background. Historical records appear to confirm that she has Cherokee ancestors. But is her background Indian enough?

That question looms after researcher Christopher Child at the New England Historic Genealogical Society turned up evidence of her Indian blood. A transcript of an 1894 marriage application shows Warren's great-great-great-grandmother listed herself as Cherokee.

That would make Warren 1/32nd Native American, although it is possible that more recent Indian ancestors could be turned up in further research.

On May 10, ABC News Radio reported, "Warren is 1/32 Native American, according to documents unearthed by genealogists at the New England Historic Genealogical Society."

In light of the constant repetitions of the false information first reported by Chris Child of the New England Historic Genealogical Society in the press, William Jacobson over at Legal Insurrection wonders why the country’s oldest and most prestigious genealogical society has suddenly gone silent. "The fallout from Elizabeth Warren's claim to Native American status,” he says, “threatens to drag down not only her campaign, but also the credibility one of the premier genealogical societies."

These facts also raise serious questions as to the relationship between the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the Warren Campaign.

It’s time not only for Ms. Warren to fess up about the false nature of her claims of Native American ancestry. It’s time for those institutions that propped up those claims—the New England Historic Genealogical Association, the mainstream media, Harvard Law School, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School—to fess up as well.

Michael Patrick Leahy is a Breitbart News contributor, Editor of Broadside Books’ Voices of the Tea Party e-book series, and author of Covenant of Liberty: The Ideological Origins of the Tea Party Movement.


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