There is a new and bizarre twist in the Elizabeth Warren 1/32 Cherokee saga.

As discussed below, Warren’s claim to 1/32 Cherokee heritage arose from comments attributed to the prestigious New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) through two of its employees, well-known genealogist Chris Child and spokesman Tom Champoux.

After a scathing critique of NEHGS by genealogist Tom Lipscomb in a statement released to Power Line Blog this morning, and repeated posts by Michael Patrick Leahy at Breitbart.com debunking the claims, I reached out to NEHGS for comment as to its position.

After initially reiterating its prior refusal to comment, NEHGS released a statement to me standing by its methods (reprinted near the bottom of this post in full).

Yet minutes later, a new LI blog registrant using NEHGS’s i.p. address posted a comment accusing the media of misrepresenting what NEHGS and Child had said:

….  It seems that media outlets have actually been misrepresenting the research process as a claim of purported conclusiveness, which does not appear to be what he [Chris Child] had said at all. This genealogical organization itself has not released anything official, so I would treat what the media outlets have said about their research with a grain of salt.

In a series of comments (linked and quoted below) the commenter repeatedly accused the media of misconstruing what Child said:

It looks like he is not saying she is 1/32 Cherokee just that O.C. Sarah Smith, the person who had been claimed to be on the marriage certificate, was 1/32 of her ancestry.

The commenter denied being affiliated with NEHGS, and Champoux in an e-mail to me late this afternoon disavows any knowledge.

So what we now have is a claim of 1/32 Cherokee heritage which has been shown not to be true and someone at the source of that claim, one of the most prestigious genealogical societies, apparently blaming the media through blog sockpuppetry.

And it’s only Monday.

Some background on what led to this absurdity:

On April 27, 2012, Hilary Chabot, chief political reporter at The Boston Herald, broke the story that in 1996 Harvard Law School had promoted Warren as a Native American faculty member.

In the article, the Warren campaign cited no evidence other than family stories to support the heritage claim.  Child of NEHGS was cited but offered no evidence to support Warren’s claim:

Christopher Child, a genealogist at the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, traced back Warren’s family to her great-grandfather on her mother’s side and couldn’t find any proof of Native American heritage.

Christopher Child, a genealogist at the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, traced back Warren’s family to her great-grandfather on her mother’s side and couldn’t find any proof of Native American heritage.

He added that finding Native American lineage is not always easy: “Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama claim to have Native American heritage, but we were never able to find evidence of that, and in both cases we traced their ancestry fairly thoroughly.”

On April 28, The Herald ran another story in which Warren expressed pride in her Native American heritage, but again offered no proof.

When I spoke with Alethea Harney, Warren’s campaign press secretary in the late afternoon of April 30, the Warren campaign still was relying solely on family “lore” and not asserting that it had any documentation to support the claim.

Within hours, however, the Warren campaign was citing Child for a finding that Warren’s great-great-great grandmother, O.C. Sarah Smith, was Cherokee, based on a marriage certificate of Smith’s son which supposedly listed his mother as Cherokee.

On May 1, Child was quoted by Chabot in The Herald attesting to the existence of a marriage certificate demonstrating Warren’s Cherokee lineage

Desperately scrambling to validate Democrat Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage amid questions about whether she used her minority status to further her career, the Harvard Law professor’s campaign last night 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.

Yet the actual marriage certificate did not contain any information about O.C. Sarah Smith being Cherokee.  On May 2, NEHGS through its spokesman Champoux walked back Child’s assertion and stated that the information was contained in an “electronic transcript” of the marriage application (as opposed to the certificate itself):

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.

On May 9, as reported at Mother Jones, Champous of NEHGS indicated that the source document was a family newsletter:

The NEHGS based its claim on a March 2006 newsletterreferencing 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.

Leahy of Breitbart.com doggedly has documented problems with the family newsletter, uncovered that marriage applications were not used at the time in question, and confirmed that the author of that newsletter relied upon by NAGHS now disavows any claim as to Warren’s Cherokee ancestry.

One of the enduring mysteries is how and why a well-regarded genealogical society would rely on an obviously flimsy family newsletter to opine on a hot political topic.  And, with that, how did they find this obscure family newsletter in the first place, was it from the Warren campaign which also found an obscure Native American cookbook partially authored by a relative of Warren?

These are all questions which have led author and genealogist Lipscomb to issue a statement via Power Line Blog calling into question the professionalism and motives of Child and NEHGS.

I don’t question motives, but I do want to question facts.  As I noted previously, prior to today NEHGS had declined to comment, but after Lipscomb’s statement I reached out again this morning to force the issue.

Initially, NEHGS refused to comment, but finally issued a statement.  Here is the e-mail exchange:

WAJ to Thomas R. Wilcox, V.P. & Acting CEO, NEHGS (9:36 a.m.)

I request that NEHGS clarify NEHGS’s position on the Elizabeth Warren ancestry question, and release not only the research upon which NEHGS employees opined in the media, but also all communications, if any, with the Warren campaign.

My communications with Mr. Champoux are below, but I request comment again in light of a statement released today by Thomas Lipscomb, Annenberg Center Senior Fellow and a member of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, reprinted here, http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2012/05/tom-lipscomb-mrs-warrens-profession-contd.php.

I would appreciate hearing from you this morning, if possible, so that I can include NEHGS’s position in the post I will be writing. If Mr. Child has a statement in response to Mr. Lipscomb, I would include such statement as well.

Wilcox to WAJ (11:56 a.m.):

Mr. Jacobson – Thanks for your email. NEHGS does not have “a position” on the Elizabeth Warren ancestry issue particularly as the “story” has become a clearly political one and our society does not take political positions. – Thomas R Wilcox, Vice President & Acting CEO.

 WAJ to Wilcox (12:20 p.m.):

Yet two employees of NEHGS took a position in public on this “political” issue based upon documentation which has been called into question. Is NEHGS going to stand by its employees’ public statements or correct them? If NEHGS believes the statements were inaccurate, don’t you feel it has an institutional obligation to correct the record?

WAJ to Child (12:48 p.m.):

As I’m sure you are aware, NEHGS (see below) will not comment substantively in response to my request sent earlier today. Since the statement by Mr. Lipscomb called into question your conduct, are you willing to take a position in your individual capacity, apart from NEHGS? Also, are you willing to confirm or deny that you have any communications with the Warren campaign regarding this issue, and if so, are you willing to say when those communications took place and what the substance was?

Please respond by 3 p.m. so that I may include your response to Mr. Lipscomb in the post I am writing.

At 1:31 p.m. I received the following statement from Champoux via e-mail:

In reference to the recent Elizabeth Warren media coverage regarding her Native American ancestry, NEHGS wishes to acknowledge the following:

Per several requests from the media, New England Historic Genealogical Society genealogists conducted some initial genealogical research on Elizabeth Warren’s maternal family. During this research we discovered several family members who noted Cherokee Indian lineage via Elizabeth Warren’s 3rd great-grandmother, O.C. Sarah Smith (c.1794-1860s). This includes a March 2006 family newsletter that references Smith’s son William J. Crawford (1837-1900) and his 1894 marriage license application in Oklahoma. The newsletter states that, based on research conducted by Lynda Smith, the application includes a reference of O. C. Sarah Smith being Cherokee Indian. The marriage license itself does not reference race, and the original application, which Ms. Smith references, has not been located.

As one of the nation’s leading expert resources for genealogy and family history research, NEHGS stands behind the research of our expert staff. The process of researching and documenting one’s family history can often be lengthy and time-consuming. As part of that, genealogists do reference research conducted by others, with further verification sometimes provided. 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.

We hope this helps everyone better understand the nature and process of genealogical research to uncover all the various aspects of one’s family history.

At 1:42 p.m., someone registered here with the username MisterNewton33, and at 1:54 p.m. posted a comment which came from the i.p. address of the NEHGS:

You state : “Mr. Child stated publicly on or about May 1 that Ms. Warren was 1/32 Cherokee and that he had a document to prove it. That statement has been reported far and wide.”

Mr. Child did not state this. What he said was (http://bostonherald.com/news/us_politics/view/20220501lizzys_great_great_great_escape_cherokee_tie_found_5_generations_ago) “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

So it seems he stated that O.C. Sarah Smith was 1/32 of Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry (being one of her 32 great-great-great-grandparents), which would still be true. Also in the Globe article you reference, http://articles.boston.com/2012-05-01/metro/31488941_1_cherokee-nation-elizabeth-warren-dawes-commission, states “Child cautioned that the search for ancestry often takes a long time and that more information could still emerge as he continues to research the issue.”

This actually seems like the newsletter was probably what the genealogist had seen all along and that he was cautioning that more research was needed, i.e. to see if such a record did in fact exist. It seems that media outlets have actually been misrepresenting the research process as a claim of purported conclusiveness, which does not appear to be what he had said at all. This genealogical organization itself has not released anything official, so I would treat what the media outlets have said about their research with a grain of salt.

That claim, that Child was talking in the abstract and not about Warren being 1/32 Cherokee, is not supported by The Herald May 1 article, unless Chabot misrepresented the context of her interview with Child (which I doubt):

Desperately scrambling to validate Democrat Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage amid questions about whether she used her minority status to further her career, the Harvard Law professor’s campaign last night 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.

When I posted a responsive comment with the above quotation, the person from NEHGS responded:

It looks like he is not saying she is 1/32 Cherokee just that O.C. Sarah Smith, the person who had been claimed to be on the marriage certificate, was 1/32 of her ancestry.

And after I questioned whether the author was accusing Chabot of making the connection erroneously, he responded:

No, that appears to be from this newsletter, I just don’t see anywhere where Child says that O.C. Sarah Smith was 100% Cherokee, only that O.C. Sarah Smith was 1/32 of Warren’s ancestry. It seems like he was saying more research was needed, not only on whether or not such a document existed, but on O.C. Sarah Smith herself, and media outlets have a claimed a degree of certainty that Child himself was cautioning against, as he said “Child cautioned that the search for ancestry often takes a long time and that more information could still emerge as he continues to research the issue.”

When I questioned whether the commenter was “with NEHGS or somehow know[s] Child”, he responded:

No I have just been following this story with interest. I have done some of my own genealogy although I am not a member of NEHGS. I have read some genealogical articles by Child in some of the journals and they are very well documented, which makes me believe his issues of caution regarding this story.

Okay.

 
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