HOW TO SEARCH FOR NATIVE AMERICAN ANCESTORS
(NOTE: This article is being shared for personal use only. No part of it can be reproduced
or published without written permission from the Nevada State Genealogical Society or the author.)
Years ago, when I began learning how to search for my Indian ancestor, one of the most pleasant surprises was how many records are available for Native American research. These records exist from the early 1500's to the present. I’d like to share some of those sources and suggest some guidelines on how to find the records.
Four major things I would like to tell you about are:
I. Fundamental steps in searching for a Native American ancestor;
II. The ten basic types of records for Indian research–no matter which tribe;
III. Some important publications pertaining to Indian records and research; and
IV. Some leads on Internet for Native American research.
A large percentage of citizens in the U.S.A. have at least one Indian ancestral line. There is more than a 50% chance of an Indian ancestor, if your ancestors lived in (states named in alphabetical order): Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, or West Virginia. Then, there are the states of: California, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North and South Dakota, Texas, and Washington. And, of course, other states in the U.S.A. So, you can see why such a large percentage of Americans probably have an Indian ancestor. Today, there are over 500 federally recognized Indian Tribes in the United States.
A family legend that we had an Indian grandmother somewhere back in our ancestral line was my reason for learning about Native American records. Yes, I found her–Nancy Rainwater, a Cherokee. If there is a legend in your family about an Indian ancestor, I recommend you have the pleasure of proving (or disproving) that legend.
Lack of early written records for Native Americans makes genealogical research for Indian ancestors difficult, if it predates the white man’s arrival in America. Nevertheless, some tribes have verbally passed family legends along to their young–generation after generation. Just as some of our ancestors have personally passed legends through our families. Many tribes kept records. Needless to say, some tribes maintained more and better records than other tribes did.
FUNDAMENTAL STEP TO FINDING AN INDIAN ANCESTOR
The fundamental step toward finding your Indian ancestor is to start with yourself and work backward in time. Find records and proof of your own existence. Next, find proof of your parents’ existence. No, you’re not snooping. You are becoming a family historian. From you to your parents, methodically work back into each of those interesting individuals and lines that make up your ancestry (family tree). And, hopefully, you’ll find Native American heritage!
In order to find proof of your own birth and the names of your two parents, you had to know three things: YOUR NAME, WHEN YOU WERE BORN, AND WHERE YOU WERE BORN. As you “work back” into your Indian heritage, you’ll need those same three basic items: NAME (various spellings), DATE or approximate of an event, and probable PLACE of an event. The need for dates and places of events is where HISTORY and MAPS become invaluable tools for our Indian research.
You may run into some difficulty with your Indian ancestral names. Many Indians had only one name. And, an Indian name doesn’t indicate if the individual was a male or female. Generally, our Indian ancestors had a personal name and a title or honorary name. Their names frequently referred to a personal characteristic, and were often added later in life. Sometimes, personal names were changed at different events. Then, sometimes they just decided to change their name–or record keepers made mistakes in writing the Indian names.
Based on the time and where an ancestor lived, you can study U.S. maps that show Indian reservations. There are approximately 280 Indian reservations in the U.S.A. By looking at maps that show where the reservations are located, you can determine to which tribe your ancestor probably belonged. Note: If one of your non-Indian ancestors disappeared around an Indian reservation that was located near an army post, you should search for that missing ancestor in the records of that military post.
TYPES OF RECORDS FOR INDIAN RESEARCH
I. Church Records (1500's to present)
II. Removal Records/ Emigration Rolls (Ca. 1815-1850)
III. Tribal Enrollment Records (1827 to present)
IV. Annuity rolls (1841-1959)
V. Land Allotment Records (1856-1935)
VI. Census Rolls–Indian & Federal (1884-1940 & 1790 to present)
VII. Probate Records (1906-1921)
VIII. Vital Statistics (1910 to present)
IX. School Reports (1910-1939)
X. School Census Records (1912-1939)
Most of these records are available at the National Archives or at one of its fifteen Regional Branches. An up-to-date listing of these Branches (along with addresses, telephone numbers, and the states that each Branch serves), can be found on pages 197 and 198 of Tracing African-American Roots by Dee Clem (Las Vegas, NV: Gator Publishing, 2000). A copy of this book is at the Reno Family History Center.
Most material of any genealogical value for research involves records of Indians and their interaction with the U.S. Government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1824, the U.S. Government created the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to act as a trustee for Indian property held in trust by the U.S. Also, the BIA was to assist in providing education, health and welfare services for American Indians. Thereby, millions of federal records about individual Indians and tribes came into existence over a period of time.
These millions of records are available for you to research, and many of them are available on microfilm! You can find the ones on microfilm in American Indians--A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications, which was published in 1984 by the National Archives Trust Fund Board. This catalog is divided into Civilian Agency Records and Military Establishment Records. Many of these same microfilm records are available through the Reno Family History Center (or other LDS Family History Centers). For any of these records to help in your personal search for an Indian ancestor, you need to know something about the different types of records.
Church Records are the earliest sources for proof of Native Americans. Church Records with Indian data are available from the early 1500's to the present. To search these, you need to know the name, approximate date and place where your missing ancestor lived.
Intermingling of Indians among the “white-eyes” and conversion to Christianity, as well as adoption of the European way of life, resulted in a great quantity of genealogical data on Indians in Church Records. When an Indian was baptized into a church, they usually received a Christian name. Some of the churches involved in early missionary work among the Indians were: Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Mennonite, Methodist, Moravian, Presbyterian, and the Reformed Church.
In Church Records, you can find information on christenings or births, marriages, deaths and burials. These records can be found in various depositories, in local custody–like our Nevada State Historical Society in Reno, and some are available on microfilm through the Family History Center. Some Church Records are in private or state archives.
Two important books that cover unpublished Church Records are: Inventory of Unpublished Material for American Religious History in Protestant Church Archives and Other Repositories, by William H. Allison (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institute, 1910), and The WPA Historical Records Survey: A Guide to the Unpublished Inventories, Indexes, and Transcripts, by Loretta L. Hefner (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1980).
Removal Records are also known as Emigration Rolls. These records exist from about 1815 to 1850. They provide names of heads of families and some information about other members of the family. These records are available through the National Archives–and on microfilm through the Family History Center.
TRIBAL ENROLLMENT RECORDS
Tribal Enrollment Records are very important sources that are available from 1827 to the present. These records provide: name of head of family, his or her parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, and children. Plus, these records provide: ages or birth dates, marital status, tribal and band affiliation, and land allotment information. These records are available at the National Archives and at Tribal Offices of the individual tribes. Also, they are available on microfilm through the Family History Center.
Annuity Rolls are available from 1841 to 1949. There are 959 rolls of microfilm on Annuity Rolls. These records show payment in money to individual Indians. These records are especially important, because they provide the English name and/or Indian name–plus age, sex, degree of Indian blood, and relationship to head of family.
Since individuals moved from one Indian Agency to another, this sometimes resulted in a person being recorded in the Annuity or Census Rolls a number of times in a given year–but in various localities. Annuity Records are available from the National Archives and its Regional Branches, and on microfilm through the Family History Center.
LAND ALLOTMENT RECORDS
Land Allotment Records are available from 1856 to 1935. These important records provide: name of the allottee, age, sex, relation to heirs to the original allottee, location and acreage of the allotment. These records are available from: the National Archives, the Superintendent’s Office of each Superintendency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Regional Branches of the National Archives. They are also available on microfilm through the Family History Center.
INDIAN CENSUS ROLLS and FEDERAL POPULATION SCHEDULES
The Indian Census Rolls and the Federal Population Schedules (Censuses) are of UTMOST IMPORTANCE when you are searching for a Native American ancestor. The Federal Population Schedules exist from 1790 to the present. The American Indian Census Rolls exist from 1885 to 1940.
Near the end of the Reservation Period in 1884, the U.S. Congress authorized an Indian census be taken annually. In 1885, many of the tribes started taking this annual census and continued to do so until 1940. (But, not all tribes complied.) These Indian Census Rolls record name of the Indian and other information, as well as deaths in previous years–giving date of death.
The Indian Censuses of 1885-1890 are ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT, because these contain both the Indian and given name of an individual. Needless to say, the later Rolls contain more pertinent genealogical data.
For detailed information about the Indian Census Rolls read Our Native Americans and Their Records of Genealogical Value, Volume I, by E. Kay Kirkham (Logan, UT: Everton Publishers, 1980). A copy of this informative book is at our Reno Family History Center.
Some problems with early Indian Censuses were: (1) Censuses were taken only of Indians living on certain reservations at a particular time; (2) Many individual Indians were overlooked–maybe because they wanted to be; (3) All Indians on a reservation were members of the tribe, yet spouses frequently belonged to another tribe; and (4) Some tribes were not even enumerated. Another major problem with early Indian Censuses pertains to kinship terms. Relationships, as recorded, are not always the same from one record to another. In fact, the terms for relationships varied between the different tribes. For example, in some tribes the term “brother” also meant a “first cousin.”
The Federal Population Schedules from 1790 forward included some Indians, especially if an Indian was living among non-Indians. Many Indians owned land from the time of our first Federal Census in America in 1790; thus, they weren’t listed as Indians. The 1860 Federal Census was the first one to enumerate Indians as a separate race. But, at that time only Indians living with white settlers were enumerated. In the 1870 and 1880 Federal Censuses, the letter “I” under “Color” indicated that the individual enumerated was an Indian.
In 1890, a Federal Census was taken of Oklahoma and all of its Indian Territories. These records are on one roll of microfilm. This is a very complete enumeration of Indians in Oklahoma. For example, for the Cherokee Nation, the enumeration included: Cherokees, adopted whites, Shawnees and Delawares, those denied citizenship by Cherokee authorities, those whose claims to citizenship were pending, intruders and whites living in Cherokee Nation by permission.
The 1900 and 1910 Federal Population Schedules are ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT when searching for an Indian ancestor. Because, two population schedules were prepared–one for Native Americans and one for all other residents. A Soundex is available for both of these censuses. For these enumerations, Indians were asked: (1) To what tribe they belonged; and (2) If their mother or father was Indian–if so, to which tribe did they belong.
For the 1900 Census, in states where there were Indian Reservations, additional columns were provided. Some of the special information asked of Indians included: Indian name, nativity, blood, marital status, etc. The 1900 Federal Census is truly a direct route to finding Indian ancestors on a reservation. If you don’t find them on the Census for Native American, search for them on the other 1900 Census–they may be listed among the white population.
From 1910 to present, Indians are enumerated in the Federal Censuses. For example, in the 1920 Census, a Native American may be identified as: Black, Indian, Other, or White. In 1924, all Native Americans born in the Territory of the United States were declared U.S. citizens. And, each of them were allowed to also keep their tribal membership.
Some states have taken special censuses of their Indian population–by tribes or reservations. So, when searching for an Indian ancestor, determine if the state where they lived took such a census.
Probate Records pertaining to Indian ancestors exist for two very important types of records. That being WILLS and HEIRSHIP PAPERS. For Wills, the time span is from 1906 to 1921. And, for Heirship Papers, the time span is 1907 to the present.
Wills are especially important for tracing an Indian ancestor, because they provide: name of testator, residence, legatees or heirs, relationships, description of land and property (including their Allotment Number), date of Will and Probate, signature, witness, date of approval by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Indian Wills are among records of the National Archives. Heirship Papers are available from the National Archives and also through the Superintendent’s Office of each Superintendency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Like with research for any of our ancestors in America, most records didn’t start until the early 1900s. Vital Statistics for our Indian ancestors started in 1910 and continues to the present.
Vital Statistics on our Indian ancestors pertain to: births, deaths, and marriages. Again, to find pertinent information on your ancestor, you must know three basic things: Name, When and Where an Event Occurred.
From 1910 to 1939 there are many school records of Native American children. These records are available at the National Archives and at the Regional Branches of the National Archives. These School Reports provide: name of child, age, tribe, degree of Indian blood, date of entry into the particular school, attendance record, type of training, distance from home to public school, and various types of additional information.
SCHOOL CENSUS RECORDS
School Census Records for Indian children are available from 1912 to 1939. These records are available at the National Archives and at the Regional Branches of the National Archives. These records are important, because they show: names of all children of school age (6 to 18), age, sex, tribe and degree of Indian blood, distance from home to public school, name of parent or guardian, details of attendance or non-attendance.
NATIVE AMERICAN RECORDS AVAILABLE THROUGH FAMILY HISTORY CENTER
To find what Native American records are available on microfilm through our Reno Family History Center (and other LDS Family History Centers), search the FAMILY HISTORY CATALOG on fiche or on-line (http://www.familysearch.orgSearch/searchcatalog.asp).
You start by looking at the “Subject Catalog” and find “NATIVE AMERICANS.” Then, search for the sources you need in your personal research. Or, you can start by looking at the “Locality Catalog.” For this approach, you need to know a state where you think your Indian ancestor lived.
Let’s say your Indian ancestor resided in Oklahoma. Find “Oklahoma” in the “Locality Catalog.” There you’ll find Indians under “Minorities.” (For example, “Rolls of Indian Tribes in Oklahoma 1889-1991" is listed under “Minorities.”) DON’T STOP THERE! Under “Oklahoma” also search for “NATIVE RACES.” There you’ll find many of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Rolls that I’ve told you about. Or, look at “Native Races–Vital Records–Indexes.” Yes! Such records can be found on our Indians in all the states throughout the U.S. and Canada. You just have to know the WHO, WHEN, AND WHERE of your search, to find a pertinent research trail. Once you’ve decided which records you would like to search, make a note of the microfilm numbers and order the records through the Family History Center.
INDIAN RECORDS AT HISTORICAL SOCIETIES AND LIBRARIES
Numerous Historical Societies and Libraries in the U.S. have extensive collections of Indian material and records. Some of those include: Oklahoma Historical Society at Oklahoma City, OK (Has one of the most extensive and well-indexed American Indian collections in the U.S.); Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA; Henry Huntington Library, San Marino, CA; Newberry Library Center for History of the American Indian, Chicago, IL; Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT; Museum of the American Indian Library, Bronx, NY; Library of Congress, Washington, DC; and U.S. Department of the Interior Library, Washington, DC.
BOOKS HELPFUL ON NATIVE AMERICAN RESEARCH
Thousands of books have been published that pertain to the various Native American Tribes, their reservations and records, and how to do genealogical search for an Indian ancestor. Titles of some books that are especially helpful guides, when researching for your Native American ancestor, include: (1) The Encyclopedia of North American Indian Tribes–A Comprehensive Study of Tribes from Abitibi to the Zuni, by Bill Yenne (Arch Cape Press, 1986); (2) Atlas of the North American Indian, by Carl Waldman (NY, NY: Facts on File Publications, 1985); (3) GUIDE TO GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH IN THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES (Washington, DC: National Archives Trust Fund Board, Rev. 1983); (4) Guide to Records in the National Archives of the United States Relating to American Indians, by Edward E. Hill (Washington, DC: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1982); (5) American Indians–A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications (Washington, DC: National Archives Trust Fund Board, U.S. General Services Administration, Rev. 1984);
(6 & 7) OUR NATIVE AMERICANS AND THEIR RECORDS OF GENEALOGICAL VALUE, Vol. I & II, by E. Kay Kirkham (Logan, UT: Everton Publishers, 1984)–these books are of extreme value as a guide to understanding types of Native American records and where to find the records; (8) How To Search American Indian Blood Lines, by Cecelia Svinth Carpenter (Bountiful, UT: American Genealogical Lending Library, 1994); (9) Cherokee Roots. Vol. 1: Eastern Cherokee Rolls, by Bob Blankenship (Cherokee, NC: Bob Blankenship, 1992); (10) Cherokee Roots. Vol. 2: Western Cherokee Rolls, by Bob Blankenship (Cherokee, NC: Bob Blankenship, 1992); and (11) Cherokee by Blood, 9 volumes, by Jerry Wright Jordan (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1977).
NATIVE AMERICAN RECORDS ON INTERNET
Hundreds of very important sources for finding Native American records are on the Internet. Some of the more helpful sites (many that also lead you to further Indian sources) include: