Manataka American Indian Council






Searching for Your

American Indian Ancestors
 By Kent Carter


"The history and heritage of the native peoples who inhabited this continent are a fascinating and significant part of the North American story. From the earliest time, Native Americans have been the subject of explorersí journals, travelersí diaries, missionariesí letters, tradersí musing, and settlersí stories. The nearly countless tomes that have been written in the past two centuries are only rivaled by the rate at which interest in Native American history, research, and genealogy continues to grow in contemporary America," writes Curt B. Witcher in the foreword of The Dawes Commission (Ancestry, 1998).

This interest in American Indian history is not overlooked by family historians. Today, anyone can search the Internet and find thousands of Web sites using terms like "Indians," "American Indian," "Native American," even "Cherokee." 

These sites discuss topics that range from religious practices and spirituality to food, jewelry, and art. But the search for family history-related Web sites is just as great. The trouble is that searching for American Indian ancestors has become both easier and more difficult. Access to information is certainly easier, but much of the information is inaccurate or incomplete. The product of virtual research often rests on questionable virtual facts. Researchers should make use of their computers, but there is nothing comparable to the experience of actually seeing a real document. Archivists and librarians of major repositories have spent a lot of time and tax-money preserving the records of American Indians. Visiting and archive or library in person is well worth the effort.

Beginning Research
If you have done good basic genealogical research and one of the names on your family tree may be an American Indian, you should first determine the tribal affiliation of that ancestor. John R. Swantonís, The Indian Tribes of North America, published by the Smithsonian Institution Press provides information on more than 600 tribes, sub-tribes, and bands. The Smithsonianís twenty volume Handbook of North American Indians provides even more details about tribal domains and activities. Muriel H. Wrightís A Guide to the Indian Tribes of Oklahoma and W. W. Newcombís The Indians of Texas are also valuable sources of information for those geographic areas.

Once youíve narrowed your research target to a tribe or tribes, do some basic homework on tribal history. Begin with a good general survey such as William T. Haganís American Indians or Angie Deboís A History of the Indians of the United States. Any time spent on background reading will enable you to evaluate the accuracy of family legends about "Indian princesses" or "Oklahoma land titles." Then read at least two books on your particular tribe and make sure one of them was published by a university press. A tribal history published by a university press has been peer-reviewed and is more likely to have names and dates that are correct. A number of sites on the Internet such as CyndisList provide extensive bibliographies of books available on every tribe, but the quality of books varies tremendously and far too many are factually-challenged and poorly written.

Federal Records
Next, search for your elusive ancestor in official records. For federal records, the best place to start is the Guide to Records in the National Archives of the United States Relating to American Indians, compiled by Edward Hill in 1981. It is available from the Government Printing Office and contains descriptions of records created by every federal agency including the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Some of the records mentioned in the Guide have been reproduced on microfilm and are listed in American Indians: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Web site is the best source for information about the availability of the Select List and microfilm publications. Some of the records are available online through the National Archives Information Locator (NAIL), which is accessible through the NARA Web site. Although it is possible to do some name searches through NAIL, particularly for enrollment records of the Five Civilized Tribes, most researchers are frustrated that only a very small portion of the vast holdings of the National Archives can be searched online. Companies such as have digitized some NARA holdings (or indexes to them) and provide online access.

Records created by the numerous Indian agencies of the BIA are the primary source for documenting that an ancestor was recognized by the federal government as a member of a tribe. For now, you will have to visit the National Archives or one of its regional branches for access to most of those records. Each regional branch has records for a particular geographic area and the main NARA Web site contains links to pages for each regional branch that provide information about holdings, location of facilities, and hours of operation. Once you determine what regional archives holds the records of the Indian agency responsible for your ancestorís tribe, the search can really begin.

Unfortunately, Indian agents did not create records with the needs of todayís family historians in mind. Most of the files are accounting records, narrative reports, and correspondence between the agent and his superiors in Washington, DC. When an agent did record information about an individual, it generally related to the payment of money, the allotment of land and its subsequent lease or sale, and the determination of heirs entitled to inherit a deceased Indianís land or money. When it exists, that type of information can be very useful, but researchers must remember that the agent was only keeping track of people who were recognized as members of the tribe (either by the federal government or the tribal government) and only those who actually resided with the bulk of the tribe on a reservation or within the tribeís recognized domain. If the ancestor moved away from the tribe for whatever reason or avoided contact with the federal government, there will probably be no mention of him or her in the agentís records.

Federal and Tribal Census Records
Such ancestors can often be found in the regular federal population censuses that were taken every ten years, but they will usually be enumerated as "white." Indians were not enumerated as a separate race until the 1860 census, but even after that very few people who were not living with the majority of their tribe were listed as "Indian."

The migration of American Indians to urban areas that began in World War II and was encouraged by the federal government in the 1950s can be documented in the census returns. The number of people who told census takers they were Indian tripled from 1960 to 1990 to 1.8 million. Future generations of family historians will be able to find ancestors who identified themselves on the census as American Indian, but the record in the census will likely not meet the burden of proof required by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for official recognition as an American Indian.

Another challenge for present-day family historians is finding their American Indian ancestor on an official tribal census roll. Agents were required by an act of Congress of 4 July 1884 (23 Stat. 98) to submit annual rolls that listed each Indianís name, age or date of birth, gender, and relationship to the head of the family. Beginning in 1930, the rolls also included degree of blood and marital status. The rolls that have survived for the period 1885 to 1940 have been reproduced as National Archives Microfilm Publication M595. The Select Catalog provides a list of the contents of each of the 692 rolls of microfilm, which are available in many libraries and through various rental programs. Also, almost every tribe now has a cultural/research center with a Web site; check those to see if the rolls for the tribe you are interested in have been made available online. The tribal Web sites and the Web sites for the individual Regional Archives of NARA are probably the best source for information about rolls taken before 1885 and after 1940. In general, earlier census rolls contain less information and may only be lists of names.

One source of lists that is often overlooked is the Congressional Serial Set, which contains documents received by Congress from various sources and reports published by congressional committees. Many of these documents relate to claims against the government for Indian depredations or claims by Indians for rights under treaties. Steven L. Johnsonís Guide to American Indian Documents in the Congressional Serial Set: 1817-1889 can be used to access these documents.

Prior to 1789 there was no federal government, so there were no federal Indian agents to make rolls of any kind. From 1774 to 1789 the Continental and Confederation congresses were in charge of relations with American Indians and most of those records have been reproduced as National Archives Microfilm Publication M247. Documents about individuals and tribes can be located using the five-volume name and subject Index to the Papers of the Continental Congress compiled by John Butler and published by the Government Printing Office. The single-volume Index to Journals of the Continental Congress compiled by Kenneth E. Harris and Steven D. Tilley is helpful for locating documents related to Indian affairs.

The Web sites maintained by the various state archival institutions are the best source for information about records created during the period when the British and colonial governments controlled Indian affairs. But tracing American Indian ancestry back to the colonial period requires a great deal of luck, and to go any further back is almost impossible.

Land Allotment Records
Under the General Allotment Act of 1887 and subsequent legislation, the federal government assigned (allotted) land to each of the recognized members of most tribes. These allotment rolls (sometimes called final rolls) became the basis for distribution of tribal assets and are still used by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and many of the tribal governments as the basis for all future recognition. For example, to be recognized by the BIA as a member of one of the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole) a person must be able to prove that he or she is a descendant of someone who appears on the Dawes rolls, which were taken between 1898 and 1914. Remember that not everyone who received land in Oklahoma or on an Indian reservation did so because they were a recognized member of a tribe. Much of the land allotted to Indians or left over after the allotment process was completed was sold or leased to non-Indians, and many of the Indians who got land quickly sold it.

Researchers can access the Dawes rolls through NAIL,, and a number of other sites, but rolls for other tribes may be more difficult to use.

Financial, School, and Health Records
The federal government continued to make per capita payments to many tribes even after allotment. These payment rolls are sometimes used as the basis for recognition. The federal governmentís efforts to encourage the growth of tribal governments under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and then to abolish them under the Termination Policy of the 1950s generated a number of rolls. NARAís Regional Archives have rolls taken after 1934 for many tribes, and some tribal cultural centers permit access to the material they hold. Some tribes, however, are trying to restrict access by non-members to all their rolls on the grounds that it is an invasion of privacy.

Also, the Bureau of Indian Affairs required submission of a Proof of Heirship form by applicants for any money due a deceased recognized tribal member. These forms and related probate files are often not well indexed and many are still in the custody of Bureau of Indian Affairs offices and are usually subject to privacy restrictions.

The BIA also managed the financial affairs of many Indians who were considered not competent to manage their own finances. Individual Indian Money files for these "Restricted Indians" contain applications for authority to spend money, vouchers, receipts, and related correspondence but are subject to privacy restrictions if the individual is still living or if the records are less than seventy-five years old.

Records from Indian hospitals operated by the BIA before 1951 are almost non-existent and records created after that date by the Public Health Service (PHS) that took over the operations are generally still in the custody of the PHS and restricted.

If an ancestor attended a school operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, either on a reservation or one of the non-reservation boarding schools, the records maintained by the school often contain genealogical information. If it can be determined what school the ancestor attended, and if the records for that school still exist, for the time period in question, the studentís case file will probably contain an application for admission and related documents. Sometimes there are even pictures of the student and correspondence with family members in the file. NARAís regional archives have records from many schools, but access to records less than seventy-five years old or to files on individuals who are still alive is generally restricted to the student. Some religious orders have records on schools they operated for Indian children.

American Indian research can be a richly rewarding endeavor. While the Internet should not be overlooked in American Indian research, nothing can compare to a visit to archives and libraries. With some perseverance and a little patience, you can unlock a vast cultural heritage.


Ken Carter, Ancestry Magazine, 1/1/2002 - Archive

Kent Carter is the regional administrator of the National Archives ó Southwest Region in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the author of The Dawes Commission (Ancestry, 1998) and has written a number of articles on Federal Indian policy.



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