Saturday, September 27, 2008

Native American Genealogy Research Primer

Begin by organizing your research. Check family records, including vital records, photograph albums, journals, Bibles, and letters. Write down as much as you know, including names of extended family members (aunts, cousins, in-laws). Sometimes, a big break-through isn't with the name you're researching, but comes from finding a relative. Record where they lived. Next, decide which branch of your family tree you want to research. If you find information on other lines, record those, but stick to researching the branch you have chosen to trace. Look for a specific record or event, such as the death or marriage of an individual. If you are just beginning and have little background information, you may wish to start with a census, particularly the Indian Censuses.

Research Steps for Getting Started
  • Start with yourself and work back to the Native American ancestor you're researching.
  • Record pertinent dates, including births, deaths, and marriages.
  • Include locations each person lived. If you have the date of any move, record it and the names of family members who moved.
  • Choose just one ancestor to research.
  • When you get to your Native American ancestor, determine their tribe.
  • Study the tribal history to get a feel for their culture and where they lived.
  • Learn what their migratory patterns were, if any.
  • Study naming patterns.
  • Some tribes were connected to specific churches and government agencies. Not all tribes have the same records. It is, therefore, imperative that you have a basic understanding of how your tribe was documented.
  • Choose a time period, such as 1870-1875. Concentrate on locating them and related documents for those years, only. Move on once you've found records or have determined that they aren't available. There may be years when no documentation of a Native American exists.
  • Some tribes, such as the Ojibwa, are considered citizens of both the United States and Canada. Therefore, understanding recordkeeping in both nations is useful.

Finding the Records of a Life

There are two major repositories that are especially helpful to a native peoples researcher in the United States. One is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The other is the LDS, either their online resources or libraries.

You may also wish to check your local library for the materials they have. Most have a family history section with some records stored. They may also assist you in interlibrary loans on tribal histories, family and town histories, as well as census and enumeration materials from the NARA. Likewise, state and regional historical societies often have local tribal histories.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

The NARA hosts regular genealogy workshops in Washington, D. C., and in its 13 regional facilities. Topics include Native American research. Click here to check the calendar.

The NARA lists the records they have available for research. These include Indian Bounty Land Applications, Indian Census Rolls from 1885 - 1940, the Dawes Commission, including an article on the enrollment of the Creeks, and an Index to the Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory (Dawes). There are many more tools for Native American researchers, including archival photographs.

The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Civilized Tribes was an act of Congress signed into law by President Garfield in 1893. Beginning in 1898, individuals were granted citizenship in one of five tribes based on specific criteria. The tribes involved were Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, Cherokee. The categories for enrollment as citizens of a particular tribe were:
  • Citizens by Blood.
  • Citizens by Marriage
  • New Born Citizens by Blood.
  • Minor Citizens by Blood.
  • Freedmen, who were slaves once owned by Indians.
  • New Born Freedmen.
  • Minor Freedmen.

Additionally, Delaware tribal members adopted by Cherokee were admitted to the Cherokee nation under another category. Modifications to the criteria were made in 1905 and 1906. Enrollments were recorded on various types of cards, which have been preserved on microfilm. The microfilms are available through the NARA.

Click here to browse the NARA's index of records specific to native peoples.

Ancestry's Dawes Commission Index, 1896
and Dawes Commission Index, 1898-1914
are by subscription. Try them with Free Trial
before you subscribe.

I do recommend the free Ancestry article, The Dawes Commission: Getting Organized

Federal Census and Enumerations

In addition to population counts and studies available at the Native American Census Project, other censuses are of particular use to genealogists.

  • 1930 Census.
    Native Americans were enumerated with the rest of the nation. However, instead of listing father's nation of birth, the census taker asked the percentage of father's native ancestry. A mother's tribe replaced her country of birth.

Later Day Saints Resources

We highly recommend you conduct an online search of LDS, both for the surname and for records. Check reference materials and who else is researching your lineage. Contact your local LDS temple to see if they have a library or where the nearest facility is. Ask how to go about using the facility and ordering records, microfilms, and microfiche.

There are two areas of the LDS web site that should be utilized by Native American researchers. In Subject Search, search by tribe or Indians of North America using the state where your ancestor lived. Also search in the Locality Search under the United States - Native Races or under the state of origin - Native Races.

A Growing Resource

The USGenWeb's Native American Census Project aims to provide data online for free. Each section explains what will be found. Part of the NARA's Dawes Commission microfilms are now online. Although not all materials have yet been transcribed, it is well worth browsing through. If you have to time to volunteer to work on this project, it will be appreciated.

Any family historian should check the USGenWeb for the numerous free online databases. Browse by state. Check the archives for specific record types. Read and post on the message boards.


The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1893-1914 was authorized by President Garfield in 1893. The report includes birth and death records, as well as other significant documentation of native people. The publication contains an explanation of how to organize your research to make the most effective use of this important source for those of Native American ancestry.

Indian Tribes of North America, by John R. Swanton, is considered a definitive study and is recommended by experts in the area of Native American research.

Atlas of the North American Indian, by Carl Waldman, is a crash course on Native American history, including pre-historic times. Illustrated with 110 maps.

More Tips

Local histories, diaries, and town records often recorded the names of Indians in their areas.

During the 1600s and 1700s, Native Americans were sometimes enslaved in both the South and New England. Slave sales, slave owners wills and journals may offer clues.

Native Americans moved back and forth between Canada and the United States. You may wish to check Canadian records, if you believe this may be the case in your family tree.

Check publications of the DAR and Society of Mayflower Descendants. Both have lineages that include documented Native Americans. Furthermore, articles in their magazines sometimes look at the relationship between settlers and tribes. In spite of past insensitivites and misunderstandings, both organizations are committed to providing a true and accurate glimpse at early American life and culture. Both offer college scholarships for individuals of Native American ancestry. The DAR supports schools committed to educating impoverished Native American children. Both can be a source of much needed information for researchers.

Explore local history organizations, including the New England Historic and Genealogical Society.

Every United States citizen has a Social Security Number. The death indexes are a tremendous resource for every genealogist. Social Security Death Index
is a free database, regularly updated.

RootsWeb General Search
is another free and often useful tool, especially for those just starting their family tree.

Indian Census Collection

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