Are you interested in finally searching out the truth behind that old family story about a Native American ancestor? Or perhaps you already know that the story is true, but you’re not quite sure where to go next.
Luckily, there are many online guides, records collections and specialized resources that can help you on your journey. Here’s where to get started.
Uncovering the Truth Behind Family Stories
If you’re just beginning your research based on a family story, the first and most important step to take is to determine what aspects of your family’s tale may be accurate.
Determining Native American ancestry should be done genealogically, by examining each line of your family tree for plausible connections.
Although there are several genetic tests that can tell you if you have measurable Native American DNA, these tests cannot tell you what tribe (nation), band or even specific location this DNA is from and, furthermore, these tests may miss Native American ancestry that appears several generations in the past (depending on your ancestors’ percentages and how much of their DNA you inherited). These tests can be used as a helpful tool, but should not be used as the only tool for determining whether or not you have Native American ancestry.
The easiest way to begin your genealogical journey is to record as many details as you can about your family’s Native American story, and then carefully cross-reference those details to known individuals in each line of your established family tree.
If you are unsure which family line to explore, or have few family history lines established, choose one that seems the most plausible and begin filling out the individuals. As you work your way back look for clues that may suggest a Native American individual. There is a wonderful resource with details for doing this from the American Indian Council.
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Before you go any further, consider reading through this guide from the Dept. of the Interior for help deciphering Native American family history and associated research.
Please remember that Native Americans did not always have or use ‘traditional’ Native American names, may have used both traditional names and English, French or Spanish language names, their names may have been anglicized for or by records keepers, and that they may have been spelled incorrectly and/or differently from record to record. Because traditional Native American names are oftentimes structured in a way that is unfamiliar to many family history researchers, you may need to take extra time to learn about these structures and consider that many variants are likely to exist when doing online searches.
Try this book for help: A Genealogist’s Guide to Native American Names: A Reference for Native American First Names
Where Do I Look for Records Once I Find a Native American Ancestor?
If and when you are able to locate a person or persons you feel may have been Native American, there are a variety of records to explore to increase your knowledge.
Native American persons often appear in standard record collections, such as the US census or in government or church birth, marriage and death records, depending on their tribal and religious affiliation, geographic location, birth and death dates and lifestyle. Start there as you would with any ancestor.
If the person was a fairly recent ancestor, the next best place to look for information may be with the tribe or band your ancestor belonged to. The tribe may have a list of resources available for researching members and likely has many established genealogies in place. Please note that many of these documents are private or will only be available to you once you have proven a connection to the individual named. Contact the tribe to understand policies regarding such requests and always wait until you have strong evidence of a recent connection before asking for assistance.
Please do not pursue research into Native American ancestry with the sole hope of gaining tribal enrollment. Individuals who qualify for such enrollment have recent and well-established ancestry, not a distant family relationship.
There are many smaller collections and books that may pertain to individuals in your ancestors’ location, and your local historical society or library are both great places to look for help finding those. This method is often one of the best ways to uncover details about known Native American ancestors. Many even have the information available on their websites.
There are also a variety of large record collections specific to Native Americans, most from the 19th and 20th centuries, and many are now found online. The most commonly recognized collection are the Dawes Rolls and we have explored it in detail below. Despite the popularity of this resource to researchers, the rolls won’t apply to many individuals since this collection was limited by tribal association and location. There are many other wonderful resources to explore, however, and we have provided helpful links for finding them below.
The Dawes Rolls
On February 8th 1887 the Dawes Act, also known as the General Allotment Act, gave authorization to the President of the United States to survey Native American lands for allotment to individuals.
The stated objective of the Dawes Act was to stimulate assimilation of Indians into American society. Individual ownership of land was seen as an essential step. The act also provided that the government would purchase Indian land “excess” to that needed for allotment and open it up for settlement by non-Indians. Read more.
In 1893 a new Indian Office appropriation bill organized the Dawes commission, named for proponent Senator Henry Laurens Dawes, and began to collect applications from members of five southeastern tribes: Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole.
Tribe members were entitled to an allotment of land, in return for abolishing their tribal governments and recognizing Federal laws. In order to receive the land, individual tribal members first had to apply and be deemed eligible by the Commission. Read more.
Between 1886 and 1914 more than 250,000 Native Americans applied, with more than 100,000 being accepted between the years of 1898 and 1914.
The applications taken during this time were compiled into the Dawes Rolls (Dawes Commission Enrollment Records) and are still used today as a basis for tribal membership into the five named tribes.
The Dawes rolls are vital to family historians because they contain critical information for discovering details about Native American ancestors in a time when such records were scarce.
Enrollment cards (also called census cards) include residence, roll numbers, names of family members, relationships, ages, sex, degree of Indian blood, enrollment date, place and number, parents and their enrollment date or place, spouses, divorces, children or grandchildren.
Applications for enrollment include affidavits, vital records, letters, questionnaires, and decisions mentioning relatives, dates, and places.
Letter logs include name, address, date of the letter, file number, date received, subject, and action taken. Letters are with the applications.
If you think you may have an ancestor that could be found in the Dawes Rolls you can access them for free through the National Archives. The archives offers a free tutorial that will walk you step by step through the process of finding your ancestors in this resource.
Other Important Collections for Researching Native American Ancestors
The Dawes Rolls apply only to ancestors that may have been part of one of the five named tribes above. To research ancestors from other tribes and locations please take a look at this excellent directory from FamilySearch that lists the many available collections. There are too many to name here — but this page includes direct links to these free and paid research resources.
If you’re going to pick one to start with, consider the Indian Census Rolls of 1885-1940. Read more about this resource on the National Archives and discover how how to access the records here.
The National Indian Law Library also has a long list of resources on determining and researching Native American roots. Don’t miss it.
Don’t give up hope if you come up short after some initial searching. Many family stories have inaccuracies but also contain some element of truth. If you don’t find a Native American great (or ggggg) grandparent consider looking for clues with great aunts, uncles and cousins — or consider that the story may have been borrowed from a more distant relative or that records simply may not exist to prove or disprove it. In the end, uncovering the truth (or part of it), no matter what the result, is well worth the effort for any family historian.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended as a comprehensive guide to Native American genealogy research. There is simply too much information to include in one article. We have tried to detail the most important points and the best resources, but we suggest that you take the time to search out and read some of the numerous other guides, books and articles available online if you are interested in expanding your knowledge on the subject.
By Melanie Mayo, Family History Daily Editor
Image: “Three Native American women, standing, full-length, facing front, holding beaded(?) bags, Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Wasco County, Oregon.” c1902 Library of Congress