Using Ancestry: U.S. Indian Census Schedules, 1885-1940, by Paula Stuart Warren, CG

Indian Census-Mescalero April 1930.bmpSince 1790, federal census enumerators came around to count the population only every ten years. If you have Indian ancestry, and if your family stayed connected to a tribe that was under U.S. government supervision, there may be more census records to check for your family. Indians were not always listed on regular federal censuses, even when the instructions said otherwise.

Contrast that to the annual (well, almost annual) censuses of Indians with a connection to a specific Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) jurisdiction. (Today the DIA is known as the BIA, Bureau of Indian Affairs.) These jurisdictions may have been a reservation, clan, band, rancheria, school, agency, hospital, or other entity, and at times, these designations were used interchangeably. Indian censuses as found on National Archives and Records Administration microfilm publication M595 (692 rolls!) spanning 1885-1940 were posted at Ancestry on June 25th and offer wonderful pictures of Indian families.

What These Census Records May Tell You
The Indian censuses can tell you Indian name, English name, age, gender, relationships, residence, tribe, blood degree, birth date, death date, maiden name, parents’ names, and allotment or annuity ID numbers. As with all things governmental, the number of columns to be filled in changed over time and generally additional information was required each year. Starting Indian census research with the 1930s and 1940s enumerations will give more complete information on the individuals and families. (Several years in the 1930s only have supplemental censuses–just a listing of births and deaths since the last full census, or of persons missed in the previous census.)

Why They Were Taken
The 4 July 1884 Congressional Act (23 Stat. L., 98) stated that DIA Superintendents in charge of Indian reservations submit an annual census of all Indians under their charge. One use of these censuses was in determining levels of aid to a specific jurisdiction. Another use was in determining property rights. The examiner of inheritance (probates) uses the census rolls in determining rightful heirs. Some Indian heirships quote page after page of Indian census entries for descendants of the deceased. The Circulars (instructions) for the 1920 and 1921 Indian census reiterated these vital uses.

Some Caveats
The guidelines provided to census takers were not always clearly stated. Early on it was as simple as “make a list of Indians in your jurisdiction.” Think about the agent who was new to the jurisdiction. Did he truly know all the families, Indian names, and other details? Did the agent supervise several reservations? Did the agent compile the census alone or did a clerk assist? Your own ancestors may not have known their exact age or birth date. Did the agent visit each family? Probably not. Did all the families or a representative visit the agent’s office? Probably not. Not every jurisdiction prepared a census for every year and some that were prepared are missing. Keep these things in mind as you search for family in the census.

As researchers check these censuses, it is easy to find those on which the individuals or families are in alphabetical order. Likely the enumerating was not done in alphabetical order. Some twentieth-century Indian census forms in their original format (NARA terms these as textual records) had instructions that the census data was to be gathered on cards. The cards were alphabetized, and the data entered on the census form. These may or may not have been used and most no longer exist. Some agents simply copied (handwritten or typed) the census from the previous year to a new form and made updates. These factors increase the possibility of transcription errors.

The Forms
The preprinted forms for these censuses changed over time. In the beginning the census was to include name, age, sex, and the relationships of people in a household. Many in the 1880s and 1890s are not on the preprinted forms and the agent may have added additional notes to the person’s history. Once typewriters became the norm in agency offices, the forms were typed. Some will give the number of that person on the current census year and also list the number that person had on the previous year. This can help in seeking daughters who later married, a grandparent who moved to live with another child, or clear up confusion between similar names.

Search Tips

  • Indian names such as Winyanska, Paopi, or Rewa are indexed as the given name and can also be found using the name as a keyword. (Keyword searches are done on the Advanced Search window.)
  • A name such as John Frying Pan is found using Frying Pan as a surname and also as a keyword.
  • Wolf as surname yields Wolf alone and also names such as Spotted Wolf.
  • The index at Ancestry allows for some searching of family who are not where we think they are! For example, an Indian family that kept ties to the “home” reservation may be living elsewhere and show up on that jurisdiction’s census. I don’t have any statistics on this, but my research has shown this to be an uncommon thing. Hopefully the column for tribal affiliation or blood degree will list the proper tribe.

The Copies
In most literature on doing Indian research there is no mention of duplicate copies of these completed census forms. Indeed, the Department of Indian Affairs stated in the instructions for the 1920 Indian censuses: “Only one copy is required unless annuity payments are being made, when two copies should be sent in.” Remember that the photocopiers and digital cameras we use today were not in existence when these censuses were taken. However, that should not stop you from searching elsewhere for scattered copies. Some copies are handwritten, but later a carbon copy or two may have been made, especially when typewriters were used.
There are scattered censuses taken before 1885 and after 1940. These might be at NARA in Washington, D.C., at one of the NARA regional facilities, or they may have been microfilmed separately. There might be additional copies of some of the censuses now posted online, as found on the massive set of NARA microfilms. An agency might have kept a working copy on which additional notations were made; some copies have annotations as to birth, death, relationships, residence, previous residence, and other great tidbits. This is where visiting one of the NARA facilities and checking the many in-house finding aids can be a boost to your family history project. Those in-house finding aids include the archivists and volunteers at NARA who know much about a wide variety of records and have inside knowledge of such gems. These extra copies are not officially the DIA/BIA copy, but are extremely helpful. They may also turn up in a historical society somewhere or some may still be with the tribe.
A dedicated researcher can work around the problems as we do with other records beneficial to genealogical research. A census record is drafted by a human. Humans can make errors. Humans may not have shared the correct information. Think positively, make use of the wonderful online access to the images and indexes, but keep in mind:

  • This past week at one of the NARA regional facilities, I was reading correspondence from the Department of Indian Affairs in the 1920s and 30s that urged the agents to do a better job with the censuses. I saw lists of problems that the Commissioner of Indian Affairs wanted the agents to correct.
  • The indexers did make some mistakes when reading the names on the census, both the Indian and English names. Be creative with searches.
  • Some censuses were not completely new enumerations. There are some that appear to have been copied from the previous year and the ages just upped one year. I found several of these and after a couple of years suddenly a child who was already three was added.
  • Indians affiliated with a tribe may have lived quite a distance from that place, but still fell under that agency’s jurisdiction. Correspondence shows that agents often said that the Indians were scattered over a large area, in another state, or that the agent didn’t have the budget to go to that place. Some Indians may be missing due to this or their information may not have been updated each year.
  • Relationship designations may not be exactly what we expect the term to mean. Is the cousin really a cousin? Is the son really a son? Are they honorary titles?
  • When blood degrees were added to the censuses in the twentieth century discrepancies do occur, even among siblings. Don’t take just one year’s entry as fact. Compare the years and do research in other records to prove this vital detail.
  • An agent or superintendent may have had two or three jurisdictions under their supervision and all censuses may be combined under the name of one agency.

The actual jurisdictions may have changed. In other words, the ZZZ agency may have existed for twenty years, but at some point was under the control of another agency or other jurisdiction. Thinking outside the box helps as do catalog keyword searches. — On the microfilms and the posted images there are many pages of names that have no agency, tribe, or year listed at the top. Researchers must back track to find the beginning page of that segment.
Final thoughts
If you don’t have Indian ancestry or your Indian ancestors did not stay affiliated with a tribe, you may be jealous at the extent of these records. Am I thrilled that these images are at Being from Minnesota I can say, “You betcha!” Will it keep me from visiting NARA facilities to see what other census gems are hidden away in archival boxes. No way. Will I never use the microfilms of these censuses again? Of course I will, as there are times when viewing these for comparison may be helpful. See you online at Ancestry and at NARA.

(Image: The image is from New Mexico and is the census for the Mescalero Indians, taken in April 1930. Click on the image to enlarge it.)

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 About the author
Paula Stuart-Warren, CG, of St. Paul, Minnesota is a professional genealogist, consultant, writer, and lecturer who is frequently on the road. She coordinates the intermediate course, American Records & Research, at the annual Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. She writes for several periodicals including “Ancestry” Magazine. Comments and additions to her columns will reach her at but she regrets that she is unable to answer individual genealogical research inquiries due to the volume of requests.
Upcoming Appearances by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

  • 15-18 August 2007, Fort Wayne, Indiana
    Federation of Genealogical Societies/Allen County Public Library Conference
    (Visit the newly expanded Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library!)
  • 22 September 2007, St. Paul, Minnesota
    Footsteps to Your Family History – 2.5 hour genealogy class

9 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: U.S. Indian Census Schedules, 1885-1940, by Paula Stuart Warren, CG

  1. I’m hoping this will help my granddaughter find her Dad’s family. Thanks.

  2. My father (b 1876) once told me that his mother was “part Indian.” The family lived on the boundary of MO and Iowa– very near to it. She had 5 brothers and was the only girl. I can not find her residence or death place since the 1880 census. Is it possible that her parents “adopted” a baby girl from a near by Indian tribe? That when she and my father made the “run” into Oklahoma that she rejoined a tribe living in that state? Is the act of white parents adopting Indian children very possible or very frequently attested to? Many thanks for your article. It was very instructive.

  3. nara lists vs. census reports. connecting the ‘dots’, and learning when people on both lists are the same people, or not the same person at all.

  4. I am courious to know if you have information for doing this research for the Canadian First Nations people? Are there many differences?

  5. My family Settle or Suttle was married to an Indian from Walhalla,South Carolina or Tocca, Georgia.
    My Grandfather, William J. Married to Louise Simmons, was olive skin dark hair and short. His fathers name was John Suttles married to Agnes, I do not know her maiden name.
    This was told to me by my fathers Brother.
    How can I find the answer to this puzzle?
    Joyce Suttles Yancey

  6. My Great-Grandmother lived in Crossett,Ar.. She was the daughter of a Full-blooded Indian mother and father unknown to my family’s knowledge. Grandma Georgia’s last recollection of her mother was seeing her sold off as a child to slavery… My Grandmothers name was Georgia Harris. I am A LOST SOUL who wants to know her family’s heritage…..

  7. my mothers family moved from s.c. 1826 hannah house to georga 1846 to dardanelle ar 1869 they hid ther indian ties verry well i donot know who my father is my grandfather jessy james vaughn greatgrand william jerry great great william 3 great jarrett from s.c. 1826 my ties go back to hannah house in 1800 i know nothing about her can anyone help wrong family moved to dardanelle in a large group in 1869 i think from georgia by horses and oxen .

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