Great-Great-Grandma Was an Indian? by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

Indian Village Upper Mississippi-Currier and IvesFollowing my 2 July column on the 1880-1940 U.S. Indian censuses at, I received many questions about tracing elusive American Indian ancestry. While I can’t answer each of you personally, the basic steps and tips below should get you started.
Perhaps you have a family legend that Great-great-grandma Pearl had Indian blood. Usually the story doesn’t share a clue whether that blood is from her maternal or paternal side. It’s important to note that a specific tribe will not have a master index of anyone who ever had that Indian blood. Nor will the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). There is no “master index.” So, how do you go about solving this mystery?
1. Get back to the basics. Most basic research steps apply to any ethnic background. Take classes, read a guidebook, and attend genealogical society educational meetings. Genealogy software programs such as Family Tree Maker 2008 are a boon to keeping track of family details.
2. Work from the present to the past. Begin by contacting your immediate and extended family. You never know who might have family pictures and papers, or know of others who do. You will be linking each generation back in time and proving the connections. Check Ancestry, other online sources, and library catalogs to see if someone has done previous research on parts of your family. Those Indian censuses that Ancestry has posted should be checked for ancestral non-Native American surnames in case you find some possible ties to check further.
3. Place your ancestors in a time and place. Determine this via the records that all family historians use. Include censuses; obituaries; military pension, service, and draft records; and records relating to birth, marriage, and death.
4. Read a state, county, or town history once you place your ancestors in specific geographic areas, . What Indian tribes were in that place at that time? Histories also tell of the forced removal of Indians, some to very distant locations. There may be some separate published histories of those tribes that refer to the place where they migrated from.
5. Check for church records. A marriage, burial, or christening entry might yield a special notation that gives a clue to Indian heritage. For each piece of information or copy of a record you obtain, be sure to add a notation that tells you where it came from, (e.g., Aunt Susie Griffin,, Green County Courthouse, Family History Library, or some other place/person). Add the book, page, microfilm #, or other identifying information in case you or others need to double check that item.
6. Work on the entire family in each generation. You might find that four sisters and one brother were always listed as white. BUT the second brother or a cousin is listed as “I,” “In,” or even as black or mulatto on the 1900 and 1910 federal censuses. What did that branch of the family know? Do any family members appear on the special Indian schedules for these years? Check for all related surnames in Native American censuses.

7. Did they live within an Irish, Swedish, German, African American, or other community? They may never be listed as Indian. Perhaps they hid that heritage because they were frightened or knew that housing and jobs were more difficult to obtain if their Indian heritage was known. People that did not live as part of an organized group of Indians are often more difficult to trace. The BIA has not had interaction with every group of Indians.

8. There are many records specific to North American Indians that may apply if you can make some family connections to a tribe that had interaction with the federal government. Check libraries and bookstores for guides and online resources. Here are a few places to start:

  • The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, rev. 3rd edition,
    Chapter 19, Native American Research, by Curt B. Witcher, MLS, FUGA, FIGS, and George J. Nixon (Ancestry, 2006.)
  • Guide to Records in the National Archives of the United States Relating to American Indians. (National Archives and Records Service, 1981.)
  • Native American Genealogical Sourcebook. (Gale Research, 1995, out of print).
  • The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. (Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of Ethnology, out of print.)
  • How to Research American Indian Blood Lines: A Manual on Indian Genealogical Research. (Heritage Quest, 1987.)
  • Records of the Department of Indian Affairs at Library and Archives Canada: A Source for Genealogical Research. 2nd edition. (Ontario Genealogical Society, 2004)

Earlier Records
If you have proof or even a suspicion that your Indian connection is before many written records exist, the diaries of other area residents, records of religious missionaries, area histories, and town records are just some of the possible items to consult. Don’t forget that Indians were the original settlers and later settlers encroached on their space. Neither the Bureau of Indian Affairs nor its predecessors were always able to record information about Indians. A christening or marriage entry in church records might mention the words “Indian,” “Native,” or other term. The local pastor, storekeeper, or other person might have kept a diary and mentioned the Indians in an area. Determine what missionaries were in the area, whether they were connected to a specific denomination, and where possible records such as diaries, christening, marriage, and correspondence are located today.
One last tip–spelling does not count in genealogy. Stand up and shout this to the world. You will find many variations in both the Indian and other name spellings. Indexes and transcriptions of records may not have been clearly read by the indexer.
Too often genealogists feel stymied by a search for a newly discovered ethnic heritage. Keep this is mind: Research is research. Learn the basics, search all records, and learn about the other records that pertain to that heritage whether it is Indian, Norwegian, or Polish.

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About the Author
Paula Stuart-Warren, CG, a Minnesota resident 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. From time to time, comments from readers may be quoted in her writings. Your name will not be used, but your place of residence might be listed (i.e. Mountain View, California).
Upcoming Appearances by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

12 thoughts on “Great-Great-Grandma Was an Indian? by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

  1. A granddaughter is looking for her Dad’s grandmother who was an Indian maiden. I’ve been trying to help her, mostly by sending her interesting helps such as yours. Thank you.

  2. My great-grandmother, Volumnia Anne Frost (LaBass), was a Cherokee Indian, born in Arkansas ca. 1820. I can trace her through historical records, but am having difficulty tracing her family of origin. Court records in Lawrence Co., Arkansas say she was made the ward of Gabriel Frost in 1849, and then, when a Gabriel Frost died in 1879, she is listed as an heir. I don’t know what to make of this. I appreciate the sources you have outlined in this article and intend to follow up on them as I have time. Are there others you are aware of that might help in this situation?

    Thank you.

  3. I always suspected from my husband’s appearance that he might have Indian blood, so for Christmas a couple of years ago, I gave him a DNA test kit from as a gift.
    The results showed he was of mixed blood-Native American and Northern European. So I had my DNA tested, and instead of being just Caucasion, I found out I also have Far East Asian blood. The test are expensive, but are absolutely amazing, fascinating and lend an entire different layer to genealogy research!

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  6. We’ve been looking for our Native American Heritage for several years, I can place them in Oklahoma at the correct time, I just cannot make them “Indian” but I love the challenge…
    Thanks for the tips.

  7. Very informative article, much appreciated. I was wondering what the “B” notation meant on the census record. I have an Indian connection on my maternal side in the 1700’s, and on my paternal side in the late 1800’s. This article gave me some great leads to pursue. Thank you so much!

  8. Brenda (and others)

    The “B” in the color column on federal censuses stands for Black. This is generally the census takers take on the people being enumerated.

  9. I am part Cherokee Indian on my fathers side (great,great-grandmother. My husband is part Blackfoot Indian. We are trying to find out the precentage of Indian our son would be.Thank you for your help. I also dont know where to look for that type of information. Thank you. Joan

  10. My husband has Indian in his background according to his grandmother who is now deceased (1950) and your article looks like it will be of some help to us. So far we haven’t come up with much.

    Also a new daughter-law whose grandmother was supposed to came to Okla on The Trail of Tears march.

    Thanks for putting this info out for us to read.

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  12. Great article. I recently found out that my mothers side of the family comes from Ahoskie, NC. They were mostly Indians who had to hide in plain sight. My mothers who lives as African-American has a problem dealing with this. I do not. I was introduced to my American Indian cousin as a little girl. Now that I have this information no one can take it from me. Forcing people to lie about who they are is wrong. My grandmother had a brother who opended a barber shop in Philadelphia. The shop failed because everyone thought he was white. He drank hiomself to death all because he was living a lie.

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