Searching for Native American Ancestors, by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

US Indian Schedules-Potowatomi.jpgA popular tradition found in many American families is the one pertaining to an unknown Native American ancestor. It is usually the great-great-grandmother with a common given name who supposedly was a “full-blood” [fill in the tribe]. It piques our interest and off we go–but in the wrong direction. All too often, we find that the oral history that has been handed down is not accurate, so it’s important to keep an open mind.

If the name of the tribe is known with certainty, you will be able to take a shortcut and go directly to the tribal records. The U.S. Indian Census Schedules, 1885-1940 (click on the image to see an example from Ancestry.com), or the 1900 population schedule with its “Special Inquiries Relating to Indians” section, and will in many instances provide the name of the tribe and degree of blood. In the case of the 1900 census one question asked the degree (percentage) of white blood an individual had. In many instances, the answer is incorrect. One of my ancestors is listed as 1/8th white, when he actually was 1/8th Cherokee and 7/8th white. Another relative and his children are all listed as white in the 1900 California census, when in fact the children were 1/2 Indian.

You may have Indian blood although your ancestor left the tribe long ago and intermixed with other ethnic groups. Tribal membership and Indian bloodlines are not synonymous. Indian ancestry does not of itself entitle an individual to any special rights or benefits or guarantee eligibility for tribal membership today. Additionally, Indian census lists do not prove tribal affiliation–you must find the enrollment lists and then make the genealogical link that proves that a particular George Wolf or Mary Pumpkin (for example) on that list is yours.

Location, Location, Location
For many researchers, tribal affiliation will not be known or will be incorrect. Study the localities, especially the birthplaces where your purported Indian relatives lived. Narrow it to a county or region within a state. Next research the historically documented Indian tribes that are known to have been living in those geographic areas. This information will narrow down the tribal possibilities. It is a lesson in futility to search for your Shoshone ancestors in Ohio (they lived primarily in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming) or to make 100-year leaps in time in cases where the tribe was relocated. Study maps and atlases that will enable you to ascertain where the various Indian tribes, reservations and settlements of the United States are located. (See Figure 19-1, pages 780-781, of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy.)

Names
Names are a frequent problem encountered when researching this ethnicity. In 1885, when the annual Indian census lists began, you may find your ancestor listed under two different names–one being his Indian name, the other an English one. For ancestors who lived in earlier times, keep in mind that they often were of mixed-blood heritage and had Scottish, Irish, German, or English names by the early 1800s.

Indian Princess?
A recurring story in American families is that one of your ancestors was the daughter of an Indian chief. While anything is possible in genealogy, such a story should alert you to the likelihood of a family fable. The second part of the tradition will be that the family was not necessarily proud of their mixed blood, and would not talk about it or tried to cover it up by claiming to be some other ethnic group. Don’t blindly accept these stories because for the most part that is all they are. Be diligent and be sure to thoroughly research claims like these.

Other family lore may be that some female ancestor was taken captive and carried off to an Indian village and became a wife of one of the tribesman and bore mixed-blood children from whom you descend. While it did happen, you’ll need to sift the legend from the real history. Be cautious about relying on the accounts of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians, who often put their own “spin” on such stories. Use these for research, but don’t accept them as the complete story.

A treasured tale in our family is the one about Catherine Vanderpool She, who, along with several of her children, was carried off by Shawnees during the French and Indian War in 1763. The historical accounts have proven to be fairly accurate. However, solving the genealogical conundrum is still ongoing because we have more than one Catherine Vanderpool who could have been this legendary lady.

Your Indian ancestry might be via a tribe you have never heard of or know next-to-nothing about. Tracing the extended lines of my Vanderpool family, I have found links to Cherokees of Alabama and Oklahoma, Blackfeet of Montana, Oneida of Wisconsin, Miwok and Chukchansi of California, and to Alaskan Athabascans. I’m still exploring the purported Mohawk connection.

If your Indian ancestors ever received monies or land from the federal government, there is a good chance you will be able to document your Indian blood. But for those whose family legends pertain to Indian ancestors prior to 1800, you face the challenge of doing some sophisticated and difficult research. Sometimes these lineages can be proven. Sometimes they can’t, but it is fascinating research, and you will learn a great deal of American history and Indian culture along the way.

Myra Vanderpool Gormley formerly was the editor of the RootsWeb Review and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. In retirement, she labors at detangling her illustrious roots and pruning her family’s notorious branches. The latter has turned out to be a full-time job. You can reach Myra at myravgormley@yahoo.com.

13 thoughts on “Searching for Native American Ancestors, by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

  1. Many of my friends ask me about locating a relative that was an Indian princess or great grandmother.(oddly,It is never a male?)
    I am half Choctaw. I realize the answer to their question is long and complicated so I usually say I don’t know how to help them.I’ve told them flippantly that Indians didn’t have Kings, Queens or princes or princesses. Now I can give them an copy of this article and let them figure their problem out for themselves. I find your article straight forward and frank concerning the possibility their Indian relative may just be a bit of family folklore. Thank you

  2. I would like to copy this so I could read will we are traveling I’ve done most of what you said in it.

  3. Help on researching Native Americal ancestry before 1800 would be helpful; members of the Five Civilized Tribes oft times stayed within the “White” communities/families.

  4. my third grandfather was married to a Cherokee in Henderson KY. Her name was Hannah, and bore three children, all girls to my grandfather Jesse…from 1817 – 1821. One of her granddaughters had a photo, which clearly showed the high cheekbones, dark skin, and black eyes and hair. I’ve tried several times to track her down, but the Indian representative in Henderson said that unless I knew her family name, and preferably, her Indian first name, it was an impossible task…so my question is, how would you try to track it down??? I did search for the death certificates of all three girs in Hamilton county, Illinois, thinking they would name their mother, but unfortunately, no death certificates exist for that time period…

  5. Ever wonder why the stories rarely talk about the white daughter who married the Indian male?

    DNA testing will prove potential Native American ancestry but figuring out the “person” responsible can often be impossible since many other ethnic races with pale skin claimed to be white in order to be accepted, and other dark skinned races were listed at Black in the early years – and early records just don’t exist.

  6. Ever wonder why the stories rarely talk about the white daughter who married the Indian male?

    DNA testing will prove potential Native American ancestry but figuring out the “person” responsible can often be impossible since many other ethnic races with pale skin claimed to be white in order to be accepted, and other dark skinned races were listed as Black in the early years – and early records just don’t exist.

  7. In response to comments #7 & 8, just highlight the part you want to print, and when the printer dialogue box comes up, click on “print selected.”

  8. I really enjoyed reading this article. I have been told that my great great grandmother was an indian or had some indian blood. I have also recently discovered the possibility of some indian blood on my father’s side also. This article should help me figure out if the stories are true or not. I definitely have some hard research ahead of me. I agree with G. Stallings in that information on Native Americans before 1800 would be a help.

  9. I have Indian ancestors. Really. They lived in New France, including Ontario, Michigan and Wisconsin, all prior to 1750. Are there any websites that can help me find and document their descendants?

  10. all of my famley comes from north carolina 1800/1908, wake,buckhorn,harnnett,cumberland,northern division cumberland n.c.(miles h. prince) married to rebecca truelove 1847, he also was married to hellien f. in 1871 at harnnett n.c.

  11. Thank you! I am glad to see a gentle let down to people trying to find information about their “indian” instead of the rude sarcastic comments on other websites given by “experts”.

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