Taking clues from our ancestors – exploring where they lived, looking at when they lived there, pulling every bit of information from their records – is key to family history research. Nowhere is this more true than with Native American research.
Often when someone hears from family members, “We have Native American ancestry,” they’ll take an immediate dive into records of the Cherokee and the other “Civilized Tribes” (a historic term which includes the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole tribes). The ancestor’s tribe is a critical piece of information. Don’t assume that “Native American” automatically means “Cherokee” (or any other tribe). As exciting as it is to begin this new research, the best thing to do is to slow down and take a look at what you already know.
Location, Location, Location
You’ve probably heard the advice to plot your ancestors on a timeline. Getting them in a specific place at a specific time as many times as possible will help you get a better handle on them. Look for them in census records, city directories, vital records, and such. Where are they from?
Take those locations as clues. Were they in Oklahoma in the late 1800s and in the southeastern states before that? They might be members of one of the Five Civilized Tribes. Those tribes started in the South and through a series of migrations – many of them forced, such as the Trail of Tears – they ended up in present-day Oklahoma.
But what if your family didn’t come out of the South? You’ll need to find out about the Native Americans in those regions in those time periods. Let’s say your roots take you back to northern Indiana and Ohio in the early- to mid-1800s. You can rule out Cherokee in those lines, as none of the Five Civilized Tribes lived in that region. However, you might want to explore tribes such as the Miami, Delaware, and Pottawatomie, who did live in the area in the early 1800s.
Finding Out Who Lived There
After you’ve found where your ancestors were living, the next thing is to figure out which tribes were living there in that time period. This is where you need to take a step back from researching people and start researching a place.
State historical societies often have information on their websites about various ethnic groups in their state. Ohio History Connection, for example, has several articles about Native Americans (in general) in Ohio as well as articles about specific tribes.
The Ancestry Wiki is a great source for background information. One of the resources included in the wiki is Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources. Go to the Red Book and scroll down and click on the state you’re interested in. From that page, go to the link to ethnic groups in that state.
Many of the Ancestry State Research Guides include information about Native American tribes in that area.
Don’t overlook offline resources. Many published state histories (including textbooks) have information about Native American tribes. Also look for general works, such as The Native North American Almanac: A Reference Work on Native North Americans in the United States and Canada, edited by Duane Champagne.
“Overview of Native American Research” and “Finding Native American Tribe-specific Information” by Curt B. Witcher and George J. Nixon. (Originally published in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy).