In 19th-century America, the eyes of the country were looking west. The Louisiana Purchase, annexation of Texas, Mexican-American War,
resolving of the Oregon boundary dispute, California gold rush, Homestead Act, and transcontinental railroad all contributed to opening more of the American continent to white settlement.
This westward expansion also spelled the end of the life they had known for tribes that had not yet encountered European settlers. By time the 19th century was over, disease, war, the reservation system, allotments, and assimilation would all take their toll on native homelands, cultures, and lives. And the inevitable clash of peoples led to many of the records you can use to trace your American Indian ancestry.
Key Dates in the 19th Century
Each tribe or band had its own experience with treaties, soldiers, and resettlement, which makes generalizations difficult. However, a few key dates stand out when it comes to researching your American Indian ancestors in the 19th century.
1824: Office of Indian Affairs is created (later renamed Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA).
1830: Indian Removal Act passes Congress. Andrew Jackson favored a policy of removing native peoples in the U.S. to federal lands west of the Mississippi River. The act eventually led or contributed to the resettlement of most members of the Five Civilized Tribes and several other nations, the Trail of Tears, and the establishment of Indian Territory in 1834. Though white settlers were eager to lay claim to Indian lands, the act was not solely a land grab; issues surrounding tribal sovereignty vs. state or federal law were also in play.
1834: Congress establishes Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma.
1860: Census enumerators are instructed to include some Indians on the census.
1871: Congress stops making treaties with American Indian tribes.
1879: Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first government Indian boarding school that removed students from their reservations, opens.
1885: Starting in 1885, Indian agents and superintendents were required to take a census of Indians under their jurisdiction.
1887: The General Allotment (Dawes) Act included a plan to parcel out formerly communal tribal lands and allot them to individual tribal members. This would both encourage assimilation among American Indians and open millions of acres of “surplus” land to white settlement.
People on the Move
Like so many people in America during the 19th century, your American Indian ancestors were probably not living in the same place at the end of the century as they did at the beginning. The difference is that the Indians were forced to move. This had been going on for more than a century, but the process of resettlement accelerated and reached its apex in the 1800s.
A general timeline of American Indian resettlement in the 19th century includes the huge migrations into Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) of the Five Civilized Tribes following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. But it’s been said that every tribe had its “Trail of Tears.” In other words, each group had its own journey.
For example, by the time 1800 rolled around, the Delaware (Lenape) had long ago left the Delaware Valley, and many were in the Midwest on their way to Oklahoma—in all, some 65 tribes would be relocated to Oklahoma. Elsewhere, the Navajos’ “Long Walk” between their homelands in Arizona and western New Mexico to Bosque Redondo started in 1864, only to see them return in 1868. The Spokane were confined to a small portion of their original homelands in Washington, and other reservations were established in the Dakotas, Montana, Utah, California, Minnesota, Idaho, and elsewhere. Today, there are 566 federally recognized tribes, and you can find reservations in more than half of the states in the U.S.
Your challenge is to learn the story of your ancestor’s tribe or band—where they were living at the beginning at the century, where they were by the end of it, and how they got there. Just like it is in real estate, location, location, location is important in American Indian research. Also, remember that not everybody moved. Some assimilated, some broke ties with a tribe, some married a non-Indian spouse. (The AccessGenealogy website can be a good starting point for background on tribes or our recent post on Researching Native American American Ancestors: Context Is Key.)
Records, Records, Who’s Got the Records?
Records documenting the lives of American Indians increased steadily during the 19th century. Various NARA research facilities have the largest collections of records relating to American Indians, and the recent additions to the American Indian Collection on Ancestry make this the largest online collection available. But again, finding out what is available and where records might be will often depend on learning the history of a tribe.
The Dawes Rolls and the documents surrounding them are the best-known tribal enrollment records of the 19th century. These deal specifically with members of the Five Civilized Tribes living in Oklahoma (for the most part) and can be found in a number of databases on Ancestry. However, the Dawes Rolls are not the only enrollment records. Other Cherokee rolls include the Baker and Guion Miller rolls, both of which used older enrollments as a basis. Various rolls and tribal censuses exist for other tribes as well, but unfortunately, there is no central repository for enrollment records, though the Internet makes searching for them a little easier. (If you want more on the Five Civilized Tribes, read Juliana Szucs’ post.)
Indian Census Rolls (1885–1940)
Starting in 1885, Indian agents and superintendents were required to take a census of Indians under their jurisdiction each year. Though there is not a census for every tribe on every reservation for every year, this is still one of the most valuable and far-reaching collections of records relating to American Indians. You’ll find the entire collection on Ancestry at U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885–1940.
U.S. Federal Census
American Indians are not identified as such on the 1790–1840 censuses. A few American Indians living among the general population were identified as “Indians” in the 1850 census, and in 1860, census enumerators were instructed to enumerate “families of Indians who have renounced tribal rule, and who under state or territory laws exercise the rights of citizens.” This did not include Indians living on reservations or a nomadic life on the plains. Starting in 1900, Indians on reservations were enumerated on the census.
These records will take a little more effort to access, but they may prove useful, depending on your ancestor’s experience.
Though they probably don’t list your ancestor by name, treaties may help you learn more a tribe’s history. The Oklahoma State University has an online database of treaties.
Annuities, or payments to tribes or members of tribes, resulted from some treaties. Some annuity rolls start listing heads of families as early as 1834, though this became mandatory only after 1875. NARA has a large collection, and others remain at local Bureau of Indian Affairs offices. However, these records have not been microfilmed or digitized.
Emigration and Removal Rolls
Some records of Indian removals were created by government agencies. A collection of these, going as far back as 1824 in some cases, has been microfilmed (NARA film M234) and is available at NARA research centers or the Family History Library.
Indian School Records
The first official boarding school that took Indian children off their reservation was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened in 1879 in Pennsylvania. BIA schools were opened in 18 different states. There is no central repository of Indian school records. NARA holds some BIA Indian school records. Use the web to look for others at a local level.
Bureau of Indian Affairs Records