Some of the largest collections of Native American records are for the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole). The reason is that these five tribes had the most regulated interaction with the federal government. That interaction created a lot of records. But what if your ancestor wasn’t a member of one of these tribes?
First Things First
Before you do anything, work on identifying the tribe. Also consider any tradition (oral or written) that your family has about your Native American heritage. Do you know if your ancestors lived on a reservation at some point? Did your family try to hide its heritage and “blend in?” If your family assimilated, they likely aren’t going to be in many collections that are specifically Native American.
Collections on Ancestry
Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940. Many people have the impression that this census only covers Indian Territory. These censuses were actually taken in reservations across the United States and include numerous tribes. Information varies by year, but usually includes the person’s name (sometimes both English and Indian), gender, age, and relation to the head of family. Not every reservation for every year is included, and sometimes a year doesn’t include everyone, but is a list of changes from the previous year. (This is mostly in 1935, 1936, 1938, and 1939).
Here’s why it’s important to know if your family was on a reservation or if they assimilated. If they were living outside the reservation or didn’t maintain a formal affiliation with the tribe, they won’t be included in these censuses.
U.S. Federal Census. As Paul Rawlins pointed out in his recent article American Indian Research in the 1800s, there are a few Native Americans listed on the 1850 census. Beginning in 1860, the census was supposed to include those who had renounced their tribal affiliations. Indian reservations were also included in the census beginning in 1900.
Location-specific Collections. There are some collections that are focused on a specific location, such as the Oklahoma Osage Tribe Roll, 1921 You can find more of these listed on the American Indian Records collection page (scroll down past the search form for the full list), in the Card Catalog, or using the place pages (accessible by clicking on a state on the map at the bottom of the search page).
It would be impossible to list all of the resources available for each tribe. Rather, here is a template of places to look for records.
The Tribe. Many tribes, especially those that are federally recognized, maintain membership rolls and could have information on your ancestor. You can often find their contact information by doing a search on the Internet or, if they are one of the 566 federally recognized tribes, obtain their contact information from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
National Archives and Records Administration. NARA holds many records pertaining to Native Americans, some of which have never been digitized or even microfilmed. Their website “Researching American Indians and Alaska Natives” has invaluable information as well as links to NARA resources.
State Archives and State Historical Societies. The federal government wasn’t the only government who had official contact with various tribes. Although individual states wouldn’t have negotiated treaties, there could have been contact through various state agencies and offices. In addition, state archives and state historical societies sometimes have the personal papers of traders and agents; these records can provide information about individuals as well as context for the time and area. Most have online catalogs; some have online finding aids explaining more about their Native American holdings.