This is a guest post by Paula Stuart Warren, CG℠, FMGS, FUGA
Whether it’s a tradition handed down, a known close connection, or even if you are currently enrolled in a tribe, there are many rich resources for researching your Native American family history.
The starting point
No matter our background, we all need to begin with ourselves and trace the generations back. Research will determine if those great grandparents are the correct ancestors. Do you descend from John. A. Smith or John B. Smith? Do you descend from his first or second wife? Remember the childhood taunt when someone caught you doing something wrong? “Prove it” is important here, too. Build your case to show that you have the correct John and Mary Smith. Maybe you have a document such as a death or birth certificate that identifies a family member as Native American or Indian. Just one piece of paper may not tell the whole story. No proof of that was needed when the certificate was filed. No matter the document, the information needs to be verified and the full story built from many records.
But I have some evidence
A photo of ancestor with high cheekbones and dark hair doesn’t stand alone as the answer, either. Other people with no Indian ancestry have high cheekbones and dark hair. Maybe grandma told you that her grandmother was Native American. Don’t take anyone else’s word as the final word. We all know family stories get unintentionally modified over the years. It’s the paper trail plus DNA in today’s world that will tell your Native American family history.
The paper trail
What’s the paper trail? Various records such as census, probate, military, birth, marriage, death, obituaries, and others are parts of that trail. These may or may not provide evidence of Native American forebears but all must be checked to show the link. The records you ignore might be the ones that hold the best clues. Don’t just rely on indexes or someone’s abstract of a record as they might have made a mistake. Always search for the original record or at least a microfilmed or digitized full record. Don’t be surprised to find mixed blood. French-Canadian and Native American, black and Native American, Scottish and Native American or any other combination. Then move on to specific Native American records for 19th and 20th centuries.
BIA, Federal and state censuses
Many researchers receive the suggestion of immediately checking the B IA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) Indian censuses. If you haven’t done the other family history research how will you know that a person listed on one or more of those BIA censuses is truly your ancestor? You must investigate and document the family connections generation by generation. You need to place your ancestor in a specific place, at a specific time, and with a connection to a specific tribe. The regular federal and state censuses are helpful in that endeavor. We are fortunate to have all these censuses on microfilm and also digitized. Look for the digitized ones (BIA, federal, state) via Ancestry.com. BIA censuses are also on Fold3.com and the federal and state are also on FamilySearch.org.
I see Native American ancestral queries on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media pages and on other online discussion sites. Many people tell the inquirer to “check the Dawes Roll.” This does not apply to all Indian tribes. That phrase refers to a roll and associated records compiled to document ancestry in the Five Civilized Tribes. If your ancestry is Dakota, Pedatum, Shoshone, Narragansett, Brotherton, Apache, or Nez Pierce, your ancestors would not appear on that. That said, there are base rolls for determining connections to other tribes. Combine these with other records of your paper trail to show the whole story of your ancestry.
Is your probable or known connection to a Native American ancestor in the early 19th century or before? Is your connection with someone that did not
remain part of a tribe? Then we move to other records such as church, missionary, land, tax, general store ledgers, county probates, diaries, journals, correspondence from people in the community, and other sources to find clues.
Want to learn more?
Read more basic how to do genealogy guidebooks. By taking the Ancestry Academy Course Native American Ancestry: Steps to Learn More, you will find help with the starting steps and the importance of family information, tribal history, tribal location, changes in the tribes themselves, censuses, annuity and allotment rolls, church and military records and other important details. The course is accompanied by a detailed handout listing many books and websites.
Just three more websites for Native American information. Use the search terms Indian and Native American in the search boxes on each website and be ready for extensive help.
National Archives & Records Administration http://www.archives.gov/
FamilySearch Wiki https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Main_Page