There are secrets to success when it comes to tracing Native American ancestry. While many useful resources are now available online, in order to correctly identify your Native American ancestors, you’ll need to combine what you can find online with other direct sources of information:
- U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940: Use these to identify which tribe your native ancestor belonged to. Follow each family member recorded, as this will often lead to clues for researching your ancestor. (They may be listed with two names, one in their native language and one in English.)
- Oklahoma Historical Society: Become a member for free, and get regular email updates. This is a way to stay informed about document collections the society has.
- Indian Boarding Schools: These were first established in 1885. Their lists of students will usually give the tribe and location of birth. There are also corresponding files for each student. For example, when Oklahoma Natives were sent to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, during the summer months they were sent to live on farms, usually in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. These files still exist, and detailed information can be found about your ancestor at the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center.
- Catholic Indian Missions: These were established early, especially among the tribes in Canada. Every mainstream denomination had Indian Missions located in Indian Territory. These separate missions also kept records. Google the website specific to your tribe and you will find a historical section that will typically list the historical missions that were established on the appropriate reservation.
- Maps: Always check detailed maps to find out where the tribe lived during your ancestor’s lifetime. After 1830, when Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, tribes were forcibly moved to different locations. Trace their patterns as you look for your ancestor, keeping in mind that they came in contact with white settlers along the way, and may have inter-married with them. (Some tribes, like the Navajo, did not keep records of names of their members who went on the “Long Walk,” which was akin to the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the Potawatomi Trail of Death.)
- There are 566 federally recognized Indian tribes: Be open minded when attempting to determine a tribe for your ancestor. They may have mixed with other tribes or been kidnapped, traded, or even adopted by another tribe. Tribes were broken down into smaller groups, called bands (usually followers of one leader), and then even smaller clans (family groups).
Get more expert insights from Ancestry’s ProGenealogists team here.