Many genealogists are interested in verifying family stories about a Native American ancestor. While getting on tribal rolls is complicated, proving an ancestral connection to a tribe is possible and a rewarding endeavor.
Here are some tips to help you get started.
Start with Yourself
Genealogical best practices recommend you begin your research with yourself and work backward through your family tree, relationship by relationship, event by event. This will help you identify ancestors who may have had a Native American heritage and guide your search for reliable records that can connect you to them.
You can start by collecting any relevant documents you have on hand, including birth, death, marriage, and divorce certificates; family bibles; personal journals and diaries; letters; scrapbooks and the backs of photos. Many other records will be available depending on the state and region where your ancestors lived, including land and census records.
Tribes were also broken down into smaller sub-groups called bands, further divided into clans. These clans were based on relationships within the family and extended families and geographical areas. This makes it possible that your initial determination of what tribe you may have been connected to could be incorrect.
Start with the Tribe
The first step in tracing Native American genealogy is determining which tribe your ancestor belonged to. You may be able to do this from oral tradition or through research in records such as the Indian census rolls (1885-1940) that provide information about tribal affiliation and the degree of Indian blood.
Other types of records include land allotments and other Indian land-related documents. These can be found on the Native American Online Genealogy Resources page and at the National Archives Guide to Records in the National Archives Relating to American Indians (also available in their microfilm catalog).
Use your local library or historical society’s statewide family history collections database if you have only a name and approximate date. If your ancestor was part of the Five Civilized Tribes, they are likely recorded in the Dawes Rolls. The rolls document individuals who were accepted as members of the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, or Chickasaws and were entitled to allotment of land.
Another valuable resource is the ethnological description of a particular tribe from the Library of Congress’s American Ethnology series. These books are available at most libraries and cover various topics, from Ojibwa decorative quillwork to Seminole Negro-Indian Scouts. Also, check for scholarly articles in Genealogical Abstracts and other genealogy periodicals focusing on specific tribes or geographic regions.
Start with Your Family
Most genealogists begin their research at home, searching personal records such as birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, backs of pictures, and family bibles. Oral traditions and stories are also valuable sources of information about Native ancestry.
When you have the name of a Native American ancestor and the date range within which that person lived, search for information on genealogy websites. These sites provide access to millions of records and are well worth a visit.
Federal censuses are another vital source of information for researching a Native American ancestor. Censuses provide information about when a person was born, their children and spouses, parents, grandparents, and other relatives, what tribe they belonged to, and where they lived.
Treaty and annuity rolls are records of goods or money the government paid to tribal members to fulfill treaties. These records are available online on genealogy sites.
DNA testing has opened a whole new world for people who want to discover their Native American heritage. These tests can provide definitive haplogroup information, which is a direct link to specific tribes and a window into the family history of these individuals long before surnames were used.
Start with Records
A solid research plan starts with a review of the records you already have at home and in your possession. These might include birth, death, and marriage certificates; obituaries, cemetery records; funeral cards; probate and land records; military service and discharge papers; and newspaper announcements and clippings. It would be best if you also considered contacting local, county, or state historical societies and archives for help with the specialized types of records that pertain to Native American genealogy.
Many people researching their family history discover they have a few ancestors with at least some Native American heritage. These people can take a genetic test, such as an autosomal DNA test (the type most often used by genealogists) or a mitochondrial DNA test (mtDNA), to determine the exact percentage of their ancestor’s mtDNA or Y-DNA that is of Native American origin.
Depending on how recently your ancestor was part of a tribe, it may not be possible to locate specific tribal records. This is especially true for those ancestors that were partially or entirely “removed” from their traditional homes to other areas by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, such as the Cherokee, who were forced to relocate along the Trail of Tears in 1838.
Suppose you have an ancestor that was a member of a federally recognized tribe. In that case, you can try to locate BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) records such as annuity and allotment rolls. You can also find records from the individual tribes, such as census, church, land, and military records.