How to Research American Indian Ancestors

By Paula Stuart-Warren Premium

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Uncovering tribal history
Prepping for sources
Reviewing the records
Searching on-site
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Many families have handed-down stories about American Indian ancestors, but how can you know for sure? Learn everything you need to confirm, research and understand your Native American heritage.

Lucy Pretty Eagle’s gravestone was the first erected in the Indian Cemetery at the Carlisle (Pa.) Indian Industrial School, She died March 9, 1884, not even four months after arriving from South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Agency. The 10-year-old Sioux girl came to Carlisle in poor health — and with a different identity. Like other students, she was given an Anglicized name to replace her Indian name, Take the Tail. After Lucy died, her father, Pretty Eagle, wrote: “She had died the year before but had come back to life again.” He didn’t know that his daughter’s death would spawn ghost stories and tales of her being buried alive — which have obscured the real details of her life.

Many families have handed-down stories about American Indian ancestors. Learn how to Trace Your Native American ancestry with this free eBook download.

Researchers Barbara Landis and Genevieve Bell culled these facts about Take the Tail’s life (and death) from her student file and other sources, as part of their project to document the Carlisle School’s history. The biographies they’ve pieced together would thrill any genealogist.

Luckily, if you have American Indian ancestors — Sioux or any of the 562 federally recognized American Indian tribes — similar discoveries may await you. Millions of today’s Americans can claim family ties to the continent’s first peoples: Officially, American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States number 4.3 million, including 3.1 million tribe members. And because government policies and intermarriage led many tribe members to assimilate over the centuries, even more people share American Indian heritage. Some might not realize they have tribal ties — or haven’t been able to prove it.

Discovering that connection can be challenging, but you have many resources at your disposal. The United States’ interactions with native tribes have resulted in a bounty of genealogical sources, from school records to censuses. In fact, the government has created more records about American Indians than any other ethnic group. Here, we’ll guide you through some of the most useful sources for documenting your heritage.

Of course, those records are just one benefit of the pursuit. Researching your American Indian ancestry provides a sense of belonging and pride in your heritage. For some, it means funding or assistance for education or a business. Whatever the reason for your search, your discoveries will help you understand the turmoil in your ancestors’ lives — and reclaim your heritage.

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Uncovering tribal history

If you’re not sure you have American Indian ancestry, several cities could spark your search: Grandma may have told you her grandfather had Indian blood. Maybe you came across an M, B, MB or I in the color column of census records. (An M stands for mulatto, B for black, MB for mixed blood and I or In for Indian.) The mark could be arbitrary — or it may indicate Indian ancestry. Diaries, business transactions or other records might reveal an ancestor’s association with local American Indians. The ancestor’s movements might correlate with a tribe’s migrations.

To investigate these clues, you’ll need to place your ancestor in a tribe, place and time period. Begin by working backward from what you know, talking to relatives and documenting recent generations.

Next, narrow your search to a tribe by studying your ancestors’ historical context. Create a timeline of places your family members lived, and learn about the history of Indian tribes in those places. Consult the books on the next page and look for tribal histories in libraries, especially those of major historical societies and universities. You’ll want to answer these questions:

  • What tribes were in an area when your ancestor lived there?
  • What migrations (both forced and voluntary) took place?
  • What reservations were in the area, and when?

American Indian traditions emphasize oral history — stories of people and customs passed through generations. You might rind that a family member was involved in art oral history project such as the American Indian Research Project at the South Dakota Oral History Center, with archives of nearly 2,000 interviews with Northern Plains Indians. Check with the area historical society or library — even if you don’t find an interview with an ancestor, you’ll discover valuable tribal history.

Watch for name changes, misspellings and variations — both individual and tribal — in old records. The Yakama tribe (members are shown here in 1911) changed its name from Yakima in 1994 to more closely reflect the word’s pronunciation.

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Prepping for sources

Before you dive into American Indian records, know what to expect — and what to look for. You’ll see terms such as Alaska Native, American Indian, Native American, First Nations (generally used for Canadian tribes), tribe, hand, community and clan. Labels used to refer to American Indians vary by time, tribe and location. Names vary, too. US government personnel often called American Indians by Anglicized names (remember Take the Tail’s being dubbed Lucy Pretty Eagle). Language and education also affected how names were recorded. So expect to find multiple names and spellings for each ancestor.

American Indians who assimilated into the general population — by choice or by force — might not be called Indians or appear at all in Indian records. If your ancestor’s tribe wasn’t recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) — the federal agency formed in 1824 to guide government relations with tribes — you’ll find few BIA records for your ancestor. Instead, concentrate on census documents, newspaper accounts and the other records mentioned here.

Visit for a list of recognized tribes and here for nonrecognized tribes. BIA field offices can be found on the BIA website. BIA jurisdictions have changed over time, so consult Edward Hill’s Guide to Records in the National Archives of the United States Relating to American Indians (National Archives and Records Administration) for help.

Each tribe has a unique history, so a record created for one tribe might not have been kept as carefully — or at all — for another. Inconsistencies in recording tribal affiliation, degree of Indian blood and family relationships are common. One BIA agent may have laboriously recorded a tribe’s births and deaths. A lazier agent might have copied the previous year’s data, increasing each person’s age by one. Widely scattered tribes made contact difficult, and language was often a barrier. Ancestors sometimes gave conflicting information, or embellished tribal affiliations to qualify for government aid. In some American Indian communities, spiritual beliefs meant the dead weren’t spoken of. Not until the late 19th to early 20th centuries did records detail American Indians with reasonable reliability. But don’t give up. If you’ve exhausted all means of finding one of the following record types, look for another.

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Reviewing the records

What kinds of documents should you try first? These are among the most useful for tracking American Indian ancestors:

Federal censuses: The government first included “Indian” as a race category on the 1870 US census. Before then, censuses counted only American Indians in the general population (not those on reservations), and usually didn’t identify them as such. Thankfully, not all enumerators followed the instructions: You’ll occasionally find American Indians designated on pre-1870 censuses, for example, in a household where an Indian married a white person.

The most significant federal censuses for American Indian research are 1900 and 1910, which include separate Indian schedules. These schedules look like regular census forms on the top halves of the pages, but the bottom halves have blanks for tribal affiliation, indication of blood degree and more (though this information isn’t always correct). On microfilmed census records, you’ll find the Indian schedules within the general population records.

Indian schedules for reservations appear in various parts of the census: They sometimes show up in the middle, and sometimes at the end of the records for a county or a nearby town. Schedules of American Indians who didn’t live on reservations might show up anywhere.

Online indexes to the 1900 and 1910 censuses, such as those at and list American Indians’ names alphabetically with everyone else. If you subscribe to those sites’ census databases, you can click on the names to pull up images of the actual schedules. American Indians also appear in the Soundex (a phonetic index) for those years.

Keep in mind that census entries may not include surnames because some American Indians didn’t use them. Indexes sometimes list Indian as the surname. For more census hints, see Your Guide to the Federal Census by Kathleen W. Hinckley (Betterway Books).

The 1900 and 1910 US censuses include separate schedules of American Indians on reservations, such as these Winnebago tribe members.

Tribal censuses and rolls: Beginning in 1885, the federal government ordered separate censuses of many American Indian tribes. Their purposes varied from distributing supplies to collecting money. The records may note ancestors’ Indian names and their degrees of Indian blood. They’re on microfilm labeled with years spanning 1885 to 1940; however, the films also include earlier and later enumerations of some tribes. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City have microfilmed tribal censuses. You may be able to view them at one of the FHL’s branch Family History Centers (FHCs) or a NARA regional branch.

You can find Indian censuses in the FHL catalog using keyword or place terms. For example, to find tribal censuses from South Dakota, you’d do a place search for that state, then check under the Native Races category. For keyword searches, enter a tribe name and the word census. Always check under the state’s name, though: It may turn up possibilities you’d overlook with a keyword search.

Special counts were taken of various tribes for enrollment or government compensation. For example, the Dawes Commission Rolls list members of the Five Civilized Tribes — Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole — between 1898 and 1914. You’ll also find applications for tribal membership, including those the commission rejected. The 1908 Durant Roll counts the Chippewa and Ottawa tribes of Michigan — and the films include field notes the compiler, Horace B. Durant, wrote in the margins. These rolls are also on microfilm from NARA, the FHL and elsewhere. NARA has indexed several tribal censuses, including the Dawes Rolls, on its website.

Heirship and probate files: If your American Indian ancestor owned land, it had to be dispersed after he died — which may have resulted in an “heirship” proceeding. BIA records contain a wealth of heirship case files and correspondence. The files can yield golden nuggets of information: People who knew the deceased and the family were interviewed about relatives, spouses, siblings and earlier generations, resulting in a wonderful family picture.

Report on Heriship

NARA’s hesrship-record holdings include paper copies and some original manuscripts; they begin around 1887, and end around the early 1940s. Most were created after 1900. BIA offices have some of these records on microfilm, but they aren’t always accessible to the public.

Although NARA has an index to heirship files, it’s not online and it can be cumbersome — it comprises thousands of cards, ledgers and the like. If your Indian ancestry is concentrated in one tribe or a specific locality, research the heirship files for a whole tribe or location at NARA. Looking at other tribe members’ files might lead you to additional names and relationships. Heirship-file research is best done on site at NARA; however, you can call for a list of researchers who will do the work for a fee.

Check the county courthouse near the tribe’s location for probate proceeding files regarding your ancestors, especially if they owned land or a business, or had children who needed a guardian.

Military records: American Indians served in the US military as far back as the 1700s — during World War I, about 12,000 enlisted. So see it your ancestors appear in indexes to military service records and pension files. You can search indexes to some military records at online at See NARA’s website for details on its microfilmed indexes. You’ll also find published indexes, such as Virgil D. White’s Index to Old War’s Pension Files, 1815-1926.

Newspapers: Like many ethnic groups, American Indians had special-interest newspapers. Missionaries in Dakota Territory published lapi Oaye (Word Carrier) from 1871 to 1939. It covered births, marriages, deaths, baseball, government programs and news from a wide area, with emphasis on Nebraska, the Dakotas and Minnesota. An English version was published from 1884 to 1937, but you’d need a translation dictionary, such as Stephen Riggs’ A Dakota-English Dictionary (Minnesota Historical Society), to read other issues. For listings of similar newspapers, consult Native American Periodicals and Newspapers, 1828-1982 by James P. Danky (Greenwood Press).

Mainstream newspapers varied in their coverage of American Indians, depending on current events, politics and proximity to reservations. Check libraries near your ancestors’ homes for newspapers that ran articles about local tribes. For information on historical newspapers by state, visit

Vital records: Although it’s worth searching for earlier records, many American Indian births, deaths and marriages weren’t documented at vital-records offices until the 20th century. Most BIA vital-record-keeping on reservations began in the late 19th century. The years and types of records vary by tribe and BIA agent. You may find duplicate vital-record entries, especially for the 20th century, when agents were more thorough and may have forwarded details to the county courthouse or a state government office. The FHL (search the catalog by place name and vital records category) and regional branches of NARA hold many BIA viral records.

Whether your Indian ancestors wed in a church or by tribal custom, a marriage record could appear in local church records, the county courthouse or a BIA agent’s correspondence, likewise, divorces might have happened at the courthouse or by tribal custom. Traditional American Indian marriages and divorces didn’t leave much of a trail, but you can find evidence in census, heirship and other records.

Despite conflicts between Indians and other groups, intermarriage was common. In areas with an active fur trade, such as present-day Minnesota, British and French Canadian traders married Indians; so did Buffalo Soldiers in Western and Plains states, and white settlers who pushed west into Indian territories. In the South, American Indians intermarried with African-Americans. Members of different tribes also intermarried — so you may need to cheek records of both tribes.

Missionary records: For hundreds of years, missionaries of many religious denominations made it their life’s work to “save” Indians through conversion. That may or may not have been beneficial for the Indians, but it can help genealogists. Missionaries’ records on christenings, deaths and marriages may be in a local church’s record books, or in a journal tucked away in a library or archive. Read tribal histories to find our what missionaries were active in your ancestors’ area and time, then find our where that denomination keeps its records. Check area historical societies, too.

School records: The BIA operated boarding and day schools for American Indian youths, usually to assimilate them into white culture. Not all Indians welcomed the experience, nor were many treated kindly, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience 1875-1928 by David Wallace Adams (University Press of Kansas) is a good history of BIA schools. NARA and the FHL hold records — such as Lucy Pretty Eagle’s Carlisle School student file — of students’ grades, medical history, parentage, tribal affiliation, blood degree and school attendance. To find out what’s available, try a place search of the FHL catalog. Check NARA’s website for regional centers’ holdings (click Research Room, then Locations and Hours). Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., also holds many Indian school records.

Churches ran similar Indian schools. Look for schools your ancestors might have attended in a guide such as The Churches and the Indian Schools 1888-1912 by Francis Paul Prucha (University of Nebraska Press). Most records from church schools remain with the church or religious archive.

Records for Indian students who attended local public or religious schools may have been transferred to the archives of a state, school district or church.

Other records: Because they traded with tribes and employed members as guides, fur traders left behind records documenting American Indians. You might even find evidence of a trader bilking your ancestor out of supplies, money or pelts. The Hudson’s Bay Company, established in 1670, was active in Canada, present-day Minnesota and Wisconsin, and points westward. Other companies sprung up in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Consult county and tribal histories to learn which companies operated in your ancestor’s area, then search online (use place names and terms such as fur trade) to find out where those companies’ records are today. They’re often at major libraries and historical societies. For example, the Archives of Manitoba in Canada holds records of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and many American Fur Company records are at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis.

Settlers, farmers, storekeepers, BIA agents and others also filled letters and diaries with references to American Indians. Some are unkind, and others are poignant. Look for these records in archives at museums, universities and historical societies near your ancestors’ tribal territory.

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Searching on-site

One challenge of researching American Indian roots is that much of your work must be done on site at NARA and other repositories. The BIA doesn’t keep many historical records, hut most of its archives are available at NARA, as are military, land, school and other relevant records — which you also can get via the FHL. NARA’s College Park, Md., location also holds Department of the Interior records, maps and photographs.

NARA’s regional facilities house BIA records pertaining to the states each serves: the Fort Worth Region has records from Oklahoma, for example. On NARA’s Web site, you can determine which centers have which records: From the home page, click Research Room, then Guide to Federal Records, which details records’ scopes and locations. For example, check out Record Group 75, Records of the BIA. But remember: Not all federal records of Indians are in this record group. Study the online guide — it’s more up-to-date than the published version.

You also could hit pay dirt at smaller repositories, particularly in local, state or regional archives and historical society libraries. Check ones in the areas your ancestors’ tribe inhabited — including the places they migrated to. To research Southern and Southeastern tribes, many of which were forcibly removed to what’s now Oklahoma, visit the Oklahoma Historical Society. You’ll find information about the society’s records on nearly 70 tribes, especially the Five Civilized Tribes. If you’re searching for Cherokee ancestors, try the Cherokee Heritage Center.

Don’t let the notion of trekking to distant libraries and archives discourage you. Instead, remember that stories like Take the Tail’s are waiting for you to discover them. With diligence and determination, you can bring the details of your own ancestors’ lives out of obscurity. The research is challenging, but you can persevere — just as your ancestors did.

Your American Indian ancestors’ story—like this Nez Percé family’s—may be one of migration. The Nez Percé of Chief Joseph’s Band, now part of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington, left their Idaho homeland in 1877 rather than move to a reservation. They led US soldiers on a three month chase, finally surrendering in Montana. After exile in Oklahoma, many of those Nez Percé moved to Colville in 1885.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2004 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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