How to Find a “Cherokee” Ancestor

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Q. My great-grandmother was Cherokee. How do I find information about her?

A. At least you didn’t say she was a “Cherokee princess.” Family stories about American Indian ancestry are among the most common genealogy myths. Of course, your great-grandmother may indeed have been all or part Cherokee, but as you search for information about her, it’s best to maintain a healthy degree of skepticism.

The first available US census listing most American Indians is 1900. For predominantly Indian areas, special schedules identified one’s tribe and parents’ tribes. For Indians living among the general population, only color or race was designated, such as “Indian” or “white.” If your ancestor’s tribe isn’t identified in the 1900 census, you can learn about the tribes living in the area using resources such as The Indian Tribes of North America by John R. Swanton (Genealogical Publishing Co.). The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) also recommends A Guide to the Indian Tribes of Oklahoma by Muriel H. Wright (University of Oklahoma Press) and The Indians of Texas by W.W. Newcomb Jr. (University of Texas Press).

For Cherokee ancestors, consult the Dawes Commission Rolls, which list members of the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole) between 1898 and 1914. NARA has an online index and tutorial for these records.

Note that the Dawes Commission rejected nearly two-thirds of applications for tribal membership, and earlier 1896 applications were all declared invalid. To find census cards and application jackets for rejected applicants, plus invalid forms, visit NARA’s Fort Worth regional facility. It has microfilm indexes for those rejected as Cherokee or Choctaw, as well as the invalid 1896 applications.

You can also search the Guion Miller Rolls, which list applicants for a federal fund compensating Cherokee families who lost land because of the 1830 Indian Removal Act. See an index here.

Other helpful resources at NARA include records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA); field records from the BIA are held in the Archives’ regional offices. For a guide to BIA records, order publication 163, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, compiled by Edward E. Hill. See for ordering information. For more tips, see the November 2009 issue.

From the March 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine