Inside Sources: Keeping Tabs on Tribal Censuses

By Paula Stuart-Warren and Allison Stacy Premium

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 (see page 64).

You can find Indian censuses in the FHL catalog using a keyword or place search. 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.

The government took special counts of various tribes for enrollment or federal 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 available on microfilm from NARA, the FHL and elsewhere. NARA has indexed several tribal censuses, including the Dawes Rolls, in its Archival Research Catalog (ARC) <>, which inventories NARA’s paper holdings.

In addition to the final Dawes Rolls, ARC catalogs the citizenship and tribal enrollment applications submitted to the Dawes Commission; the Guion-Miller Roll and the Wallace Roll, lists of Cherokee applying for government compensation; and the Kern-Clifton Roll, an 1867 tribal census of the Cherokee Nation. What’s more, NARA has actually digitized many of these documents, so you can view an image of the original record within ARC.

ARC can be finicky about search terminology, so before you start querying the database, peruse NARA’s instructions: From the ARC home page, click on Genealogical Sources in ARC. Under Native Americans, you’ll find descriptions of the available databases, along with suggested search terms. For example, if you’re looking for a Dawes Commission application, NARA recommends typing enrollment, the word and (ARC uses Boolean syntax), plus the person’s last name into the keyword box — for example, enrollment and jones. If the database has information on that person, you’ll get a list of hits — just click on the title for details. When ARC has an electronic copy of a record, the results will include a Digital Copy Available link, which means you can view the card bearing your ancestor’s name.

From the September 2005 Family Tree Sourcebook