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United States Native Races Part 1 - How Do I Find Records about My Ancestors?

As you learn about the times in which your ancestors lived, their problems, accomplishments, tragedies, and triumphs, your understanding and success as a family history researcher will grow. This article is a part of a series entitled Indians of North America - A Beginner's Guide.

Special Strategies for Indian Research

If you believe you have Indian ancestors, it will help your research to:

  • Identify a specific ancestor who was Indian and learn where he or she lived. Use the records described throughout this article, particularly the 1900, 1910, and 1920 United States federal censuses to help identify your Native American ancestor(s). These censuses have separate schedules of Native Americans living on reservations.
  • Identify the tribe and study its history. Generally, you should know the specific tribe to which your Native American ancestor was born before beginning research. Sometimes you can find this information in United States federal census. When you know the general area where an ancestor lived, you can usually identify the tribe to which he or she belonged. It helps to learn some background information about the tribe, such as migration patterns, marriage and naming customs, and affiliations with churches and government agencies. Because some tribes moved several times, their records may be available in many locations. The following and books describe where tribes lived, their history, migration patterns, customs, and

Malinowski, Sharon, et. al. Gale Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. Four Volumes. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research 1998. (FHL 970.1 G131g.) Volume one covers tribes in the Northeast, Southeast, and Caribbean. Volume two covers in the Great Basin, Southwest, and Middle America. Volume three covers the Arctic, Subarctic, Great Plains, and Plateau. Volume four covers California, the Pacific Northwest, and Pacific Islands.

Use as many records as possible. Often individual documents will only show part of an Native American family. Continue to look for information, and constantly compare the various documents with each other. Each piece of information will assist you in building a more complete and accurate account of the lives of your ancestors. It should be noted that the members in an Native American family often changed over time. For example, in the U.S. federal censuses, children listed in a family could be children of a sibling or other relative of the listed head of family.

The Research Process

To make your research more effective, begin by obtaining some background information, then survey previous research, and finally, search original documents.

All family history researchers, including those looking for Indian ancestors, will benefit from using the following five-step research process.

Step 1. Identify What You Know About Your Family

Begin your research with family and home sources. Look for names, dates, and places in certificates, family Bibles, obituaries, diaries, and similar sources. Ask your relatives for any additional information they may have. It’s very likely that your second cousin, great-aunt, or other relative already has some family information. Organize the information you find, and record it on pedigree charts and family group record forms.

Be sensitive to the feelings of family members you contact. Respect their privacy, customs, and wishes. If a relative is hesitant to talk about the past, be cautious and avoid making him or her uncomfortable. Find another way to get the information.

Family Stories and Traditions. While many family traditions are exaggerated, they may include accurate facts. Information about the area of the country an ancestor came from, occupations, nearby towns, rivers, or mountains may provide clues to the name of the tribe or place of origin.

Step 2. Decide What You Want To Learn

Select a specific relative or ancestor, for whom you know at least a name, a place or tribe where he or she lived, and an approximate date when he or she lived there. It would also be helpful to know his or her religion and the names of other family members.

If you don’t have enough information on your Native American ancestor, review the sources mentioned in step one, which may give the birthplace or residence.

If you do not know the tribe of your ancestor, conduct your research as if he or she were non-Indian. When the ancestor no longer appears in non-Indian records, then start to search Indian records.

Next, decide what you want to learn about your ancestor, such as where and when he or she was married, or the names of his or her parents. You may want to ask an experienced researcher or a librarian to help you select a goal that you can successfully achieve.

Step 3. Select a Record To Search

Some unique records of Native Americans that you can use are described in part two of this article. Often your Native American ancestor can also be found in non-Indian records. Use the national and state or provincial FamilySearch Wiki articles for the place where your Indian ancestors lived to learn about these records.

Read this article to learn about the types of records used for Native American research. To trace your family, you may need to use some of the records described in each section. Several factors can affect your choice of which records to search. This article provides information to help you evaluate the contents, availability, ease of use, time period covered, and reliability of the records, as well as the likelihood that your ancestor will be listed.

Reference Tools

If you do not have enough information to select or use previous research sources or original records, use reference tools from the following categories:

Background Information Sources. You may need some tribal, geographical, historical, linguistic, or cultural information. This can save you time and effort by helping you focus your research in the correct place and time period. You may need to:

  • Learn about the tribe. Use encyclopedias, references, and history books to learn about the tribe, where they lived, and where they migrated. Look for clues about the people, places, religions, and events that may have affected their lives and records generated about them.
  • Locate the town or place of residence. Examine maps, gazetteers, postal guides, and other place-finding aids to learn as much as you can about each of the places where your ancestors lived. Identify nearby cities, boundaries, other geographical features, and government agency or ecclesiastical jurisdictions.
  • Learn about Native American jurisdictions. You will need to know how Native American records are divided. Learn about the local, county, state, provincial, and federal government records that may list tribe members. Which agency or agencies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs served the tribe? Learn about the tribal records. Which churches kept records about this tribe? Are there private collections with information about this tribe? Find out about the clans, bands, Indian nations, or other divisions that may have affected record keeping about the tribe.
  • Use language helps. The records and histories of Native Americans will usually be written in English, Spanish, French, or Latin. A few other European languages are also used in scattered Indian records. Genealogical word lists for many European languages are available at most family history centers. Occasionally Indian records are found in the Indian language. You do not need to speak or read a language to search the records in that language, but you will need to learn some key words and phrases. The Family History Library has dictionaries of a few Native American languages.
  • Understand Indian naming customs. From time to time during their life, many Indians changed their names. Some Indians had an Indian name, an English (or French or Spanish) name, and a Christian name (by which they were known in Church records) at the same time. Understanding these customs can help you locate missing ancestors.
  • Understand tribal customs. Local customs may have affected the way individuals were recorded in the records. Learn about kinship systems. Sometimes a taboo about speaking the name of the dead must be understood and respectfully handled. Finding Aids. Catalogs, inventories, or bibliographies identify where a record is available. Indexes help find the person’s name in a record. A few finding aids are discussed in this article. See the appropriate national, state, or province research FamilySearch Wiki articles for more information about finding aids.

Genealogical Records

The genealogical and historical records needed to identify an Indian ancestor fall into two categories:

Previous Research Sources. Most genealogists do a survey of research previously done by others. This can save time and give you valuable information. A few sources of previous research are:

  • Printed family histories and genealogies.
  • Computer databases of family information, such as
  • Family information published in periodicals and newsletters.

Original Documents. After surveying previous research, you will be ready to begin research in original documents. These can often be found on microfilm. Original documents are usually handwritten in the native language of the author, sometimes Spanish, French, Latin, and Russian. These documents can provide primary information about your family because they were generally at or near the time of an event by a reliable witness. To do thorough research, you should search records of:

  • Each place where your ancestor lived.
  • The time period when he or she lived there.
  • All jurisdictions that may have kept records about him (tribe, town, church, county, agency, state, province, and nation).

Many types of original documents are described in this article. For genealogical research of Native Americans most family information is found in the original records described under:

  • Census
  • Land and Property
  • Probate
  • Court Records
  • Schools
  • Church Records

Step 4. Obtain and Search the Record

Suggestions for Obtaining Records. You may be able to obtain the records you need in the following ways:

  • Family History Library. You are welcome to visit and use the records at the Family History Library. The library is open to the public. There are no fees for using the records. The Family History Library has a good collection of Indian records, including many of the records available from the National Archives of the United States. If you would like more information about its services, contact the library at the following address:

Family History Library
35 North West Temple
Salt Lake City, UT 84150-3400 USA
Telephone: 801-240-2364 Fax: 801-240-1927

  • Family history centers. Some of the family history centers have records on microform from the Family History Library. Locate a family history center.Call ahead for availability.
  • Archives and local churches. Most of the original documents you will need are at state, province, church, or local archives; tribal archives offices; or museum libraries. While the Family History Library has many records on microfilm, additional records are available only at these archives. You can request searches in their records through correspondence. (See Native Races Archives and Libraries for more information.)
  • Libraries and inter-library loan. Public, college, and other research libraries may have some published sources for Native American research. Many libraries also provide inter-library loan services that allow you to borrow records from other libraries.
  • Computers. The number of genealogical resources accessible by computer is growing rapidly. If you have a computer with a modem, you can search the Internet, bulletin boards, and commercial online services for genealogical information. See Native Races Internet Resources for details.
  • Genealogical and historical societies. Many counties, states, and provinces have genealogical and historical societies that collect family and local histories, Bible records, cemetery records, genealogies, manuscripts, newspapers, and records of pioneers. Some societies are able to briefly search their records for you. See Native Races Societies and Periodicals for details.
  • Professional researchers. You can employ a private researcher to search the records for you. Few researchers specialize in Native American records. For contact information on professional organizations, Hiring a Professional Researcher. Local archives, libraries, and societies may also provide the names of individuals in the area who will search records for you.
  • Publishers. You can purchase records from the publisher if the records are still in print. A local book dealer or library can help you identify and contact publishers. A helpful list of genealogical publishers and publications is: Hoffman, Marian. Genealogical and Local History Books in Print, Fifth Edition. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997. (FHL Book 929.1016 H675g). Most Family History Library publications have been transferred to this FamilySearch Wiki, which you can view and print. The Family History Library and family history centers do not sell books.
  • Bookstores. Some bookstores carry newer family history books. Often you can obtain out-of-print books from very large bookstores. For a small fee they can advertise nationwide for old books. When requesting services from libraries, archives, or professional researchers through correspondence, you are more likely to be successful if your letter is brief and very specific. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) when writing within your own country. You will usually need to send a check or money order in advance to pay for photocopy or search services. Be careful what you ask for and how you ask for it. If your request violates a custom or taboo, you may not get a response, or you may get a misleading response. For example, many Navajo Indians believe that speaking the name of a dead person is bad. Rather than offend oral history interviewers, some Navajos invented false names for their deceased. Avoid using offensive terms. The best way to avoid accidentally offending someone is to study the history of the tribe to become familiar with their customs.

Suggestions for Searching the Records. You will be most successful with Native American research if you can examine the original records or microfilms of the originals. In some cases, only transcripts of the original records are available.

These may be easier to read, but may be less accurate than the original records.

Follow these principles as you search the records for your ancestor:

  • Search for the ancestor’s entire family. The records of each person in a family may include clues for identifying other family members. In most families, children were born at regular intervals. If there appears to be a longer period between some children, reevaluate the records for a child who may have been overlooked. Consider looking at other records and in other places to find a missing family member.
  • Search each source thoroughly. The information you need to find a person or trace the family further may be a minor detail of the record you are searching. Note the occupation of your ancestor and the names of witnesses, godparents, neighbors, relatives, guardians, and others. Also, note the places they are from.
  • Watch for name changes. Many Native Americans changed their name from time to time, or used different names in certain situations. It helps to find an ancestor’s Indian name and English name together in the same document, usually a census.
  • Search a broad time period. Dates obtained from some sources may not be accurate. Look several years before and after the date you think an event, such as a birth, occurred.
  • Look for indexes. Many records have indexes. However, many indexes are incomplete. They may only include the name of the specific person the record is about. They may not include parents, witnesses, and other incidental persons. Also, beware that the original records may have been misinterpreted or names may have been omitted during indexing. Look for each name the Indian ancestor went by during his or her lifetime.
  • Search for prior residence. Information about previous residences is crucial to continued successful research.
  • Watch out for spelling variations. Look for the many ways a name could have been spelled. Spelling was not standardized when most early records were made. English speaking clerks may have struggled to spell a hard-to-say Indian name. You may find a name spelled differently than it is today.

Record Your Searches and Findings. Copy the information you find, and keep detailed notes about each record you search. These notes should include the author, title, location, call numbers, description, and results of your search. Most researchers use a Research Log for this purpose.

Step 5. Use the Information

Evaluate the Information You Find. Carefully evaluate whether the information you find is complete and accurate. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who provided the information? Did that person
    witness the event?
  • Was the information recorded near the time of the event, or later?
  • Is the information consistent and logical?
  • Does the new information verify the information found in other sources?
  • Does it differ from information in other sources?
  • Does it suggest other places, time periods, or records to search?

Share Your Information with Others. Your family’s history can become a source of enjoyment and education for you and your family. Sharing helps others build on your success and correct mistakes. When you help others, they are more inclined to help you. One way to find an elusive ancestor is to publish what you know and wait for other researchers to contact you with additional information.

Start by sharing the information you find with family members. Some will return the favor by sharing additional information with you. You are invited to share your information with the Family History Library and others in these ways:

  • Donate a paper copy of your family history to the Family History Library with permission to microfilm it. For more information, see Preparing a Family History Resource Guide. We also encourage you to donate paper copies to public libraries, county historical societies, and state and county genealogical societies in the areas where your ancestors settled. You could request a book notice or book review in each genealogical society’s periodical in return for the donation.
  • Preserve your data at our website FamilySearch.

Record Finder: Indians of the United States and Canada 1800 to Present

This table can help you decide which records to search.

Choose an ancestor to learn about.

  1. From column 1, decide what you want to learn about that person; this is your research goal.
  2. In Column 1, find the goal you selected.
  3. In Column 2, find the types of records most likely to have the information you need, then read the FamilySearch Wiki articles about those types of records.
  4. Look in the FamilySearch Catalog and choose a specific record to search.
  5. Look at the record.
  6. If you do not find the information you need, search the record types in column 3.

Note:Records of previous research (Genealogy, Biography, History, Periodicals, and Societies) are useful for most goals, but they are not listed unless they are especially helpful.

1. If You Need 2. Search These Record Types 3. Search These Record Types
First Next
Age *Sanitation, Census, *Enrollment *Allotment, *Annuity, Probate, School
Allotment number or information *Indian Census, *Enrollment, Probate
Annuity number *Indian Census
Birth information Vital, *Sanitation, Census Probate, Military, Newspapers
Boundaries and origins Maps, Gazetteers Encyclopedias and Dictionaries
Children Vital, Census, *Allotment, *Enrollment Probate, Newspapers, Military
Death information Vital,* Sanitation, Probate Church, Newspapers, Military
Degree of Indian blood *Annuity, *School
English and/or Indian name *Annuity, *Indian Census, *Court of Claims/Indian Claims

* Allotment Commission
Historical background History, Encyclopedias and Dictionaries
Maiden name Vital, *Sanitation, Probate Newspapers
Marriage information Vital, Census, *Allotment Probate, Newspapers, Military
Naming customs Encyclopedias and Dictionaries
Other relatives Vital, *Sanitation, Census * Enrollment, *Allotment, Probate
Parents Vital, Census, *Allotment Probate, Newspapers, Military
Place-finding aids Gazetteers, Maps, Encyclopedias

and Dictionaries
Places of residence Census,*Allotment, Military Directories
Previous research Genealogy, Periodicals,

Record-finding aids Archives and Libraries,

Relationship to head of the family Census, *Annuity, *Court of

Claims/Indian Claims Commission
Tribal and/or band affiliation

*Enrollment, Probate, School

* For information on these records look in the FamilySearch Wiki articles for the locality or for [[United States Native Races]]:

Allotment Land and Property, Census, Probate, Court, Vital, Minorities, History, Glossary
Annuity Census, Vital, Minorities, History, Glossary
Enrollment Land and Property, Census, Probate, Court, Vital, Minorities, History, Glossary
Indian Census Census, Minorities, History, Glossary
Court of Claims/Indian Claims Commission Court, Land and Property, Minorities, History, Glossary