Genealogy: A Family Affair - Native American Research-Part I
The Mariposa Family History Center
5546 Highway 49 North
Mariposa, California 95338
Tues: 10am-2pm Wed: 11am-7pm
From the time the white man began arriving on the shores of America, a great deal of prejudice was generated against the Native American tribes. The people who inhabited this land when the Europeans and others first arrived, ultimately retaliated against the encroachment on their lands and paid for their defense of a simpler way of life with a great deal of suffering and injustice meted out by their conquerors. When the white man wanted land, he generally took it with little regard for those who preceded him in calling it “home”. In 1830 the United States Government passed the “Indian Removal Act”, which authorized the removal of all Indian tribes to areas west of the Mississippi River. In order to avoid being forced from their homes and being moved, many Native Americans who were living off the reservations did everything they could to avoid being identified as Indians. Whenever they had the opportunity, they declared themselves to be "white" on census and other records. As time went by, those Indians who declared themselves "white" became more and more invisible to their neighbors. The result was that those individuals or families who were successful at hiding among their white neighbors became increasingly difficult to trace. The Native Americans who were forced to move from their homes and were re-settled on other lands, were not identified as family groups but as tribes of people. They also became difficult to trace.
Today, most of the prejudice seems to have been depleted and the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Many white people are now trying to find evidence to support family rumors that "great grandma was a full blooded Cherokee" or a member of some other Indian tribe. Unfortunately, even if the family rumors are true, because of the previous Indian attempts to avoid detection, proving them is often difficult and sometimes impossible. Researching Indian genealogy is a more interesting challenge than most of us face. Without a written language, most Indian information was kept through an oral tradition. Vital records, in the usual format of birth, marriage and death certificates did not exist and almost all written records needed to research Indian genealogy were compiled from United States Government records. These early government documents were generated because of Indian claims against the United States government. In order for an Indian to receive benefits awarded to them by the courts, they were required to prove their Native American ancestry in detail. It is the attempts by these people to prove their heritage that became the basis for many of the existing government records. The problem, though, is that after a long history of broken government promises, many Indians did not trust the white man’s latest intrusions into their lives. Many Indian people failed to apply for their legal rights or for some technical reasons were unable to substantiate their claims to offered benefits. In some instances, records of people who applied for government benefits but were denied them were kept by the government. Today, documents attempting to confirm an Indian heritage continue to be submitted to the government as people try to prove they are entitled to land allotments or monies awarded to the various tribes. Most of the Indian tribes now have organized Indian Agencies that work to help administer the claims and subsequent court rulings in favor of the American Indians. So, with all that being said, you’ve decided to try to prove your Indian heritage.
What now... how do you proceed? Before beginning with actual research, you need to choose a particular ancestor or family that you would like to know more about. The first step will be to identify all you can about this person or family from your family sources. Once you have decided on your person or family of interest, use the methods we have previously discussed to trace as much of your family history as possible through the 1920, 1910 and 1900 United States Federal Census records. Almost all compiled Indian records date to this period of time so tracing your ancestry to the early twentieth century provides you with an excellent starting point for beginning your attempt to connect with real tribal information.
At the end of each census that was taken for the three decades listed above, special Indian enumerations were attached to specifically list tribal data. In addition, there were additional special Indian censuses that were taken in between those legally mandated recordings. If you are lucky, you will find your family members referenced on some of these documents. If you do not find them listed with any tribal affiliation, continue to trace your family back as far as you can. If the person you are looking for still lived east of the Mississippi after 1850, they were not living as part of any organized tribe, and your chances of success in proving an Indian heritage are considerably reduced. If they lived in the Oklahoma Indian Territory before 1880, they may have been Indians or may have been living with an Indian spouse or perhaps had contact with Indians. Did you find them living in Oklahoma Indian Territory between 1893 and 1907? If so, you probably found some tribal affiliation and may be able to locate additional valuable information.
Our next article will continue with suggestions for tracing an Indian heritage, so be sure to check back in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, there is plenty in the suggestions we have listed here to keep you busy until we get back together.
If you have questions about your personal research we may be able to help. Email us at