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Native American Genealogy Tips

It seems like everybody has some story of an Indian Princess marrying into their family. Although the reality of such a connection maybe quite different than what was handed down in family lore, finding facts about Native Americans raises unique barriers.


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It seems like everybody has some story of an Indian Princess marrying into their family. Although the reality of such a connection maybe quite different than what was handed down in family lore, finding facts about Native Americans raises unique barriers.

Since I live in the Kittitas Valley of Central Washington State, I thought I would do some research of the local Kittitas Indians as a sample group. What I discovered is very applicable to any research of any Native American tribe across the country. In essence, beginning research into Native American genealogy is approached similarly to any other genealogical research. There are obstacles, like the lack of written documentation and the inexact translation of Native American names, but there are also different sources of information like the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and since 1930, the organization of separate tribal groups such as reservation representatives and cultural centers.

Outside of petroglyphs, (carvings of rock) Native Americans disseminated most of their history to new generations by word of mouth. This oral history amounts to the greatest barrier in going back into a Native American family tree. Unlike other societies which wrote documents thousands of years ago, Native Americans were not documented until settlers, fur traders, missionaries, and military-sponsored organizations began to write of their clashes with tribes while moving westward. These clashes were not an ideal circumstance to study the Native American culture. Such stories are often a bit one-sided. The earliest documentation of Native American culture that was written down occurred first on the east coast and spread slowly toward the west coast.

With the exception of a few Spaniard-led expeditions in the West, Native Americans on the east coast were met and written about as early as the 1600's with the establishment of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown colonies. In great contrast, the Yakama and Kittitas tribes of central Washington were not written in detail about until early to mid 1800's, only a few decades before Washington statehood in 1889. Thus, the dividing line between doing genealogical research and doing archeology is the line between when the white man met up with the indians in any particular region.

Researching a particular familial Native American line consists of five steps:

  1. The first begins with gathering information from the family. If great Uncle Joe took an indian bride before 1885 in the Washington territory, I am afraid only Uncle Joe's Family Bible or family documentation is all you will discover about your great aunt. Washington, which became a state in 1889, had three territorial census conducted in 1885, 1887 and 1889. Prior to 1885 records become scarce.
  2. The second step is to determine what tribe your great aunt was part of. This may not be easy if your great aunt had not announced her affiliation. In studying the Kittitas Indians, I found they were part of thirteen other tribes which merged together after the 1855 treaty as part of the Yakama Indian nation. Though it is not quite clear if any of these tribes really felt truly autonomous from one another or if they recognized a larger kinship with each other, they did seem to recognize bands by where they lived. For example, Ow-hi was reported as the chief of the Kittitas Indian band during the 1840 -1850's, yet it was said that he was one of several sons of Kamiahken, a Yakama chief of some warring fame.

    If you want to go back further than the 1850‘s, it seems an archeological dig evidence may help. One such dig in 1908 near Thorp, Washington drew the conclusion that most all of the tribes which dotted the Columbia River area and lived on the eastern side of the Cascades had a striking resemblance in culture and clothing to the Plains Indians. Understanding a particular tribe will include understanding the timeline in which the tribe lived. When and what treaties were signed, when reservations were organized, and what allotments and policies were issued by the federal and local governments.

  3. The logical third step is to study any historical background of the tribe you are interested in. I suggest you use books with first-hand accounts written by scouts, fur traders, settlers, or missionaries in the region. I found two books: The Kittitas Indians which was a Central Washington State College History department project and the Kittitas Frontiersmen which was published for the Ellensburg Public Library. These publications offered actual documents written as early as 1805 by first-hand observers. Each special region in the United States have similar publications. The accounts of Lewis and Clark expedition is also another good reference.
  4. Find documents that are unique to Native American records such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). There are Native American cemeteries such as the one I found near Union Gap in Yakima County, Washington. I did find there is also Native American census which can be found at the Yakima Genealogical Society Library. The enrollment office of the Yakama Nation may also have data about the census. Some churches and missions were directly associated with certain tribes and have records which can help in understanding the customs and traditions of the tribe you are researching. Contact tribe members whom represent regional reservations for advice as to what information is available.
  5. Widen your search to include societies and regional archives. The Kittitas Indians were mentioned in the Hudson Bay Company records, University of Washington, as well as in Canadian and adjoining state historical archives. This widening search would also include using the Internet.
In any genealogical search, proper names and surnames can always be challenging. But nowhere is it more difficult than with Indian names. In 1874 "The Daws Act" created a list of allotments to Native Americans. They started to register Native Americans for the first time and included both the individual's native name and his adopted surname. The lists are a tangle of family stories in and of themselves. There were no rules as to how to come up with a surname. Some took a neighboring family name, some tried to translate the native meaning like "So-Happy." Others were mis-interpreted by whomever was registering them; for example, "WaptBassett," which was one word, became "Wapt Bassett." In one example two brothers were given different surnames as they used "James," which was his first name, and used it as his last name. His brother's last name was Adam. There were also many orphans named by others without much regard to the name given.

Native American genealogy certainly has its unique set of difficulties, but, taken in general, I enjoyed learning about how Native Americans in my region lived. I think you will find it just as interesting.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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