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Genealogy of Communities: Indian Reservations

Because the Native American family-naming system varies from the English tradition, census returns are not always useful for locating Native American on reservations. Look a bit deeper and you'll find surprising things you can easily find on a reservation.


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We don't think of Native American reservations as being communities of choice by their residents. Upon closer examination, we find that reservations were not Native American communities, exclusively. Suddenly, we see reservations from a different perspective.

Wahpeton Indian Reservation, Yankton, Dakota Territory (District 54)

The very name of this reservation would lead anyone to believe it consisted of Indians. The assumption that everyone who lives on a reservation is Native American is quickly dispelled.

Only 18 of the 73 residents are Indian. The majority of residents on this reservation are "white." There are residents employed providing traditional goods and services.

The enumerator was quite diligent about noting which Indians were only half Indian, and did not identify what the other half was. Not all of the residents born in the Dakota Territory were Indian, and not all of the Indians were born in the Dakota Territory.

Here, the Native Americans are using English names and the enumerator in 1880 saw them as having occupations and distinct households and dwelling numbers.

The residents were a community that is unique to reservations. We find occupations here that we don't find on every street corner in America, such as the "government interpreter" and the "government agent." While the agent is likely to be white, interpreters can be Native American. In the 1880 census, one Wahpeton government interpreter named Smily Shepard is Indian.

Otherwise, the male Indians were a musician, a carpenter a farmer, a hostler, and a teamster. The female Indians were housewives or servants.

There is a separate area in Yankton, Dakota Territory, simply identified as Indian Reservation. More precisely it is Fort Sisseton. Here we find 125 white residents, many of whom are soldiers. The sole exception is Fanny Davis, a black servant living with the Capt. Roberts' family.

The lesson learned is that the reservation census enumerations are not necessarily helpful in researching Native American genealogy. They may be far more helpful in locating white ancestors who were soldiers, interpreters, or other local residents.

Red Cliff Reservation of the Great Lakes Indian Agency

The U.S. Indian Census for 1892 traces the location of some 414 pages of Native Americans on the Red Cliff Reservation, right down to their post office address. Today, the Red Cliff Reservation falls within the geographical territory of the State of Wisconsin.

The enumerations include the tribe, the exact degree of Indian blood each reported to have inherited, their birth date, and how old they turned on their last birthday. This was imperative for residency in 1934. Residency was based on genetic lineage. Native Americans were required to prove they were at least one-quarter Chippewa in order to belong to the tribe and live on the reservation. Because of that, we can establish the tribal membership of those who were Indian.

We can see from this that we are able to search for an individual by tribe, in those cases where it was reported. Each person was assigned a census roll number, which was recorded along with their census roll number on the previous census.

A large percentage of the names, by this generation, were either English or French. Almost none of the residents of Red Cliff, within the reservation, are full-blooded Indian by 1892.

Red Cliff is an example of our misperceptions. The Native Americans are ancient peoples who the United States Government did not recognize by tribe until 1934.

A simple Google Books search for "Red Cliff Reservation" will generate a variety of sources that should not be overlooked. A report from the Secretary of the Interior, published by the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs sounds less than fascinating. But in the 1904 issue, the Annual Report of the Department of the Interior included lists of Indian and white individuals employed on the reservation.

Crescent City, California

One of the more interesting enumerations is the 1860 census for the Klamath Reservation in Del Norte, California – post office Crescent City. A simple way to find this enumeration in is to do a search for the keyword "reservation" and race "Indian." Here we find nearly 200 residents who are mostly Native American.

As a community, the genealogy of the Klamath Reservation, as recorded, shows us far more about the white residents and the enumerator. The information recorded varies drastically between the Indian and other residents.

As we see with other reservations, the district is enumerated beginning with the person in charge of the reservation. In this case, it is Indian Agent, D. E. Buel – but "Indian" is part of his job title, and not his DNA. He has crossed the continent from New York to serve in this capacity, bringing with him his wife who was born in Ohio. As with other reservations, they have Indian servants.

The blacksmith, living next door, is from Indiana. Next we have the ever-present interpreter. This one is from Indiana and lives with his wife, from Pennsylvania, along with their baby. They too have an Indian servant.

A physician from Connecticut and a merchant from Massachusetts live on the reservation, where they own their homes, based on the fact that they owe real estate taxes. They are long-time residents of this community who clearly considered it home.

The remainder of the nearly 200 reservation residents are Indian and few have identified occupations. Most of the Indians are listed by a single name, sometimes and English name and sometimes not. The enumerator marked every single individual as having married during the previous year, including the interpreter's ten month old baby.

There is very little useful genealogical information here that would help research the Native American population. An exception, might be researching Charley Grass, a Native American, born in 1835, and working as a fisherman. His family data could possibly be researched from that point forward. Mad River Bill would be far more difficult to research, if it could be done at all.

A significant amount of data is available for non-Indian residents. Again, the reservation provides us with more data about white residents in a community we might otherwise overlook, if we assume that only Indians live on reservations.

Red Willow of Taos, New Mexico Territory

The same keyword search in 1870 takes us to the Red Willow Indian Reservation of Taos Juan Santisteben in New Mexico. A handwritten note on the enumeration declares that the enumerator was Juan Santisteben and that W. F. M. Arny, a "Special Agent for Indian and Census Service in New Mexico," copied the data.

The post office identified on the first page is Abiquiu, New Mexico. While much later, that area became home to artist Georgia O'Keeffe and Ghost Ranch, in 1870 it was still home to Native Americans and considered a reservation.

Although clearly identified as a reservation, this community alters our perception of what is clearly labeled as an Indian Reservation. Almost no Indians lived on the Red Willow Indian Reservation in 1870. The most common occupation on this Reservation is that of farmer. This reservation is far from pueblo neighborhoods populated with Native Americans.

Residents' names are primarily Spanish and they were enumerated in the same manner as most citizens in every county across the country, in contrast to the chaotic enumeration of some Indian communities. Residents were identified by nuclear family, occupation, and property ownership.

Part of the problem is the census enumeration paperwork. The enumerators were to label each person as either white, Chinese, black, mulatto, or Indian. There was no option for Spanish-American, Latino, Mexican, or anything else. Even those who were identified as white, reported being born in New Mexico, except for a cattle merchant from France. Judging from the names, they were probably of Mexican descent, as opposed to being white.

The rules regarding the percentage of Indian blood flowing through an individual's veins were different on 1870. Cayetano Lucero was labelled Indian. His sons, Candalario and Santa Anna, were labeled white. Their mother was missing and it could be assumed she was not a full-blooded Indian like her husband. But we have no further information available explaining the reassignment of race.

We find one black woman, sixty-seven year old Anna Gale, from Maryland, who is keeping house in a home she pays real estate taxes on, living alone. We find all the traditional occupations of any urban area, including a physician from Massachusetts. There are shoemakers and blacksmiths and carpenters. So there is a community, but DNA is not what determines residency here.


While reservation census returns are not especially helpful in researching Native Americans, don't forget to venture onto the Res in search of others. Few of us would think to look on the Red Willow reservation, in New Mexico, for 26 year-old butcher, Alais Leebitt, from Germany!

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Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

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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