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Native American Ancestry?

Family Tales of Native American Ancestors . . . Truth or Fiction?


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 862 (approx.)
Labels: Census  Native American 
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Family stories of days long-ago may not always be completely true . . .  but many family tales contain at least a grain of truth that can be used as a research clue.

One local couple gave me a handwritten transcription of their family Bible's notes in which both of the husband's great-great-grandparental lines (Minor and Harlow) were supposed to be full-blooded Native Americans, and they wanted me to find the documentation.

Native Americans (Indians) were often listed in federal census enumerations 1850-1900 either as Black or Mulatto, so I thought those censuses would give credence to the couple's research request. Illinois State Census enumerations (1818-1865), patterned after the 1790-1840 federal census enumerations, usually counted only "Free Whites" (usually adult males) and combined all other household members (females, children, etc) either by gender and age categories, or as "Non-Whites" (free or slaves).

At the Illinois State Archives (in Springfield IL, where I live and do most of my research), I started by taking the Minor and Harlow lines back in time, through findings in the Federal and Illinois State Census enumerations, from 1930 backwards. In each of the Illinois Federal Census enumerations, going backwards from 1930 to 1820, all of the Minor and Harlow household members were enumerated as White.

Also in the Archives' holdings, I found and printed several Illinois death certificates issued between 1916-1947 for these Minor and Harlow lines, which also indicated that each family member was considered to be Caucasian . . . so the documentation of Native American ancestry was proving to be a bit more elusive than we'd thought!

I then learned that the Minor patriarch (whose son married into the Harlow line) had been an early purchaser of federally-owned Illinois land in Jefferson County, within a few weeks after Jefferson County was formed from Edwards County (in 1819),  and that this Minor was a resident of Edwards County when he purchased the Jefferson Co. land. The Harlow line also purchased federal land in Jefferson County, about eight years later. Maybe land purchases would hold some clues.

Federally-owned land in Illinois was opened up for sale shortly before statehood in 1818, when the Federal Government offered land warrants to those who had served their country in the War of 1812, and to help settle and populate the newest State of the Union. Through further study and talks with knowledgeable and erudite research resource and published historical author, Dr. Wayne Temple, Chief Deputy Director of the Illinois State Archives, I learned that Native Americans were NOT allowed to purchase federally-owned land in Illinois.1

Thus, the Minor clan patriarch who purchased federal land in Illinois in March 1819 AND the Harlow line patriarch BOTH must have been Caucasian.

Further census research back to Tennessee and South Carolina censuses (1810, 1800 & 1790), also indicated the same Minor and Harlow lines to be enumerated as "Free Whites."

After presenting these findings, the descendants were not too thrilled, and were both confused and curious as to how their family stories of "full-blooded Indian" and "half-breed" ancestries had passed down through several generations, even written in the 100-year-old family Bible!

But it did not stop there. Utilizing the microfilmed Illinois Newspaper Project holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library (also in Springfield), and basing my research on the information culled from the death certificates and some online cemetery research, I was able to find and print a few early obituaries for some of the male Minor and Harlow ancestors. In these early newspaper articles and obituaries, I learned that both Minor and his brother-in-law Harlow, had served in a Jefferson County unit of "Spies" in the Black Hawk War of 1831-1832.

AHA! What a great clue! Thinking . . . If both the Minor and the Harlow men were SPIES, they could have been Native Americans who could infiltrate the Black Hawk camps!! (meanwhile, images of various "spy movies" were triggering excitement in my mind).

Returning to the Illinois State Archives, I was able to obtain copies of their transcribed Black Hawk War Muster Roll, but this document, although interesting, did not provide any information about any of the unit members' ethnicity.

Back again to Dr. Temple, who was able to clarify for me the actual intentions of the Jefferson County "Spies" units in the Black Hawk War. I found that these men were enlisted, usually because each owned a horse, and could travel on horseback to various areas of the state of Illinois, seeking the whereabouts of the Indian Chief Black Hawk. If Black Hawk was found (or suspected to be found), the "Spies" then reported back to Camp Butler officials, who would then send out fighting troops to the targeted locale. They were not of necessity Native American.

My only resulting conclusions were that the family stories of the Minor and Harlow men's participation in the Spies unit in the Black Hawk War of 1831-1832 may have been retold and changed a bit over the years, leading the descendants to believe that their ancestors were full-blooded Native Americans.

1 At least one Native American chief was awarded Illinois land by the Federal Government, but the title and taxes were manipulated to show property ownership by a qualified (white) resident.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

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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