Tracing Native American Roots (Part 1)

by Bob Brooke

People of known Native American descent are becoming interested in tracing their lineages. In addition, a number of genealogists who weren't aware they had Indian ancestors when they began their research eventually find themselves tracing Indian lines in one or another of their family's branches.

Indians merged with the general population long ago. Just how far an Indian lineage can be traced depends on the tribe involved and where it was located. A researcher may find quite early records for some Indians who lived in the eastern United States, for some of those who had contact with Spanish missionaries in the Southwest, and for those who were converted to Christianity by the French in Michigan and Canada.

The Indians of the Northwest, however, continued to have mostly hostile contact with non-Indians until well into the latter part of the 19th century. The famed Sitting Bull, chief of the Sioux, defeated Custer at the Little Bi ghorn in 1876 and was himself killed by Indian police on December 15, 1890. The infamous massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in which some 200 Sioux men, women and children held captive by the U.S. 7th Cavalry were shot down, occurred two weeks later. While the name of Sitting Bull's father is known, it's doubtful that his ancestry can be followed back any further.

Though some earlier Indian records survive, reliable documents of use to genealogists generally date from about 1880. Nonetheless, it may be possible to extend an Indian line back into the 18th century because of the distinct genealogical nature of some of these papers.

For example, in 1901, the federal government paid a judgment to the Six Nations of New York. In order to establish their right to part of this award, tribal Indians living at that time had to establish their ancestry back to 1838, using forms that required them to provide the names of their parents and grandparents. Some of the older Indians who filed these papers were themselves born before 1838, and the information they gave about their family extends their line back into the late 1700's. Similar records exist for some other tribes.

The records that exist for research in Native American ancestry reflect the unique status of Indians throughout U.S. history. In the early years of the United States attempts to assimilate Indians into the white culture soon gave way to federal laws that first removed them from eastern states to lands in the West and then isolated them on specific parcels of land called reservations. Thus, tribal Indians have existed within, but distinctly separate from, the rest of society. Tribal Indians (as well as natives of unincorporated territories and children of foreign ambassadors) were excluded from the provisions of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which was passed in 1868 to guarantee national, rather than state, citizenship and extend it to all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to its jurisdiction.

Moreover, tribal Indians weren't included in any early federal censuses. When plans for the first census were made in 1787, they specifically excluded "Indians not taxed"–that is, Indians in tribes--and in truth counting them would have proved difficult, as frontier skirmishes between Indians and white settlers were still very common. There was no reference to Indians in any census until l860–those few who were counted before that were probably numbered among "free colored"–and it wasn't until 1890, one hundred years after the first census was taken, that an attempt was made to include all Indians in it.

As late as the 1960's, nearly 80 percent of American Navajos–the largest and most independent Native American tribe and the one with the highest proportion of full-blooded members–didn't speak English. While tribal Indians have remained separate from mainstream America, the government has by no means ignored them, and a variety of federal Indian records can be of use to anyone attempting to trace a Native American lineage. There were, of course, numerous Indians who were assimilated into the non-Indian population. Their records must be sought in the basic public and private sources employed by all genealogists.

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