Explicit and Implicit Sources for Native American Genealogy

Native American ancestry can be challenging to trace. Many ancestors lived outside Indian reservations and may have been moved from their traditional homelands. Some ancestors also had land in trust or were involved in probate proceedings. You can often find records related to these events in BIA heirship case files and correspondence.

Explicit Sources

American Indians are a distinct and unique group of people with their traditions, language, history, religion and culture. They also have an amazing set of records that can be challenging to trace. Many repositories that specialize in ethnic, religious, regional, local and state history have Native-American materials that can provide you with valuable clues about your ancestor. These include state and county government records, historical society collections, newspapers, USGenWeb county resources and other sources. Often, these repositories are in the areas your ancestor’s tribe inhabited and in the period during which they lived. For example, suppose your ancestor was Cherokee. In that case, you’ll want to check archives and historical society libraries in the Carolinas, Georgia, Arkansas and Oklahoma, where many Cherokee tribe members were forcibly removed over 150 years. Another resource that you may find useful is the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) archival collection, which contains tribal enrollment office records and oral histories. You can learn more about these resources from the BIA’s Web site or by contacting the agency directly.

Implicit Sources

In addition to explicit sources, there are many implicit sources of information for Native American genealogy. These sources can be found in personal, non-Indian, and historical documents.

Personal Records: Start your research by looking at records in your possession, such as letters, diaries, journals, scrapbooks and family bibles. These may contain important information such as dates of birth, marriage, divorce or death and other vital statistics. Other sources of information include newspapers, military service records, censuses, annuity rolls, tribal censuses, maps, land allotment rolls and enrollment lists. Local historical societies and archives, schools, churches and libraries are good places to begin your research.

Historical Documents: The National Archives holds a variety of archival materials on Native Americans. Some are useful for genealogical research, while others provide a valuable historical context. Using these documents, you can trace your American Indian ancestry. The earliest sources of information are in family records. This is where you can find the names of parents, grandparents and other ancestors. The more information you can gather about a person, the easier it will be to discover their ancestral history. Genetic evidence indicates that there are several deep lineages in Native American populations. This explains the differences in Asian ancestry among First Americans, Eskimo-Aleut speakers and Chipewyan (P10-9), Greenland Inuit (P10-9), Aleutian Islanders (P9x10-5) and the 4,000-year-old Saqqaq Paleo-Eskimo (P2x10-9). These findings support the hypothesis that there were three streams of gene flow from Asia into North America.

Local Sources

When you suspect a Native American ancestor is part of your family, it’s a good idea to start by exploring local sources for the tribes in your ancestor’s area. This usually involves contacting local governments, school and church records, and state and local history sources. Many regional libraries, historical societies and genealogical societies have information on the tribes in the region at the time of your ancestor’s birth or death. These collections often include tribal histories, oral histories, and enrollment office records. Alternatively, you might want to research your ancestor’s tribe by visiting the Web site of the tribe itself or contacting it directly. You can also contact the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Most large libraries carry books about American Indians and their tribes. These books may have maps and charts, biographies of Native American leaders, and tribal histories. The Smithsonian Institution’s 20-volume Handbook of North American Indians is another valuable resource.

Federal Sources

Federal sources are vital to establishing and documenting Native American ancestors’ lives. These include National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) records, the Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Indian Affairs, and other federal departments. The government has a long history of collecting and disseminating information about American Indians, especially in the post-1885 period. These massive collections of documents are now available for use by researchers. These resources provide many facts about tribes, their cultures, historic tribal territories and migration patterns. In addition, these records may contain other important information for Native American genealogists to know, such as names and birth dates of family members. NARA’s Guide to Federal Records is a good place to start looking for records, including those of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The site includes information about BIA records housed at regional facilities nationwide. Moreover, the site includes information on locating the necessary records in NARA’s microfilm catalog. You can also access online indexes of tribal records at NARA and other repositories nationwide.

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