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How to Trace Your Ancestry

By Nicole Schmoll

As people begin investigating their ancestry to locate relatives that have come before them, it’s not uncommon to discover various ethnicities in their lineage, including American Indian relatives. If you are interested in exploring your American Indian heritage, you’ll have to overcome a few common roadblocks and plan time to research, read and reach out to tribes you identify as being in your ancestry.

  1.  Recognize the forced limitations of early census records and don’t let them stop you from continuing    your research. Understand that the first census to record Native Americans was the eighth census,      conducted in 1860; before then, “Native American” or “Indian” was not offered as an ethnic selection.
  2. Understand the naming limitations of early census reports in relation to the recording of American Indian heritage. If you locate your ancestor and he or she is listed as white, or has an an Anglo name, that it does not necessarily disprove American Indian heritage, as Indian names were often not recorded or were recorded improperly in early census accounts.
  3. Start with yourself. Record your parents’ and grandparents’ names, then their grandparents’ names, and keep working backward until you have all the names that you can gather. Then, begin the process of documenting those names, realizing that this will be difficult to do using early census records alone.
  4. Identify which tribe or tribes your American Indian family heritage traces back to. Read through “The Indian Tribes of North America” by John R. Swanton to aid your search. Research that tribe’s culture and practices to help you understand how to best interpret the specific information you have relating to your family.
  5. Use a map and history book to chart the tribe’s movement across the United States as they were displaced by the federal government. Charting narrows your search to a specific geographical area, which will also help you trace your heritage more effectively.
  6. Search tribal records maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for relatives traced back to 1900. Browse the digital microfilm files NARA provides online, such as Microfilm Publication M595, which is a reproduction of “Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940″ originally produced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
  7. After locating a specific tribe and reservation, visit the present-day site of that reservation, if it still exists, to gain more information about your ancestors and how they lived.

If you are tracing a Cherokee ancestor, start your research by browsing a document called the “Final Rolls of the Five Civilized Tribes.” Also called the “Dawes Rolls,” these records contain the names of more than 101,000 people enrolled under a 1898 act of Congress. Another source helpful for tracing Cherokee ancestry is the Guion Miller Rolls, which were prepared in 1909-1910 and cover about 90,000 people.

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