Seeking Proof of Native American Roots?

Tracing Your Roots: A reader hopes a fire that destroyed family records won’t halt his search.

Winema (Tobey) Riddle, a Modoc, and husband Frank (left), 1873 (National Archives 165-MM-1624)

Editor’s note: This column was originally published March 29, 2013.

One of the most common types of questions I get from readers is about tracing Native American ancestry. As I have written before, in the case of African Americans, most have very little measurable Native American ancestry, and as’s Senior Research Director Joanna Mountain has said, “Eighty percent of African Americans have less than 1 percent Native American ancestry.” That means there’s probably another explanation for your great-great-grandmother’s high cheekbones and straight black hair that swung all the way down her back!

Still, there are plenty of ways to trace a Native American ancestor if you do have one. I listed some of them, using DNA testing and government records, in a previous column. In answer to the question below, I describe additional ways.

I am trying to trace my grandson’s Native American roots and having difficulty finding those records. I have names of his great-great-grandparents but was told by his paternal grandmother that all records were destroyed in a fire. Help! —Melvin R. Dennis

You should be able to find his ancestors in other types of records if, in fact, a repository burned down.

Genealogy researchers often hear that records were burned, mostly from Southern county courthouses. During the Civil War, many courthouses were burned to the ground. Your grandson’s grandmother may, alternatively, have been referring to personal documents that were destroyed by fire. Without knowing exactly to what records she was referring, I suggest that you turn your search to vital records, U.S. federal and state census records, probate records (includes wills, administrations, inventories, guardianship records, etc.), deeds (land records), church records and military service records, as well as pensions. Try searching the Indian Census Rolls and the Dawes Rolls as well.