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 23andMe.com'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.
Indian Census Rolls were documented from 1885 to 1940. Information was gathered from reservations on each person living there. You will find a person's name, gender, age or birth date, relationship to the head of the family, marital status, tribe name and reservation name. If you don't find his ancestors listed in these records, it may be that they did not maintain a formal affiliation with a tribe under federal supervision. Not every reservation was included every year. These records can be found on Fold3.com as well as on Ancestry.com.
Another resource you should tap into is the Dawes Rolls. In 1893 the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole tribes participated in this project. All five tribes agreed to an allotment plan and dissolution of the reservation system. The rolls enabled them to assign the allotments that would provide equal division of all monies collected. Enrollment began in 1898 and ended circa 1906. The information you will find on these rolls are name, age, gender, blood degree (certified share of tribal ancestry; pdf), census card number or page, enrollment number and the name of their tribe.
Again, if you don't find ancestors in these rolls, it could be that they did not apply because they didn't agree with the allotment process or they were rejected because of residency requirements. If this was the case, you will find lists for rejected Dawes applications that you can search. This would be a course to pursue if his ancestors were part of the above-mentioned tribes. Native American research can vary greatly based on his ancestors' geographic location and time period.
You can access the Dawes Rolls on Fold3.com. If you find an ancestor listed, you can send for his or her records at the National Archives and Records Administration in Fort Worth, Texas; the Oklahoma Historical Society in Oklahoma City; or the Tulsa City-County Library in Tulsa, Okla.
If his ancestors lived in another area of the country, try to locate books on that particular area. For example, in the New England Historic Genealogical Society library in Boston, you can find many books on various tribes. Some of these titles are Researching Native Americans in New York State; The Native Americans; and The Quiet Patriarch: The Life of James A. Newberry, Native American Pioneer, and a Study of Native Americans in the Early Days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. You will learn about what Native American life was like in certain areas and with certain tribes.
You can also access a “Guide to Tracing Your American Indian and Alaska Native Ancestry” (pdf) on the Bureau of Indian Affairs website.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with researchers from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country's leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.