It's the rare genealogist who is not aware of at least one family historian with an elusive Native American ancestor. Many don't know the name of that ancestor or the tribe that he came from. It's a really big research problem, but not an insurmountable one.
Family historians who have researched their genealogy by starting with themselves and moving backward generation by generation have an edge. They can look for clues in the lives of other ancestors to help determine which ancestor was Native American and the tribe that ancestor belonged to.
Paul K. Graham, a board-certified genealogist, has studied Native American records at the National Archives facility near Atlanta and surveyed those in other regions. He said most Native Americans' records of the 1800s were the result of treaties between the federal government and their tribes. Records with genealogically valuable information record land allotments and annuities made to individuals.
But if a Native American ancestor left the tribe and assimilated with others, the records created after they departed would not include them, Graham said. And when a descendant is not in a family recognized as Native American, it's difficult to make the familial connections.
Native American women who married white men may be listed in records as "his Indian wife" with no mention of her name, Graham said. The five "civilized tribes" had African-American slaves, and some of their descendants have mixed ancestry.
In either case, if descendants have not been identifying themselves as Native American, uncovering the ancestor that links your family history to tribal ancestors, while not impossible, will usually require very painstaking research.
Frequently used records
That said, Graham named the records frequently used by those seeking to connect with their Native American ancestry.
One set of records is the United States Indian Census Schedules taken annually from 1885 to 1940. They enumerated those living on a reservation under a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent. The information requested for those censuses changed over time.
Generally, though, family history researchers who know the Native American ancestor's name may find his age, date of birth, relationship to head of family and marital status, as well as names of the tribe and reservation.
The Indian censuses can be searched on ancestry.com and footnote.com, both of which are paid subscription databases. Native Americans who lived in the general population first were identified as "Indian" on the 1860 federal census.
Another useful set of records is the "Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory," or Dawes Commission rolls, which includes those not enumerated on the censuses. Those referred to as being in the "civilized tribes" are Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole. The "freedmen" were African-Americans formerly enslaved by those tribes.
President Grover Cleveland established the Dawes Commission to determine which individual Native Americans were eligible for land allotments under federal treaties, based on membership in those tribes.
The rolls list more than 101,000 names from 1898 to 1914 and provide name, sex, blood degree and census card number. That card, in turn, may refer to earlier rolls or censuses with information on that ancestor and be accompanied by an application jacket with birth and death affidavits, marriage licenses and letters with personal information.
For these and other records created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, visit that National Archives Web site at www.archives.gov/genealogy/heritage/native-american. Also, a look at "American Indians: A Select Catalog of National Archive Microfilm Publications" provides information on records in other federal agencies, too.
"Researching Individual Native Americans at the National Archives," a free workshop, takes place 10 a.m.-noon Friday at the National Archives at Atlanta, 5780 Jonesboro Road, Morrow, Ga.
To register or obtain more information, call 770-968-2100. Graham will conduct the workshop, designed to provide a general idea of how to research Native Americans, what records are found at the regional facility and how to use an in-house guide that he has written about the topic.