Searching for a Native American When the Tribe is Unknown

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American Indian maize.

Many families have a tradition that at least one of their ancestors was of American Indian ancestry. Some have been able to establish a connection to a federally recognized Indian tribe. This article explains what to do if you do not yet know the tribe.

Value It helps to know an American Indian's tribe in order to find tribal, federal, and sometimes state records, and to find more information in general about that ancestor's background. If your family does not know your ancestor's tribe, you will need to research until you can identify where your ancestor lived, and guess a potential tribe. Then continue research to verify that the tribe is correct.

Find where the ancestor lived The first step to identifying an ancestor's tribe is to determine where the family lived. Knowing when and where an ancestor lived is important for researching tribes that lived in that area.

Identifying a nearby tribe is a good clue, but not always certain proof of an ancestor's tribe. Sometimes more than one tribe lived in the same area. Sometimes Indians from two different tribes married.

Tribes in 49 States[edit | edit source]

Click one of these state names to see the American Indian page for for that state:

How to find and verify an ancestor's tribe[edit | edit source]

Five steps to find and verify an ancestor's tribe:
1. Identify where the ancestor lived.
2. Identify tribes in that area.
3. Search for the ancestor in U.S. federal censuses.
4. Search in state and county records.
5. Verify tribe in American Indian records.

Identify where the ancestor lived[edit | edit source]

Use a variety of records until you find the place where your American Indian ancestor lived. Start by searching sources at your home and talking to older family members. Ask them about family births, marriages, and deaths. Look for records of birth certificates, church christening records, church confirmations, marriage applications or certificates, and death records such as certificates, obituaries, funeral or funeral home records for clues about where the Indian ancestor lived. Another source to identify where a person lived is federal census records (See Step 3 for further details).

Work from the Known to the Unknown

  • Start with yourself. Begin with current records that document your life. Then work back in time to your parents. Work back each generation finding documents that prove relationship and events. Learn names, dates and places. Record the information on a pedigree chart and on family group records. Make copies of each document you find.
  • Search recent records. Start with the most recent generation. Look at federal and state records including census, vital, land and property, military and probate.
  • Write down what you know, what you learn and where you found the information. (cite your sources)

Search for Home Sources

  • Thoroughly go over all home sources available to you, including family history papers, copies of records, pictures, old letters (i.e. with an old address), family Bibles, journals/diaries, copies of vital record certificates and church records, memorabilia etc.
  • Interview extended family and close relatives as well as former neighbors--all of which may prove very helpful in gathering as much knowledge about an ancestor as possible.
    • Record names, dates, and places on family group forms and pedigree charts
    • Contact the oldest family members to help fill in missing details
    • Learn where the ancestor lived
    • Learn about the family surname, oral traditions, migration (moves) and history
    • Gather and search family records and memorabilia for clues and make copies
    • Select an ancestor to learn more about

Identify tribes in that area[edit | edit source]

Once you know where an American Indian ancestor lived, study maps and histories to learn which Indian tribes lived in the area at that time. The list of Tribes in 49 States above is a good place to start learning about tribes in that area. State and county histories may also give clues about local Indian tribes.

Also, these sources may show tribes in an area:

Search for the ancestor in U.S. federal censuses[edit | edit source]

After identifying a possible tribe, continue researching in further sources that may better identify an ancestor's tribe, for example, censuses.

A census is a count and description of the population of a country, state, county, or city. Census lists are called “schedules." In the United States, a nationwide census was taken every ten years since 1790. A well-indexed census is one of the easiest ways to locate where an ancestor lived and when they lived there. You can also use censuses to:

  • Follow the family over time.
  • Determine family relationships.
  • Show clues for finding other records, such as the state a person was born.
  • Indians integrated into a local community may be listed in censuses taken before 1900. However, before 1900 "Indians not taxed" are not normally listed on regular census schedules.

Search for Indian ancestors who were alive during the following census years.

  • 1940 census
  • 1930 census
  • 1920 census: tribe may be recorded with place of birth
  • 1910 census: a separate Indian schedule is often at the end of each county after the population schedules. This includes Indians living among whites and on reservations. The tribe is given for each individual and his parents.
  • 1900 census: Indian schedules include Indians living among whites and on reservations. The tribe is given for each individual and his parents.
  • 1880 census, The Indian Territory census is not included in the 1880 United States census. It does enumerate Native Americans living within the general population. It also enumerates some groups living on reservations in the Upper Northwest, California, and the Dakotas. There is a special census of Indians living near military installations for states: California, Washington, South Dakota, and North Dakota [FHL film 1,464,019-1,464,023]
  • 1870 census
  • 1860 census
  • 1850 census
Tips for Searching Census Records
  • If at first you do not find a name, try again under another spelling.
  • Photocopy each ancestor's found in the census. Identify where you found it.
  • Look for an ancestor in every census during her or his lifetime.
  • On the family group record, show each person's census listings.
  • Study others in the same household, neighbors, and anyone with the similar names nearby on the census in community context

Search in state and county records[edit | edit source]

Continue searching for the ancestor in state and county records to help verify the tribe. These include church, military, land and property and probate in the county and state records where your ancestor lived.

Record Searching Tips
  • Search as many kinds of records to document the lives of your family.
  • Study the lives of all family members, including aunts, uncles, and cousins—not just your direct ancestors.
  • Look for changing surnames.
    • The name of you ancestor may have changed from one Indian name to a different Indian name.
    • The name of your ancestor may have changed from an Indian name to a Christian name.
    • The name may have been abbreviated.
    • The name may be misspelled or part the name may have been dropped.
  • If you cannot find your family in a census record, but you know the family’s location at the time of the census, look for first names and approximate ages of family members. You may find a match.
  • If your ancestor is not in an index, check the original records anyway. Some indexes do not include Americans Indians.
  • Americans Indians may be listed as colored, Negro, or black
  • Your ancestor’s race may not be accurately recorded.

Cemetery Records, such as tombstone and sexton’s records, have value in that they may give birth and death dates, age at death, name of spouse and children, a maiden name or, occasionally, a birthplace. Tombstones may have symbols or insignias indicating military service and social or religious affiliations. It is important to look at surrounding tombstones because family members may be interred nearby.

  • Find A Grave  millions of cemetery records and online memorials
  • Some cemeteries have sections for military veterans, religious denominations and ethnic origins.

Church Records and the information they provide vary significantly depending on the denomination and the record keeper. They may contain information about members of the congregation, such as age, date of baptism, christening, or birth; marriage information and maiden names; and death date. Records may include names of other relatives who were witnesses or members of the congregation. The members of some churches were predominantly of one nationality or ethnic group.

Histories effective family history research requires some understanding of the historical events that affected your family and the records about them. Learning about wars, governments, laws, migrations, and religious trends can help you understand political boundaries, family movements, and settlement patterns. State, county, and local histories often contain biographical sketches of local citizens, including important genealogical information.

Biographies provide useful genealogical information such as a person’s birth date and place, names of family members, including maiden names, education, occupation, and social political and religious affiliation. They may also contain a physical description of the person, previous residences, and immigration information.

Biographies are the product of family knowledge or previous research about early settlers and prominent citizens of a state, county or town. Local histories may contain biographical sketches.

Land Records The value of land records lies in the fact that land was highly sought after and the transactions were recorded from the time settlers began to arrive. Therefore, they are consistent and continuous record of many ancestors' lives. Land records will help to learn where and when an individual lived in certain areas, and often reveal useful and interesting family information.

Military Records identify individuals who served in the armed forces or who were eligible for service. Military records can help you learn more about your ancestors who served their country American Indians have participated in all military conflicts for and against the United State.

Obituaries provide information such as the age of the deceased, birth date and place, names of living relatives and their residences, maiden name, occupation, death date, cause of death, and place of burial. Deceased family members are frequently mentioned. Obituaries may also mention previous places of residence, immigration information, religion, and any social organizations or activities in which the deceased was involved. Generally, the first step to obtaining an obituary is to find the death date of the person so that the obituary can be found in a newspaper. Death dates may be obtained from the cemeteries in the local area where the person is believed to have died. Once a death date is known, the local library in the area may be contacted to learn whether or not they have newspapers for the time period needed, and if someone is willing to look for an obituary in that newspaper. If the newspapers are not at the library, the local newspaper office maybe contacted to learn where older editions of the newspaper are stored. Some libraries and even newspaper publishers keep obituary files.

Online Newspapers

  • Newspaper Archives ($)
  • Digital Historical Newspapers (free)
  • Chronicling American (Library of Congress) free Vital Records consist of births, adoptions, marriages, divorces, and deaths recorded on registers, certificates, and documents. United States Vital Records (in the FamilySearch Wiki) has additional research guidance on researching and using vital records Search online databases for vital records collections
  • FamilySearch Wiki
  • Search Google for state - vital records Gazetteers list geographical names such as towns, settlements, villages, districts, rivers, and mountains. They identify these locations and sometimes, give historical and biographical information concerning early residents

Verify the tribe in American Indian records[edit | edit source]

After establishing the tribe or tribes of your ancestor, search records specifically for American Indians and that tribe. These record are in various repositories and are beginning to come online. Many records are available through the Family History Library, Introduction to Family History Centers, the National Archives, and their regional archives.

Tips for Searching for an American Indian (Native American)
  • An Indian name does not indicate whether the person is male or female.
  • An Indian often had more than one name in his or her lifetime.
  • The spelling of Indian names is a challenge, when an Indian was unable to write his or her own names someone else did it for them and mistakes occurred.
  • A census number or an allotment number found in the records may be used to follow an Indian to other records and may help determine that an individual is who you are searching for even if the name is misspelled of changed.
  • To prove a series of relationships more than one record need to be examined.
  • Relationships are unique, and maybe determined by the tribal customs. Kinship- blood lines

Repositories for American Indian tribal records[edit | edit source]

(See also: American Indian Archives and Libraries.) To verify an ancestor's tribe look for records at archives, libraries, and museums where agency, state and federal records about American Indian tribes are preserved:

Federal Repository Libraries The federal government has designated at least one library in each state (generally a major university library) to receive a copy of published federal records. These include a wide variety of topics, such as pension lists, private land claims, veterans' burial lists, and individuals' petitions to Congress.

State Archives and State Libraries Each state has a state archive or a state library. Many states have both. These serve as the repositories for state and county government records. They often have some federal records as well, such as the U.S. census schedules for the state.

Tribal Records (Search when the tribe is known) There are over 330 tribal entities in the "lower 48" states, recognized by the United States government. Some of those recognized are actually portions of a larger tribe, as in the various bands of the Chippewa Tribe. There are also an additional 230 American Indian entities recognized by the federal government in Alaska, also included in the Federal Register list.

The Tribal Office of each tribe maintains many records of value to the American Indian researcher. Most of the tribes require enrollment in the tribe before they allow access to the records of its members.

Most tribes have a headquarters and official web site.

Locate by Searching:

  • FamilySearch Wiki: In the search field, type the name of your tribe.
  • Search large databases for your tribe

Agency Records The majority of records of individuals were created by the agencies. They were (and are) the local office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and were charged with maintaining records of the activities of those under their responsibility.
There are Agency pages in the FamilySearch Wiki. Search by the name of the agency to learn of availability of the records for each agency. The names of the agencies that served a particular tribe are listed on the Tribal pages in the FamilySearch Wiki.

Among These Records are:

Other Records of Interest

Bureau of Indian Affairs - US. Department Of The Interior.png

Bureau of Indian Affairs

Department of the Interior MS-3658-MIB
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20240
Website:United States Department of the Interior Indian Affairs

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is the branch of the federal government in the United States charged with maintaining a good relationship between the Indian tribes and the government. The Bureau of Indian Affairs since 1947, and its forerunner, the Office of Indian Affairs, from 1824 to 1947, have been the primary office of the federal government responsible for the administration of Indian Affairs in the United States. They generate the largest amount of records regarding individual Indians. Also, the Agencies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs often have Indian records.

National Archives I in D.C.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

The National Archives and Records Administration has a vast collection of documents created by the federal government

Microfilm copies of many of the records at the National Archives are available at the Family History Library and some FamilySearch Centers other major archives and libraries, and at regional branches of the National Archives. You may purchase microfilms from the National Archives or request photocopies of the records by using forms obtained from the Archives.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
Pennsylvania Avenue at 8th Street,
NW Washington, D.C. 20408
Telephone: 202-501-5415 Fax: 301-713-6740
Website: National Archives
Family History Library in Utah

Family History Library

Family History Library
35 N. West Temple Street
Salt Lake City, UT 84150-3400
Telephone: 801-240-2331 Fax: 801-240-1584
Website: FamilySearch (over 4,500 Introduction to Family History Centers, visit one near you)
Oklahoma Historical Society in Oklahoma City

Oklahoma Historical Society

Oklahoma Historical Society
800 Nazth Zudth Drive
Oklahoma City, OK 73105
Telephone: 405-522-5225
Website: Oklahoma Historical Society
Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison WI

Wisconsin Historical Society

Wisconsin Historical Society
816 State Street
Madison, WI 53706
Telephone: (608) 264-6535
Website: Research Your Family History (Wisconsin Historical Society)
Allen County Public Library.jpg

Allen County Public Library

Allen County Public Library
P.O. Box 2270
Fort Wayne, IN 48801
Telephone: 219-424-7241 Fax: 219-422-9688
Website: Genealogy Center

Library of Congress Jefferson Building in D.C.

Library of Congress

Genealogy and Local History Reading Room
101 Independence Ave. at First Street, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20504
Telephone: 202-707-5000 Fax: 202-707-5844
Website: Library of Congress
The Genealogical and Local History Reading Room of the Library of Congress has a large collection of published genealogies, manuscripts, histories, directories, maps, and newspapers. The Library of Congress site has a wonderful American Memory page that links to more 60 collections, searchable by keyword or time period in a variety of media.
NEHGS in Boston

New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS)

101 Newbury Street
Boston, MA 02116-3087
Telephone: 617-536-5740 Fax: 617-536-7307
Website: American Ancestors
The New England Historic Genealogical Society's collections of New England family and local histories and manuscripts are especially helpful. Members can borrow printed resources from their lending library.
New York Public Library in NYC

New York Public Library Local History and Genealogy Division

Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street
New York, NY 10018
Telephone: 212-930-0828 Fax: 212-921-2546
Website: New York Public Library
The New York Public Library has collected many published sources, such as local histories, city directories, maps, newspapers, and genealogies.
Newberry Library in Chicago

Newberry Library

60 West Walton Street
Chicago, IL 60610-3394
Telephone: 1-312-943-9090 or 1-312-255-3513 fax
Website: Genealogy and Local History

The Newberry Library, established in 1887 with a bequest from the estate of Walter Loomis Newberry. A privately endowed independent research library, their collections are free and open to the public. The library's Genealogy Collection includes more than 17,000 published family histories, and an extensive collection of local histories, military records, published indexes and abstracts, manuscripts and published sources.

University Libraries with Special Collections

Most large universities have a special collections division of their university library. Some of these repositories have extensive collections of local and state historical documents, including many individual record collections. Carefully search the university library catalog for references to the individuals you are researching. Access to the special collections may be very restricted, so check with the library about any restrictions before visiting.

Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)

1776 “D” Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20006-5392
Telephone: 202-879-3229 Fax: 202-879-3227
Website: Daughters of the American Revolution
Daughters of the American Revolution is a national society. The DAR Library in Washington, D.C. has one of the largest genealogical collections in the United States.