History of Indigenous Peoples of the United States

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The first contact of European settlers with the native population created a mutual and natural curiosity. Establishing relationships required trust and understanding. The mind-set of the European settlers became one of converting the natives to Christianity and the European way of life.

Before the establishment of the federal government, Indian affairs was handled by each colony or at the local level. The administration of Indian affairs was placed under the jurisdiction of the War Department early in the history of the United States. It was later transferred to the Bureau of Indian Affairs as part of the Department of the Interior.

There was a general recognition that the Native Americans had “title” (pre-emption rights or rights of first occupation) to the land. Efforts were made to “extinguish” those property rights by purchase and by treaty. Treaties included stipulations for the payment of benefits in exchange for the surrender of the property rights. Provision was sometimes made to reserve areas for hunting, fishing and burial  Later treaties also provided for the removal of the Native Americans from their home lands to unsettled areas and/or reservations.

From 1795 to 1822, the official policy was to trade with the Indians through “factories,” or government owned trading houses. More than 20 such factories were established and records were kept by them.

Eventually, most of the American Indians, by policy of the federal government (and in a few instances, state governments), were confined to reservations.

Each government policy caused records to be created. The desire to "Christianize" the Indians led to records of the efforts of the respective denominations. Extinguishing property rights led to Indian deeds and to treaties in which the Indians gave up their property rights. Treaties often led to annuity rolls, or record of payments to the Native Americans.

The movement of groups of American Indians from one locality to another led to removal records or emigration records.

The management of reservations by agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs produced a variety of records – Indian census rolls, allotment (land) records, school records, health records and a number of other documents.

With the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act) in 1934, American Indian Tribes set up their own tribal governments. Many of these tribal governments began recording vital records, tribal enrollment records and other records of value to genealogists.

Most of the records discussed in this article are those created by the federal government. American Indians were also included in other non-agency records such as the general population schedules of the Census Bureau, local deed books, military records, and many others.

External Links:
American Indian Policies.

Deloria, Vine, ed. American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Smith, Jane F. And Robert M Kvasnicka, eds. Indian-White Relations: A Persistent Paradox. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1976.