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United States Native Races Part 4 - What Should I Know about Native Americans before I Search the Records?

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To be really successful in finding your ancestors, it helps to understand historical events that occurred during their lifetime. These events are what shaped everyday life and may also have resulted in records containing information about your ancestors. Learning about wars, governments, laws of the land, and religious ideas of that time will help you to understand political and religious boundaries along with movement and settlement patterns. This article is a part of a series entitled Indians of North America - A Beginner's Guide.


United States History

Researchers doing Native American family history research need to know the eight time periods commonly associated with Native American history in the United States. Each time period has its own unique set of records. However, some records created in one period did overlap into other time periods. These time periods and important events will help identify areas and records you can search. Use all the records together as building blocks for your family research.

Conversion Period (First Contact to about 1830).

The Indians’ first contact with Europeans occurred at various times in various regions. Missionaries appeared first among the Indians of Spanish Florida in 1565. Spanish missionaries helped settle New Mexico in 1598. The French sent missionaries to Quebec, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi Valley as early as 1608. The English, who were less inclined to missionary efforts than other Europeans, established their first permanent settlement in Virginia in 1607. Spanish missions were started in California in 1697. Russian missionaries helped settle Alaska in 1784 and reached as far south as Fort Ross, California, by 1812. The tribes of the Great Plains and mountain west were the last Indians to come into extended contact with missionaries and their conversion period lasted beyond that of other areas, sometimes as late as the 1850s. The records created in this time period include:

Treaty Period (1789 to about 1883).

During this period the federal government treated Indian tribes as distinct nations. For several tribes, this was the same policy used by European colonial governments before the American Revolution. The treaties almost always required the Indians to cede land to white settlers and move away from those settlements. Treaties did not always list all the members of the tribe. The records created in this time period include:

Removal or Concentration Period (1830 to mid 1850s).

In 1830 the United States Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. This act called for the removal of most Indians east of the Mississippi to lands west of the river. Forced to move, frequently under harsh conditions to marginal land with a different climate, the Indians often suffered widespread poverty, hunger, illness, and death. Some tribes were forced to move several times for various reasons. This was often a time when tribes began to mix and merge together.

The earliest removal records were created as early as 1815. Even though the removal period did not start until 1830, some tribes were already moving or being moved to other areas in the West. The records created in this time period include:

Reservation Period (About 1850 to 1887).

By 1890 most of the Indian wars were over and the Indians were confined to reservations. However, some tribes in the East were under state authority rather than federal, so the Bureau of Indian Affairs' authority did not extend to them. Most of the state reservation tribes are in the state of New York, with some in other New England states. Also by 1871, the majority of the Indians were confined to reservations, and it was no longer necessary for the federal government to negotiate with the tribes as independent governments.

In the reservation period, the federal government wanted to separate Indians and whites by confining the Indians to reservation lands usually considered of little or no value to whites. This period was marked by frequently corrupt or incompetent Indian agents who embezzled provisions and money sent by the government to help Indians or as part of their treaty payments. Agents often tried to suppress the Indian culture and force “civilization” on the Indians.

Nomadic or desperate Indians who left their reservations often caused United States military reprisals against their tribe. It was difficult for hunting tribes to adjust to the lack of plentiful game where they were confined. Also, each tribe would have its own reservation but sometimes ended up sharing land with old tribal enemies.

Some of the best genealogical and family historical records available on Native Americans were created during this time period:

Allotment Period (1887-1934).

In 1887 the General Allotment Act was passed. The goal of the act was the assimilation of the Native Americans into mainstream America and to move them toward self-sufficiency. The act made the landholdings of the tribe individualized. Prior to this, the land of the tribe was held in common. The tribes’ lands were surveyed into 160-acre plots for each family head, 80-acre plots for single persons 18 years or older, and 40-acre plots for single persons under 18 years. Another goal of the allotment was to teach farming techniques, individualism, and private ownership to Native Americans. The records created in this time period include:

  • Allotment
  • Land records
  • Heirship records/Family Registers

Reorganization Period (1934-1953).

In 1920 the federal government began to take the position that Native Americans should not be coerced into giving up their culture. In 1934 the Indian Reorganization Act was passed, giving Indian tribes the right to their own local government on the reservations through tribal councils. The records created in this time period include:

Termination Period (1953-1970).

In the 1950s some government officials began to believe Indians could best be integrated into American white society by doing away with their tribes and reservations. An effort was made to terminate the special relationship between Indians and the federal government and through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to end all reservations. Only a few tribes were actually terminated. Most tribes have now been restored to full status. Some tribes are still in the process of gaining recognition.

Self-Determination Period (1970 to the Present).

The tribes today keep their own records. They educate their young in schools on or near the reservations. They are teaching their young the history, languages, knowledge, and culture of the past.

For further reading see:

Francis, Lee. Native Time: A Historical Time Line of Native America. New York, New York: St. Martin’s, 1995. (FHL book 970.1 F844n.) This book includes the history, laws, leaders, heros, literature, legends, songs, and philosophy developments between the 1400s and 1994.

Canada History

1763 In the treaty of Paris, France ceded all North American possessions to Great Britain. The British royal proclamation of 1763 recognized the right of Native Americans to all land in British territories outside established colonies except Hudson’s Bay Company land.  The Crown claimed the exclusive right to negotiate land surrender and peace treaties with the Indians and prohibited settlement in areas not covered by land cession treaties.

1857 The Gradual Civilization Act, which made Canadian Indians non-citizens, created a voluntary process by which Indians were expected to seek enfranchisement by accepting citizenship and renouncing any legal distinction as an Indian. Elected band councils (to replace traditional leaders) were set up with limited powers over reserve affairs.

1869 The Gradual Enfranchisement Act responded to Indian resistance to the establishment of elected band councils, by giving agents the power to depose traditional leaders for dishonesty, intemperance, and immorality, and to impose elected band councils. This act also stipulated that Indian women and their children would lose their Indian status when they married non-Indians.

1876 The Indian Act guaranteed that funds received by Indians from the sale of natural resources would be invested in the government-operated Indian Trust Fund. The act also recognized the responsibility of the government for the health, welfare, and education of Indians and the necessity of financing their agricultural and industrial enterprises. It prohibited the use of alcoholic beverages by Indians. All Indians with a university education were made full citizens and relinquished their special rights as an Indian. People legally defined as Indians are known as status Indians. The Indian Act made elected band councils voluntary. Location tickets, re-introduced in Eastern Canada, were part of a plan to lead Indians to abandon the practice of holding land in common.  Location tickets give individuals rights to twenty hectares of reserve land. Indians who farmed their allotment over a period of three years were enfranchised and received title to the land.

1885 Amendments to the Indian Act prohibited Indians from traveling off their reserves without a pass from an Indian Affairs agent, prohibited the reelection of deposed Indian leaders, and prohibited Sun Dances and potlatches.

1920  The federal government amended the Indian Act to allow for compulsory enfranchisement.

1939  The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Eskimo (Inuit) are to be legally regarded as Indians. This makes them the responsibility of the federal government.

1951  The revised Indian act lowered the requirement for citizenship and voting rights by requesting only character references and proof that an Indian could earn a living outside a reservation.

1960  Indians were given the national franchise.

1974  The federal government established the Office of Native Claims to evaluate and negotiate Indian land claims.

1977 The Canadian Indian Rights Commission replaced the Indian Claims Commission.

1982  The Indians along with the Inuit and métis were recognized as the aboriginal peoples of Canada. Those who lost their status as Indians through marriage were reinstated as Indians and band members. Their children also gained Indian status but not band membership for another 2 years.

1985 Indian women who lost their legal status through marriage to men who did not possess Indian status regained their status.

Local Histories

Some of the most valuable sources for family history research are local histories. Local histories describe the settlement of an area and the founding of churches, schools, and businesses. They can also contain lists of early settlers, soldiers, civil officials, and other related information.

County and town histories may include separate sections or volumes containing biographical information.  They can also provide background information about events that influenced your family’s lifestyle, the community, and environment in which your family lived. For further information about the value and uses of local histories see United States History and Canada History.

Tribal History

Most tribes in the United States did not start keeping their own histories until about 1934, and some did not start keeping them until much later. Some tribes in Canada may have started keeping records as early as 1841. Some earlier histories are available that were written by agents, priests, and other persons involved with the Indians in both the United States and Canada.

Oral History

Oral histories are genealogies or histories passed from one generation to another by voice or hand signs. They are sacred to the tribe and family members. When non-Indians started recording the histories, some items in the history may have been changed by the Indians to preserve the sacredness.

Several universities have gathered oral histories under various programs. One of the most well-known Indian oral history projects was funded by Doris Duke during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

South Dakota. University.  American Indian Research Project. Oyate Iyechinka Woglakapi: The People Speak for Themselves; An Oral History Collection. Vermillion, South Dakota: Institute of Indian Studies, 1970. FHL 970.1 So87o


If your ancestor married into a tribe or if he or she married someone from outside the tribe, then he or she may be in one of the following groups.

Mixed blood

In the United States and Canada, there are groups that are not fully accepted as Caucasian, Black, or Indian. These people have often faced challenges in connection with their ethnic identity and have sought historical documentation to find their ancestry. Among the ancestors of mixed racial groups are Cubans, Greeks, Italians, Mexicans, Moors, Portuguese, Turks, Welsh, Native Americans, African Americans, and Hessian soldiers. For an example, see:

Rice, Horace R. The Buffalo Ridge Cherokee: A ''Remnant of a Great Nation Divided'''. Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Book, 1995. (FHL book 970.3 C424rh.) This group of Cherokees were deemed not Indian because of Afro-American intermarriage.'


Melungeons have been called “Blue People,” “Free Persons of Color or FPC or FC,” “nobody at all,” “mulatto,” “free black,” and  “colored.” There is much speculation on the ancestry of the Melungeons. Whatever the ancestry, they have been listed as part of the Indian section in census records and other early government records and treated as such:

Ball, Bonnie S. The Melungeons: Their Origin and ''Kin'''. [Berryville, Virginia: Virginia Book ], 1969.  (FHL 973 F2bLL.)'

Bible, Jean Patterson. Melungeons Yesterday and ''Today'''. [Tennessee]: J.P. Bible, 1975.  (FHL book 973 F2bjp.)'


After the Civil War, the emancipation of the black slaves in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) was not official until all of the Emancipation treaties were signed in 1866. When slavery ended, the Five Tribes were required to adopt their former slaves into full citizenship or help with their removal to ceded or other specified areas. Few ex-slaves chose to relocate. Cherokees, Creeks, and Seminoles adopted their former slaves shortly after the treaties were concluded. Choctaws adopted theirs only in May 1883. Chickasaws never adopted theirs, except for a period of fewer than four years when the former slaves were accorded partial citizenship.

In the 1890s as statehood was becoming inevitable, final settlements were made for all of the citizens of each nation. The “Black Indians” sought to be entered on the tribal rolls and to obtain the benefits of payment and land allotment being given to other Indian citizens. When it was time to apply for enrollment, the “Black Indians” had to distinguish themselves from the blacks who had come into the territory after Emancipation.  In order to be enrolled, an Indian freedman and his or her slave owner had to testify in front of the Dawes Commission. See Native American Land Records for information on the Dawes Rolls.

Walton-Raji, Angela Y. Black Indian Genealogy 'Research: African-American Ancestors Among the 'Five Civilized Tribes. Bowie, Maryland: Heritage, 1993. (FHL book 970.1 W178b.) This book covers how to do genealogical research for African-Americans who were married into and adopted by the five civilized tribes.


Slaves were held in all of the Five Civilized Tribes, but compared to the general population of the United States very few Indians owned slaves.  Marriage between Indians and persons of African descent was forbidden except intermittently in the Muskogee nation. After the American Civil War, marriage between Indians by blood and blacks was uncommon, except among the Creeks and Seminoles.

Some of the northwest coast tribes were hierarchical, with clearly marked class divisions between chiefs, nobles, and commoners based on wealth and heredity. There was also grading within each class.  Outside and below these classes were slaves, in some villages making up a third of the population.  These were usually prisoners of war but sometimes were individuals who had lost status because of debt. One could also be born into slavery, one of the few regions in North America where this happened.  Slaves had no rights of any kind and could be put to death at the will of their masters.

During the 1600s the English traded guns and other items to the Creek and Cherokee in return for Indian slaves from the interior Indian nations (Choctaw and Shawnee, among other tribes).

In the early 1800s the Shoshoni raids were for the acquisition of captives, who as slaves were useful to other Indians, Spaniards, and French because of the high trading value.

Abel, Annie Heloise. The American Indian as ''Slaveholder and Secessionist'''. 1915. Reprint, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.  (FHL book 970.1 Ab34ai.) This book is indexed and includes some transcripts of the Wichita Agency and the papers of Fort Smith.'


Mulattos are a mix of Caucasian and Afro-American. During the 1800s and the early 1900s, the census takers lumped together anyone who was not white as Mulattos. This included black, mulatto, Indian, Jew, Arab, Asian, or anyone with as much as one-sixteenth so-called nonwhite blood.


The Métis in Canada are descendants of fur traders and Canadian Indians. There is considerable variation in both the use of the term and in material culture.  In 1941, before the “Halfbreed” category was deleted from the census, only 27,790 had been listed for the three prairie provinces, a figure that is too low. In 1981 when the word Métis was introduced as a census category, 100,000 identified themselves as such across the country.

Native People, Native Lands: Canadian Indians, Inuit, and Métis. Revised Edition. Ottawa, Ontario: Carleton University Press, 1987.  (FHL book 970.1 N213nc.) This includes historical information concerning the Indians and Métis in Canada.

Watson, Larry S.  Finding Your Métis Ancestors. Yuma, Arizona: Histree, 1995.  (FHL book 970.3 M566w.) This discusses the history and lists the records of the Métis.

Milne, Kim. Children of the Country: A Guide to Indian and Métis Sources. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Manitoba Genealogical Society, Inc., 1988.  (FHL book 971 F23m.) This lists sources at the Manitoba Genealogical Society, Manitoba Provincial Archives (Winnipeg), Glenbow Library and Archives (Calgary), and other societies, archives, and libraries where material can be found for Métis research.


Inuit is now used for those formerly referred to as Eskimo. The term Inuit has been officially adopted in Canada.

Dickason, Olive Patricia. Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples From Earliest Times. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. (FHL book 970.1 D551c.)


United States

The idea of a separate Indian country came about soon after the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Removal of Indians to western lands was suggested by Thomas Jefferson and became policy after 1830.

Indian reservations were established mostly during the mid to late 1800s, and the Indians were removed and restricted to reserved land to encourage white settlement and westward expansion. The Europeans dealt with the Indians by treaty, as they would a separate nation, believing that the natives would gradually be assimilated. This did not happen, and the Indian tribes were removed further west as land was needed for the population expansion With the approval of the United States governing agencies, the tribes governed themselves within these reservations.

Reservation records can include such documents as birth, marriage, death and divorce records, agency passes, annual reports, beef issues and rations, heirship cases, tribal council reports, grazing and cattle brands, land allotment cards, annuity rolls, school records, family registers, sanitary records, probate fees, tribal adoptions, tribal newspapers, yearly reservation census, pony claims, and others. Many of these records are only available through the reservation.

See Native American Internet Resources for internet sites regarding reservation records and addresses. For information on the various United States reservations, see:

Indian Reservations: A State and Federal Handbook. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1986. (FHL book 970.1 In2.) This book is arranged by state and then alphabetically by the name of the reservation. It includes the location of the reservation and the tribal headquarters, the names the tribes, and the land status, history, culture, government, population, economy, climate, transportation, recreation, and community facilities of each reservation.

Canadian Reserves

The Indian Reserves in Canada were created by both the British and French governments beginning in the 18th century. They were established to provide homes and land to cultivate, but also to avoid land disputes and to give the government more control over the Indian population. As a result of the Indian Acts passed by the Canadian government, the administration and government of reserve lands was given to the Indians. They have full use of the lands, including timber and other natural resources, and the lands cannot be sold without their consent. A list of Canadian Reserves can be found in the appendix of:

Handbook of Indians of Canada. Ottawa, Canada: Geographic Board, Canada, 1912. (FHL book 970.1 H191hc; film 1415251 item 15.) This book contains a list of Reserves, their location, the tribe or band, and the number of acres.


Indian burials varied from tribe to tribe. Huron dead were buried in a common pit; most Plains Indians were placed on scaffolds; Northwest tribes were known as the totem pole Indians. The poles were monuments of a person’s family crests. Some were fashioned to hold the ashes of deceased relatives.

As Native Americans embraced Christianity, their burials may have been recorded in church records. Specific sections of the cemeteries may have been set apart for Indian burials.

You may find clues to burial locations in church records, death certificates, and local histories. Reservations and BIA agency offices may contain records of local burial grounds. Before visiting a cemetery on a reservation or tribal property, obtain permission from tribal officials.