Native American Genealogy: Research Tips & Resources

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary describes a special collection of Native American newspapers, and other online resources to help with your Native American family history research.

One of the challenging quests for family historians is researching indigenous American ancestry.

painting of the Seneca Chief Cornplanter by F. Bartoli, 1796

Painting: Seneca Chief Cornplanter, by F. Bartoli, 1796. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It would be a genealogist’s dream come true to find documentation in court houses, churches or within tribal records—but alas, that’s often not possible. And when you do find documentation, it may be confusing or inaccurate, as shown in the following examples.

The Name “Refused to Answer”

This discovery came about while researching census records of South Florida. Members of local Native American tribes were asked for their family members’ names. Some, fearing the intent of the census taker, refused to answer—and as a result, “Refused to Answer” was entered as their name.

Enter Last Name

Nicknames

Then there are descriptive nicknames bestowed by non-Native American friends and acquaintances. In all likelihood, they were created in order to overcome hard to pronounce names or complicated spellings.

Ever hear of John Abeel or John O’Bail? These were two appellations given to a Seneca chief known as Cornplanter, but that wasn’t his real birth name. Cornplanter is reportedly a translation of his tribal name, spelled in a variety of ways including Gar-Yan-Wah-Gah or Gaiänt’wak.

obituary for the Seneca Chief Cornplanter, Commercial Advertiser newspaper article 4 March 1837

Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), 4 March 1837, page 2

Legends May Not Be Legends

Ever hear the expression “to lie like Sam Hyde (or Hide)”? Thought to be a legendary character, Sam was supposedly a Native American chief in New England whose stories grew to the size of an exaggerated “fish” or tall tale. Every time they were exchanged, the claims grew, including in this report from 1806 about an amazingly large squash that was “nothing to Sam Hyde’s Water-Melon.”

article about Sam Hyde, Portsmouth Oracle newspaper article 8 November 1806

Portsmouth Oracle (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 8 November 1806, page 3

Newspapers, you’ve got to love them! Not only do they repeat regional folklore and legendary tales, but they also serve to disprove them. Take, for example, Sam Hyde’s Wikipedia article, which has a number of inaccuracies. Part of this e-piece reports:

Sam Hide (or Hyde) is a historic or apocryphal character in the folklore of New England, used in the folk saying “to lie like Sam Hide.” There is no record of the death of a Sam Hide in the records of Dedham, Massachusetts, though he is said to have died in 1732…

Should we be surprised that his official death was not recorded in town records? No, because as a member of a tribe, he could not have been considered an official resident. However, GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives prove that Hyde was not the figment of someone’s imagination. He was real, and he died on 5 January 1732 in Dedham.

obituary for Sam Hide, Boston Gazette newspaper article 17 January 1732

Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), 17 January 1732, page 2

Federal Archives and Records Center

You can also find newspaper articles about resources for researching Native American ancestry, such as this article about the Federal Archives and Records Center at Fort Worth, Texas.

This interesting historical news article reports a wealth of information, including:

The 27,000 cubic feet of permanent records are kept in a huge warehouse building six football fields long, and on row after row of stacks stretching 13 shelves high. They include federal court records from a five-state region, along with documents relating to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the 60 tribes the government moved through Oklahoma at one time or another.

article about the Federal Archives and Records Center, Times-Picayune newspaper article 22 March 1981

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 22 March 1981, page 180

Native American Newspaper Research

So how can historical newspapers guide you along the elusive path of researching Native American Roots?

Enter Last Name

As seen in the above examples, there is information found in newspapers of general interest, particularly for the better known Indians. In addition, we are pleased to report that GenealogyBank is actively building its collection of Native American newspapers.

Currently, these newspaper titles are available:

Other Native American Genealogy Research Resources

  • DNA Studies

If you are curious as to whether you have Native American ancestry, review the information from the American Indian DNA Project (hosted by FamilyTreeDNA).

  • Dawes Commission & Dawes Rolls

A common starting point for researchers is the “Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes,” known as the Dawes Rolls. Organized in 1893, a government commission established a mechanism to enroll residents of the Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma) for government purposes. This serves as a type of census, and although this government compilation does not encompass every person of Native American ancestry, you may be fortunate to find your ancestors in one of the online databases.

  • This Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs website clarifies some common misconceptions about research:

“When people believe they may be of American Indian ancestry, they immediately write or telephone the nearest Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office for information. Many people think that the BIA retrieves genealogical information from a massive national Indian registry or comprehensive computer database. This is not true. Most BIA offices, particularly the central [headquarters, Washington, D.C.] and area [field] offices, do not keep individual Indian records and the BIA does not maintain a national registry. The BIA does not conduct genealogical research for the public.”

  • This National Archives and Records Administration website reports:

“Among the billions of historical records housed at the National Archives throughout the country, researchers can find information relating to American Indians from as early as 1774 through the mid 1990s.”

  • Tribal Genealogy Research Resources

Many tribes maintain their own websites. If you suspect you are of a particular descent, go to the source. Many official tribe websites have lists of genealogy resources such as this page on Cherokee.org. There are also family research services that specialize in specific tribal genealogies such as Cherokee Roots, which can “offer expert assistance in finding your family’s connection to the Cherokee People.”

Related Native American Genealogy Articles & Resources:

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First Lady Edith Wilson & Her Ancestor Pocahontas

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—in celebration of November being Native American Heritage Month—Gena searches old newspapers to find stories about First Lady Edith Wilson and her connection to her famous Native American ancestor, Pocahontas.

When we think of great Native American leaders throughout U.S. history, names like Cochise, Geronimo, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull come to mind. But what about Native American women? Most Americans know the names of only two Native American women: Pocahontas and Sacagawea. Pocahontas, whose mythology was immortalized in a song sung by Peggy Lee and a Disney movie, might be the most familiar Native American woman because she left a sizable number of descendants through her son Thomas Rolf.

Who can claim descent from Pocahontas? At least one First Lady, numerous politicians, and even Confederate General Robert E. Lee, to name just a few. It was estimated in the 1980s that Pocahontas’ descendants probably numbered around 250,000. According to genealogist Gary B. Roberts, those who claim this lineage are through the Bolling line, which are the only known descendants traced beyond the early 18th century.*

Mrs. Woodrow Wilson’s Native American Ancestry

One American whose Pocahontas lineage was well reported was Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the second wife of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. From the time she became engaged to the president, her family history was a frequent topic in the newspapers.

photo of First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, married to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson

Photo: Edith Bolling Galt Wilson. Credit: Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library.

This 1915 newspaper article provides some information about Edith’s family history. It reports that ever since the engagement was announced “there has been a live inquiry for the correct data.” The article provides that data by tracing Edith’s direct line to Pocahontas and proclaims Edith Bolling Galt the ninth in descent from Pocahontas. [Note: the article erroneously states that Pocahontas married Thomas Rolfe; her husband’s name was John Rolfe, and their son’s name was Thomas.]

Fiancee of the President Is Undoubtedly a Direct Descendant of Pocahontas, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 14 November 1915

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 14 November 1915, page 5

In writings about Edith’s foremother, emphasis was placed that someone with “Indian blood” would now reside in the White House. This announcement about Edith’s lineage was also the catalyst for impromptu history lessons found in newspapers across the country. The short life of Pocahontas has been retold often, and—as with any well-told story—inaccuracies creep in. This old newspaper article provides readers with information and images reportedly of Pocahontas.

Unhappy Pocahontas, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 24 October 1915

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 24 October 1915, page 43

The widow Edith Bolling Galt married President Woodrow Wilson in December 1915. Undoubtedly, any presidential wedding results in gifts from a diverse range of well-wishers. The Wilson wedding was no different.

According to this 1916 newspaper article, one item that Edith received was a Pocahontas statuette presented by the Pocahontas Memorial Association. The article points out that Edith Bolling Wilson was related to Pocahontas through her paternal line.

Indian Statuette for Mrs. Wilson; Figure of Pocahontas, Her Ancestress, a Bridal Gift, Broad Ax newspaper article 8 January 1916

Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), 8 January 1916, page 3

The news article included this picture of the Pocahontas statuette.

photo of a statuette of Pocahontas given to her descendant, First Lady Edith Wilson

The statuette was not the only Pocahontas-related gift that Edith received while in the White House. Other gifts related to her Native American ancestry included dolls and a portrait of her ancestress presented by the heritage membership organization Colonial Dames.

Pocahontas' Picture Gift; Private Copy of Original Portrait to Be Sent Mrs. Wilson, Oregonian newspaper article 3 March 1919

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 3 March 1919, page 14

When Edith Wilson visited England in 1918, this Duluth newspaper article heralded the visit of a descendant of Pocahontas—pointing out it was a little over 300 years since her ancestor made a similar trip. The newspaper article claims: “Only one other American woman [Pocahontas] ever has been received in England with the social and official courtesies which will be lavished upon Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.” The news article goes on to trace Edith’s roots to Pocahontas and even to her early Bolling English roots.

To Be Greeted as Was Pocahontas in 1616; England Prepares for President's Wife, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 3 December 1918

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 3 December 1918, page 12

Pocahontas Research Resources

Are you a descendent of Pocahontas? You may be interested in the book Pocahontas’ Descendants: A Revision, Enlargement, and Extension of the List as Set Out by Wyndham Robertson in His Book Pocahontas and Her Descendants (1887), by Stuart E. Brown, Jr., Lorraine F. Myers, and Eileen M. Chappel (the Pocahontas Foundation, 1985).

Gary B. Roberts’ article Notable Kin: Some Descendants and Kinsmen of Descendants of Pocahontas: An Excursion into Southern Genealogy on the American Ancestors website has additional sources you may be interested in.

Whether or not you have Native American ancestry, dig into GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives to find out more about your ancestors, discovering the stories that help fill in the details on your family tree.

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*Notable Kin: Some Descendants and Kinsmen of Descendants of Pocahontas: An Excursion into Southern Genealogy by Gary B. Roberts. American Ancestors. 1986. http://www.americanancestors.org/an-excursion-into-southern-genealogy/ accessed 11 November 2013.