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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National Archives Launches Crowdsourcing Site for Transcription

The National Archives has launched a Transcription Pilot Project website to enlist the general public in transcribing old documents to make them easier for researchers to find. This will be a tremendous help to historians and genealogists everywhere.

screenshot of the Transcription Pilot Project website launched by the National Archvies

Credit: National Archives

This transcribing is easy to do and there are a variety of documents online needing transcription, requiring a range of skill levels from beginner to advanced, needing the ability to work with old handwriting.

This is a practical project for genealogists to give back to the community.

Here is a typical example: a multi-page Civil War regimental casualty list with the names of the troops killed, wounded or missing.

screenshot of a Civil War casualty list, an example of the documents that are part of the Transcription Pilot Project launched by the National Archives

Credit: National Archives

As a volunteer, your task would be to read and transcribe documents like this old Civil War casualty list.

Your document transcription work will be reviewed and then published on the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website, making it easier for other family researchers to read this document thanks to your full-text transcription. Having the names typed in electronically makes them easy to search.

Click here to see the documents being worked on in the National Archives Transcription Project.

Notice that there are two sets of documents that you can work on transcribing: beginner level and advanced level.

If you want to suggest documents to be added to this project, click here to alert NARA to your suggestions.

This is a great public service.

Your effort will help others find their ancestors for decades to come.

Consider helping out—visit the Citizen Archivist Dashboard today to learn how to volunteer.

Researching State Archives for Genealogy Records

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary talks about how valuable state archives can be for your family history research, and describes how to access them.

If you’re looking for an exciting resource to help with your genealogical research, I recommend visiting your State Archives as soon as possible. Although archives are supported by open records laws, they are vulnerable to budget cuts—so don’t take state archival research for granted, as shown by the close call that recently happened to Georgia’s state archives.

On 13 September 2012 the governor of Georgia made this announcement:

“The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget has instructed the Office of the Secretary of State to further reduce its budget for AFY13 and FY14 by 3% ($732,626)…To meet the required cuts, it is with great remorse that I [Gov. Nathan Deal] have to announce, effective November 1, 2012, the Georgia State Archives located in Morrow, GA, will be closed to the public.”

After this state government announcement, the Georgia archival research community provided a strong response, including letters, petitions and a FaceBook page at www.facebook.com/GeorgiansAgainstClosingStateArchives.

Faced with this public opposition, the governor made an online announcement using Twitter on 19 September 2012:

“In proclaiming Georgia Archives Month today, @GovernorDeal said he’d find a way to keep the archives open to the public.”

The archival research community welcomed this follow-up announcement from the Office of the Governor on 18 October 2012:

“Gov. Nathan Deal and Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced today that the state will restore $125,000 to Kemp’s budget to keep the Georgia State Archives open to Georgians for the remainder of the budget year…Georgia’s Archives are a showcase of our state’s rich history and a source of great pride…I worked quickly with my budget office and Secretary Kemp to ensure that Georgians can continue to come to Morrow to study and view the important artifacts kept there.”

Vanishing Georgia, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 16 December 1982

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 16 December 1982, page 16

This story has a happy ending, but based upon an informal survey I took at a genealogy presentation on State Archives, only about 20% of family historians have ever visited one in person, or online. This is surprising, since state archives accessions include a vast assortment of genealogical documents, such as:

  • census records (state)
  • diaries (ex. Civil War)
  • oral histories
  • grave registrations
  • land records
  • military records
  • naturalization
  • probate
  • vital records and certificates (birth, marriage, death)
  • Works Progress Administration surveys
Archives Given 'Yankee Diary,' Greensboro Record newspaper article 8 November 1967

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 8 November 1967, page 42

In addition to genealogical resources, state archives typically house historical state documents, state constitutions, governor’s papers, historical prints, and artifacts such as flags or maps.

The focus of state collections is similar to that of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), whose website is www.archives.gov.

NARA provides a summary webpage with contact information and links to all state archives at www.archives.gov/research/alic/reference/state-archives.html.

National Archives and Records Administration's state archives website

National Archives and Records Administration’s state archives website

As this is a hard-to-remember URL, I generally locate the page by entering “National Archives State Archives” into a search engine.

Many state archives’ online sites contain databases and digital images. Some highlights include:

  • Missouri: Anti-Slavery Alphabet, Maps, Confederate Pension Applications, World War I Statement of Service Cards, etc.
  • Pennsylvania: Land Records, Maps, Military Files, Patent Indexes, etc.
  • Texas: digitized records pertaining to the Republic of Texas including Republic Claims, Confederate Pensions and Passports, etc.
  • Virginia: Revolutionary War records (Bounty Warrants, Rejected Claims, Pensions), Cohabitation Registers (African American), Works Progress Administration Life Histories, etc.

Tips for Online Archival Research

  • Since every website is uniquely designed, keep a log of the steps taken in locating an online resource.
  • To find related digital projects, search the Library of Congress website for Memory Project websites, or visit www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/statememory/.
  • Some digital projects partner with others, such as the Mountain West Digital Library for Utah, Nevada, Idaho, and Hawaii.

Tips for Visiting State Archives in Person (generalities, as each location is unique)

  • Many archives partner with libraries, where you will have access to extended resources.
  • Some state archives offer access to popular subscription databases.
  • When requesting to examine original documents, expect to register with a picture id., which may be valid for one year.
  • Prior to entering the archival document room, you may be required to store personal items in a locker, except for paper and pencil.
  • Options for obtaining copies may be available, although some allow the use of digital camera photography (without flash).
  • Be respectful of all historical items, and keep items in the original order.