Getting Started With Native American Genealogy

If you are interested in tracing your Native American ancestry, many resources are available to help you. Getting started can be daunting, but don’t give up. Start with basic records – censuses, vital records and government documents – then work methodically backward from your earliest ancestor, one generation at a time.


The ancestors of Native Americans first arrived in the Americas around 15,000-30,000 years ago. They populated the continent and settled in large settlements, covering much of Canada and the United States and Central and South America. Today, there are over 562 tribal population groups in the United States. Sadly, many tribes were forced to leave their lands by the government, massacred or coerced into reservations by one-sided treaties and policies. Luckily, there are many ways to learn more about your Native American heritage and confirm the stories you’ve heard handed down through generations. Among the most important are family history and genetic research, including Y-chromosome testing, which can reveal tens of thousands of years of paternal lineage. There are sites that offer an autosomal test that can uncover a significant percentage of your ancestry DNA native American and trace family tree. However, it doesn’t provide Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA tests.

Tribal Membership Records

Tribal membership records were kept to identify individuals who were eligible for tribal enrollment in a specific tribe. These records can provide a wealth of information, including the name of the head of the family, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, ages or birth dates, marital status, band affiliation and land allotment information. A great place to start is by looking at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) records for the tribe your ancestor belonged to. These BIA records may give additional details about your ancestor’s life and help you find out what the tribe did for their members and how the government treated them.

Census Records

Census records are an invaluable source of information that can help you trace generations. These historical snapshots of your ancestors can tell you where they lived, their occupations, and other details. The United States takes a census every ten years. These records are available for genealogical research through the National Archives and Records Administration. You might also find them in family histories or other genealogical records. These records can be beneficial in tracing your Native American ancestors. If you’re having difficulty finding your ancestor in a census, use a first initial or partial name instead of their given name. It’s also helpful to look for their adult siblings in the records. In general, census records are reliable sources for tracing American Indian ancestors. However, not all of them will fully depict your ancestor’s life.

Treaty and Annuity Rolls

Treaty and Annuity Rolls provide a wealth of information about individuals who were members of certain tribes. These records can be a great source of evidence for Native American genealogy. Some of these rolls were prepared annually and listed the heads of households and the number of their dependents who were due money from a promised annuity amount due to a treaty or agreement. These roles are important because they return to some of the earliest treaties. Another type of roll is an entitlement list. These lists were created when a tribe won a lawsuit against the government and had to pay money to members covered by that suit. The government wanted to ensure they were paying only those truly entitled to receive the funds, so they created these types of rolls.

Regional Libraries and Historical Societies

Many local and regional libraries and historical societies may have Native American records. These collections should be a good starting point for anyone researching their ancestry. For instance, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin has a substantial collection of periodicals in Indian languages. These include community newspapers, mission and church papers. In addition, the National Archives has Federal census records for American Indians, including BIA American Indian censuses from 1910 to 1939. These documents can help you narrow your search down to the tribe, state or locality your ancestor was associated with. For example, the Bureau of Indian Affairs censored Indian schools and institutions where Indian parents sent their children. These records list the names of children, their sex, tribe, degree of Indian blood and distance from home to school. They are available in microfilm form at NARA’s regional research facilities.

Online Resources

There are many sources to help you learn about your American Indian ancestors. Some of these are online. First, it’s important to determine which tribe your ancestor belonged to. This can be tricky since not all tribal members live on reservations. A good place to begin is the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) collection of heirship records. These files may provide clues about your ancestor’s family and relatives, including their spouses, children and earlier generations. Another helpful resource is the BIA’s Indian Census Rolls, which enumerated people living on reservations from 1885 to 1940. These rolls are available on microfilm at the FHL and other major research facilities. There are also regional libraries and historical societies that often have information about local tribes. These institutions also have genealogical periodicals that cover your ancestor’s region.

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