Native American Indian Ancestors - Pocohontas marries John Rolfe1614

Native American Indian Ancestry is a common tradition, but many families do not have documents to support the tradition. Doing genealogy research on Native American Indian families presents unique challenges.

Native American Indian

Please note the terms preferred by individual people and tribes vary with region, tribe, and personal preference. I have combined the most frequently used search terms Native American, American Indian, and the abbreviations Indian and Native into one term “Native American Indian” so anyone searching for this information on the internet can find it. Please read into this article whichever term you prefer knowing that in this article all these terms are always used with respect.

Research Challenges

As a professional genealogist working in the Four Corners region where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet, I’ve traced ancestors for quite a few families with Native American Indian ancestry and am well aware of the challenges. In a series of blog posts about researching Native American Indian ancestry, I’ll recommend  records that may be useful when tracing your Native American Indian ancestors and in this post and share tips about how to find your ancestor’s tribe if you are not sure of the Tribe of your ancestor.

Do You Know Your Tribe?

If you already know your ancestor’s tribe, click here to learn about records to find for your family.

While attending the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG) 2017, I attended a lecture by Joan E. Healey of the Family History Library. She has been conducting research for Native American Indian patrons at the Family History Libary for many years and shared her suggestions about how to identify possible tribes when your family’s tradition of Native American Indian Ancestry did not include a specific tribal name.

Joan cautioned people with a tradition of Cherokee ancestry to consider other possibilities. Many people with unknown Native American Indian Ancestry assume their ancestor was Cherokee because the tribe is so well known, but many other tribes lived along the east coast and in frontier America. As you collect information about your family’s tradition and stories, keep your eyes, ears, and heart open for clues in your family’s stories about your ancestors’ life histories, the region where they lived, and their possible tribe or tribes.

Collect Your Records

As with all genealogical research, begin by collecting your family records and find out as much as possible from standard genealogical records. See my “Beginning Genealogy” class series for more info on these steps.

If you know where your family lived in 1910, search for the family’s records to see whether they appear in the “Indian Schedule” of the 1910 Census. If so, it will give you the name of their tribe and you can click here to learn how to find records for that tribe.  If your ancestor was not identified in the 1910 Census as Indian, then follow the steps below to find the tribe of your American Indian ancestor.

Identify Possible Tribes

It is important to find the tribe of your ancestor. Many families have the name of a particular tribe in their tradition. But some do not. It is important to recognize that many different Indian Tribes existed across the United States each with different history, traditions, and records.

There are 562 federally recognized Indian tribes, bands, nations, pueblos, rancherias, communities and Native villages in the United States. Approximately 229 of these are located in Alaska; the rest are located in 33 other states. Tribes are ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse.

National Congress of American Indians, An Introduction to American Indian Nations in the United States, n.d., (http://www.ncai.org/about-tribes/indians_101.pdf  accessed Feb 2017)

How to find Your Tribe

If you are not sure, which tribe your ancestor might have come from, try to narrow down the time period and region where your Native American ancestor lived.

Compare their home region to a map of the historic territories of American Indian tribes.

Native American Indian Tribes - Map of Historical Regions
“Early Indian Tribes, Culture Areas, and Linguistic Stocks”

Maps Showing Tribal Regions

These two maps show the traditional areas where certain tribes lived and the languages spoken there (labels may show tribe or linguistic group). Compare your ancestors home to both maps and read the descriptions to understand which Native American Indian Tribes inhabited the region where your ancestor lived. Also look for historic maps showing Indian lands during the time period when your ancestor lived.

These boundaries did shift over time. Consider all tribes active in the area near where your ancestor lived. You may have several possible tribes to research.

Research Tribal History and Locations

Learn about the history of these tribes and compare them to the history of the ancestors you have been able to trace using other genealogical records. Was that tribe living in the same area as your ancestor during the same period in history? Does the history of the tribe and the story of your ancestor fit together? Are there conflicts to be resolved?

Once you have researched the history of the tribe, you may know which tribe your ancestor came from. Or you may still have several possible tribes to consider, Search for your ancestor’s name in the records for that tribe during that time period. Also, search for your ancestor in local history records.

Click here to learn about American Indian records for your ancestors Tribe.

Questions? Contact me for more help locating records for your American Indian ancestors. Or leave comments below.

Thanks to Joan Healey for recommending this method to identify the tribe of a Native American Indian ancestor. 

I also added my own suggestions concerning the 1910 Census, suggestions for useful maps (above), and wrote a separate blog post on available records based on my own experience working with Native American Indian records.

text: © Anna Hopkins-Arnold 2017 - all rights reserved

Lithograph: Holenstein, The marriage of Pocohontas to John Rolfe (Lithograph), Joseph Hoover, Philadelphia [719 Sansom Street] : 1861. in collection of Wellcome Library, London, Iconographic Collection 575285i, Photo number: V0050148 (https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0050148.html accessed Feb 2017)
(Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0  Welcome Library, London, UK)

Map: Sturtevant, William C., "Early Indian Tribes, Culture Areas, and Linguistic Stocks" (map), Smithsonian Institution, 1967, US Geological Survey, 1970, (public domain - US government - USGS) (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Early_Localization_Native_Americans_USA.jpg  accessed Feb 2017)

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