Native American Ancestor Search

By Rick McBride

Quite often I open e-mail from someone who is certain they have an Indian stuck in the family tree somewhere. A small percentage might know from what nation, and fewer yet might know the name and a little about the person in question. The predominant reason for most who get in touch is, “How do I find out if this is true?” No easy task.

It is more difficult to verify indigenous relatives than European relatives because the federal government deliberately made it so by arbitrarily assigning “white,” or “Christian” names to those Indians who could not escape the roles used to account and corral those caught up in the reservation nets. Their Indian names were not recorded along side their new “civilized” names, which broke the link. This played into the federal blood quantum standard, a scheme to reduce the number of Indian people over time: Because of intermarriage, it would only be a matter of time before nobody had enough “Indian blood” to qualify as Indian.

Today, those trying to establish the connection to their indigenous ancestors have an uphill battle, indeed. Before climbing that hill, you may have to accept up front there may never be the discovery of that one piece of irrefutable information that will satisfy the respective tribe as to the validity of an ancestor. Unfortunately, tribes have taken on the same legally rigorous attitude as the federal government in these matters. (A good example of the “victim-perpetrator bond.”) In the short term this keeps people off tribal rolls that should qualify but are not accepted because of the distribution of dollars, whether services tied to treaty rights or gaming royalties. The long term effect, while short-sighted, is obvious; no more tribe.

Begin your search learning what your family knows; who was the person and what is known about her or him, why does the family believe what it does about her or him, what names are in the old family bible, what pictures are in that old photo album? Look on the backside of the pictures, maybe something written there will help you. Interview family members, take notes, build you family tree, your file, find out who might already have done any of this work and get what they have. If you’re observant, the search itself will inform you where to look. You are looking for corroborating evidence, so be creative.

At some point, your focus may narrow to a certain area and time period, most likely the last known residence of the person who came together with your Euro, African, Asian or “other” ancestor. Knowing the history and people of a region during a specific time period can be very helpful in your personal search and flesh out the life and times and motivations of your ancestor. Many of the people who get in touch seem to think their search is limited to birth, death, marriage, and service records. I encourage you to investigate land title, business, corporate, partnership, adoption, church, cemetery, school, even motor vehicle information.

When I found out our family farm in Arkansas had three generations of McBride on it, I wondered if this might be useful; if when the land was originally acquired, and how it was acquired made any difference. I took a trip to Arkansas. I went to the court house and was allowed to go into a very old basement where the old record books were kept, unsupervised. It was a major test in patience. While the Official Record (O.R.) Books were in order, the hand-written documents they contained were not. It was common practice years ago that when someone took title to a property, they would not record it at the closing. This was not necessarily a problem, until forty years later when the property was sold. To prove legal ownership, and in order to legitimate subsequent deeds, the original transfer had to be recorded. Hence, a property that was acquired in 1893, then passed to the heirs in 1940, would not show the deed in the 1887 O.R. Book, but in the 1940 book.

Land records were useful to my search because the General Allotment Act of 1887 obligated the federal government to provide a homestead, or part homestead, to Indians otherwise entitled to such, but who did not live on reservation lands. These parcels were paid for by the government, which is what happened in my family. The next step is obtaining the documentation from the Department of the Interior, the curator of the original General Land Office archives.

Knowing the history of a region, the progression of its changes and significant dates, and the history of your tribe is a must. What role did tribal members play in the Civil War, or WWI, or WWII? (Another example of the “victim-perpetrator” bond.) Military records may give some evidence of Indian heritage, subject to the ancestor’s openness about it. State and federal bureaucracies are required to document their activities, and to then archive those documents. State historical archives are available to the public, but you must do the work yourself as state employees cannot.

Historical societies are another good resource, not only for what they might have archived, or in museums, but also in their memberships. Get involved and get to know the people and tell them of your quest. You might be pleasantly surprised at what comes from that.

There are a number of Indian census rolls in addition to the original Dawes Rolls, the Guion-Miller Rolls, and the Baker Rolls. Search them out. I have also found period maps useful in locating historical events within modern legal boundaries. What was the original Cherokee Territory, for instance? How did the state of Alabama come about, what ground was ceded by what tribe, and when? This gives credence to certain tribal people inhabiting certain areas, even after the white invasion.

Of course, the web has made some of this easier, but as with all things internet, be careful. Should you decide to go with a professional genealogist, check her or him out before sending away any dollars. As with many professions, there will be people who have specialized. Find someone who can substantiate a portfolio of experience tracking down Native American ancestors. There are also a few well known genealogical sources, such as the Mormon Church and Heritage Quest, a national lending library with a large repository of digitized records.

Should you discover you are, in fact, a mixedblood American Indian, be proud! Learn all you can of your tribal history and its current status. Make contact, get educated and get involved. You’ll be glad you did.

Rick McBride is a mixedblood Tsalagi (Cherokee) who encourages other mixedblood Indians to “get educated and get involved!” with their own indigenous roots. His website,, is dedicated to this end. Please check it out. Wado!

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