How to Find Native American Ancestors Using the 20th Century U.S. Censuses

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

This article is primarily for novice family history researchers and aspiring genealogists who are researching their Native American ancestors in the early 1900s. However, it can be beneficial for all who desire to find their native ancestors by searching the U.S. census collections and the U.S. Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940. The research process is the same no matter the family's background, ethnicity, or nationality. The research process includes: 1) Identifying the known facts about the ancestor 2) Determining a research question about the ancestor (objective) 3) Selecting records to search 4) Obtaining and searching the record 5) Using the information. As research is conducted in the process, it is best to keep a record of when, where, and what was found onto a research log for each immediate family which includes father, mother, and child or children. Keeping a research log helps the researcher to stay on track while focusing on answering research questions, shows the evidence found or not found (negative evidence), shows the researcher's thinking process as documents and evidence are compared and contrasted, save time and duplication of effort, and most of all, it will serve as a foundation on which the next generation of researchers to build on as more records become available.[1] Creating and maintaining a research log throughout the research process is invaluable.

Step 1: Identify the known facts about the ancestor (background knowledge)[edit | edit source]

As with any genealogical research, it is best to go from the known to the unknown. Known information will provide clues that will help with the research plan before beginning the actual research. This preliminary or background research is important for any family history research; but critical for Native American ancestry research!  Collecting what family knows will not be a one time event. As with any family history research, collecting what is known by family members will be an ongoing process for many years to come.

Therefore, conducting informal interviews for oral histories[2] will be a means to gather what the family members know about their ancestors. Out of these casual conversations or interviews will emerge information about the ancestor's:

  • tribal and family traditions
  • photos, documents, and objects in family members' possession, such as memorabilia associated with a memorable event or the ancestor
  • ancestor's tribal census number which indicates membership of his or her tribe(s)
  • ancestor's clan in his or her tribe(s)
  • residencies on and off the reservation(s)
  • native, anglicized, or American names the ancestor was known as throughout his or her lifetime
  • biological and adopted relationships within his or her immediate family, particularly parents and siblings.

When possible, ask for permission to scan or take a photo of each photograph, document, and memorabilia pertaining to the ancestor. Take detailed notes, and include it on research log while the information is still fresh in one's mind. In addition, become familiar with and research the location, geography, and history of the ancestor's tribe(s). For future research projects, become familiar with the forced migration route(s) from place of origin to present location of ancestor's tribe(s). Study the past and present location of the tribe's reservation. Some reservations covered more than one state and county. For example, today the Navajo reservation spans into three states (e.i., Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah) and eleven counties.[3] Another example, the Lake Traverse Reservation is located in parts of five counties in northeastern South Dakota and parts of two counties in southeastern North Dakota.[4] Become familiar in what state (or territory for earlier time periods) and counties where your ancestors lived. Researching, studying, and knowing the location of where the ancestor lived, and past and present location of the homeland of the ancestor's tribe will be of great benefit to the present and future research projects

Step 2: Determine a research question about the ancestor (objective)[edit | edit source]

Record the information found on each individual onto a pedigree chart, and family group record for each family. The four-generation pedigree chart includes the descendant, parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who are in the person's direct lines. Record the known information for each generation. Also, for each couple on the pedigree chart, record the known information on a family group record (also called family group sheet) which includes the names of the father and mother of the family, and their children. Based on what is known, review what is unknown on the pedigree chart and family group record(s). If an ancestor does not have known parents on the pedigree chart, perhaps the research question would be "Who are my maternal grandmother's parents?" The objective for the research would be to find the parentage of the maternal grandmother. Perhaps, the date and place of death is unknown for a paternal grandfather. The research question would be "When and where did my paternal grandfather die?" Then, the research objective would be to find the date and place of the paternal grandfather's death.

Step 3: Select records to search[edit | edit source]

Along with conducting background research, there are two key record collections to search, the U.S. census and the U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940.

U.S. Census[edit | edit source]

One of the key sources to search for any ancestor in the United States is the federal census which were and are taken every ten years since 1790. The records give a great deal of information about Native American individuals and their families. The kinds of information on the U.S. censuses vary from census year to census year. As an example, the kinds of information that could be gleaned from the U.S. census records are as follow: when and where ancestors resided; their economic status; their neighbors; their gender, age, relationship to head of household, and marital status; their occupations, education, military, service, and place of birth, and sometimes degree of Indian blood. In addition, evaluation of censuses from different years may reveal the ancestor's migration pattern in the United States. As one researches from known to unknown, search recent U.S. census to earlier censuses; such as, from 1940 U.S. census to 1900 U.S. census.

U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940[edit | edit source]

Next to the U.S. census, the U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940 is another collection of records that can be used in conjunction with the U.S. census. This collection has over 5.5 million records. The original holder of this collection is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. The U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940 was enumerated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs annually as required by an act of 4 July 1884 (23 Stat. 98).[5] There are two layers of jurisdictions on American Indian lands: the federal jurisdiction (Bureau of Indian Affairs), and the state or territory and counties. For example, present-day Lake Traverse Indian Reservation (federal jurisdiction) covers a small part of Sargent and Richland counties in North Dakota, and covers a large part in Roberts County, South Dakota and lesser amounts in Marshall, Day, Grant, and Codington counties in South Dakota. The reservation is the homeland to Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, formerly Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe/Dakota Nation. The members of the tribe are found on U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940, NARA Series M595, Rolls 507-516 (1886-1939) on Members of the tribe can also be found on the U.S. census which will give more information than the Indian census rolls. If the person searching for is on the Indian census rolls, it will confirm his membership in a tribe, degree of blood as a member of that tribe, present and last census number, and allotment number if the individual "maintained a formal affiliation with the tribe under federal supervision."[6]

Step 4: Obtain and search the records[edit | edit source]

U.S. Federal Census[edit | edit source]

This section of the article will explain how to use the U.S. Federal census, 1790-1940 on In order to search U.S. census from most recent to the past, select one of the years by clicking on the heading which will show the FamilySearch Wiki page United States Census Online Genealogy Records. Each census year will have links to four websites (FamilySearch, Ancestry, FindMyPast, Heritage). For the purpose of this article, click on the link for FamilySearch Historical Records under the heading 1940 United States Federal Census. There are two ways to search the Native American ancestor in the U.S. census records.

Option 1

Based on information gathered from the preliminary research or background research, enter the ancestor's first name and last name. Enter the state or territory where the ancestor was born and a time range within he or she was born (e.g., 1900 - 1905). Filter the search by location (United States and state); and type of record (Census, Residence, and Lists). Some heads of families and family members had an Anglicized or American name especially as one searches back in time. For reasons of employment or other, their names were changed from a native name to an American name or an anglicized native name. An example of an anglicized native name is the word yazhi, which means "little" in the Navajo (Dine) tribe. A male name on the U.S. census may appear as Deneh Yazzie which the surname was anglicized yazhi to Yazzie. The first name Deneh is pronounced di-NEH which means man. Today, the tribe prefers to be acknowledged as "Dine" which means "the people." Also, the surname Yazzie is a common surname today, such as American surnames Johnson or Smith. Therefore, if the anglicized or American name is entered, the name may appear in the search result, and bring up the entire family whether they had native, anglicized, or American names.

Option 2

However, if the ancestor and his or her family were known by their native name at the time of the enumeration, the census records will require browsing from page to page. The enumerators who recorded the native names spelled them phonetically with English letters as they heard it pronounced, and each enumerator would spell the native name differently as they heard it. In addition, a researcher would spell it differently than how the enumerator spelled the native name. In order to browse the 1940 U.S. census for example, scroll down the page to the blue link Browse through 3,841,151 images. After clicking on the link, select the state your ancestor lived in 1940. Select the county and then the township or Precinct.

U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940[edit | edit source]

This Indian Census Rolls does not give the exact residence of an ancestor. However, If the ancestor is found in the U.S. census, the individual can be found in the U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940 on FamilySearch Historical Records or FamilySearch Catalog. If the ancestor has an American or an anglicized name, his or her name can be searched using the FamilySearch Historical Records because they are indexed, and therefore, the records are searchable by typing the name. Also, sometimes the ancestor who had an American or anglicized name will have family members with a native name. By typing in a member of the family who has an American or anglicized name, other family members can be found with their native names. However, if the ancestor has a native name at the time of the census, scroll down the page to the list of films. Each Agency has a film number

Step 5: Use the information[edit | edit source]

Once you have found the ancestor and family, evaluate the evidence found. Even though a U.S. census is a secondary source and information, it gives clues about the ancestor and family. This source will lead to other U.S. record types to search. Compare the similarities of the information found on the census with other sources, such as documents and stories gathered during the preliminary (background) research. Also, contrast the differences in the information on the census record with other sources. If two or more sources agree on the information, enter the information onto the pedigree chart and family group record. In order to help with comparing and contrasting of the information, using a research analysis table will be very helpful. Also, the information can be transferred to a family tree on If one is not familiar with the website, one can find out how to use it by going online to In the upper right-hand corner, click on Help. In the drop-down menu, click on Help Center and select Family History Center in order to find the nearest center where volunteers can help one to create a tree on the website.

Other Resources[edit | edit source]

Case Studies[edit | edit source]

Online and Offline Resources[edit | edit source]

Dollarhide, William, The Census Book: a Genealogist's Guide to Federal Census Facts, Schedules and Indexes (Bountiful, Utah: Heritage Quest, 2000)

Thorndale, William and William Dollarhide, Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1987)

Compiled and Edited by Veronica E. Velarde Tiller, American Indian Reservations and Trust Areas (Washingtion, D.C.: United States Department of Commerce | Economic Development Administration, 1996)

Prucha, Francis Paul, Atlas of American Indian Affairs (University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln & London, 1990)

Waldman, Carl, Atlas of the North American Indian (New York, New York: Facts On File Publications, 1985)

National Archives, Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940

U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940 at $

Access Genealogy, U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940

United States Census Bureau, Censuses of American Indians

Internet Archive, Indian census rolls, 1885-1940 [microform]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. FamilySearch Wiki, Research Log (Research logs| accessed 30 December 2019).
  2. Charlton, Thomas L., “Oral History for Texans, 2nd Ed.,” ( : accessed 28 October 2019).
  3. Empower Black Mesa, "Black Mesa United Dzilijiin Bee Ahota," ( : accessed 11 November 2019).
  4. Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate ( accessed 30 December 2019).
  5., "About U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940," Ancestry ( : accessed 18 September 2018).
  6. National Archives, "Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940," ( : accessed 19 November 2019).