From 1885 to 1940, the US government required American Indian reservations to take annual censuses of their members. Those census rolls, microfilmed by the National Archives and Records Administration
(NARA), serve as a good starting place for genealogists investigating American Indian ancestry.
“For the early years, they help bridge a difficult identity transition, listing both an individual’s Indian name and their English or Christian name,” explains professional genealogist James W. Warren, a specialist in American Indian research. Some rolls record annual births and deaths—creating a “vital-records snapshot” of the tribe. “And for many years, they list each individual’s number on the previous year’s census roll, helping researchers identify maiden names and make multigenerational connections,” says Warren.
To use the microfilm (film M595), you have to know what tribe your ancestor belonged to find him in the records. But this week, Ancestry.com
added the 1885-to-1940 Indian censuses in searchable, digitized format—offering more flexibility to find ancestors if you don’t know every detail (or it wasn’t recorded as you think it would be). You can search by name, tribe, birth date, family members and other parameters. The new collection is part of Ancestry.com’s US Deluxe subscription ($179.40 per year).
Warren warns that despite the federal mandate, there are record gaps for most reservations and agencies. “But an amazing number of rolls are available,” he says. “Combined with other records generated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian census rolls help make reservation-affiliated American Indians the best-documented ancestors in the United States for this time period.”
If your family belonged to one of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes—Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek or Seminole—this collection won’t help you. Instead, you’ll want to use the Dawes rolls, the official roster of those tribes' then-members, created from 1898 to 1907. Both the applications and final enrollment records are available on microfilm (film M1186) and digitally through NARA’s Archival Research Database. (Try Access Genealogy
for an easier-to-search index.)
For more help, read the National Archives’ helpful guide to tracing American Indians in federal records
In other news, Ancestry.com also unveiled two new Web sites for overseas researchers. Ancestry.fr and Ancestry.it bring the genealogy conglomerate’s databases and resources to French- and Italian-speaking users. To learn more, read the announcement.