Common Roadblocks to Native American Genealogy

Author: Carolyne Gould
Published on: May 22, 2000 at

Conflicting information is one of the most common problems encountered by Native American genealogy researchers. After all, you have it on good authority (great-Aunt Tilley told cousin James) that your great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee Princess [1]. What you turn up in your research, however, doesn't match family stories. Here are a few scenarios -- and what may have happened.

You find a census that includes your great-great-grandmother's name, and she is listed as white.
During the period of the Cherokee removal from Tennessee and North Carolina (and due to changes in other states' laws regarding their Native American population), it was often illegal for "Indians" to own land. If your great-great-grandfather obtained his land through his wife, he wasn't about to tell the authorities who would then confiscate the property. Protecting the family's present prosperity was often more important than preserving one's heritage for posterity. More information on this topic can be found at this URL, one of many addressing the Trail of Tears. [This website was down in January 2013--Leaving the link in hopes it will return.]

You find a census that includes your great-great-grandmother's name, and she is listed as black; but you are positive she was not African-American.
Early census records included few choices. The first census, in 1790, allowed for the name of the head of household, then the number of people in various categories: i.e. males ages 0 through 5, females ages 10 through 15, etc. When it came to race, there was no category for Native American. In fact, it was 1890 before Indians, both on and off the reservation, were counted in the federal census. And it wasn't until Census 2000 that persons of mixed heritage, Caucasian and Native American for example, could check more than one identifying category to indicate their racial heritage. A more apt definition for those of mixed ancestry, (Native American and other Euro-or African-American ancestry) is the the word Metis, meaning "mixed." More information on federal census records may be found at the United States Vital Records office which also has info on other topics of interest to genealogists.

The most important thing to remember when you are doing Native American genealogy research is the same thing every genealogist needs to remember -- begin at the end! This means to start with yourself, record the names of your parents, then your two sets of grandparents, then your four sets of great-grandparents, ad infinitum. Once you have the names, (and hopefully dates and places), documenting that heritage is the next step.


Future articles will address other roadblocks specific to Native American Genealogy research as well as the steps to take when beginning research in this area. There will be several articles addressing the "how-to's" of searching the National Archives. Thanks to the internet, you can now do the searching from your computer.

[1] Cherokee Princess: There is no such person as a Cherokee Princess. The term "princess" was first used by explorers and European royalty to identify the daughters of Indian leaders. The explorers and the royalty of the times presumed wrongly that the family of a tribe's leader had the same lineal structure as was prevalent in the "Old World." Thus a chief was a "king" and as a result of that mindset, his daughter was a "princess." Some persons later used the term "Indian Princess" to denote an Indian woman of questionable morals. Please do not perpetuate this misnomer as it is a dishonor to all women of Native American heritage.