Marriage of History and Native American Genealogy Part 1

Author: Carolyne Gould
Published on: June 5, 2000 at

Studying the history of the area your ancestors lived in, and the events that shaped their lives, is a tool professional genealogists cultivate. That tool is particularly important when that elusive ancestor is Native American.


Epidemics, floods, wars and natural disasters affected both where our ancestors lived and how they died. Native Americans were affected by all those things and many more, including the social customs of their tribe.


One of the first resources a genealogist turns to is a census. (Future articles will deal exclusively with the multiple census-types available regarding Native Americans) For now, let's look at a fairly common census situation for Native American families that did not live on a reservation and were considered a part of the general population.1


An 1860 census lists your great-great-great grandfather, Charlie Two Horse as the head of household. There are three males ages 0 through 9, one female age 26 through 44, and 1 male slave, age 26 through 44. (Yes, some Native Americans owned slaves [2].) You then follow this family's travels through the 1870 and 1880 census.


The documentation you have on file verifies that this is your family. Other documentation shows Charlie Two Horse died in 1878, so when you move to the 1880 census, you don't expect to find his name, but you do expect to find the names of all other family members. (Names of all family members were first officially used in the 1850 Federal census; although there are some other types that used this form earlier.)


When you review the 1880 census, your great-great-great-grandmother is still alive, some of the sons have taken wives and and older man named John White Feather has appeared. Looks like g-g-g-grandma took another husband. Well, maybe "yes" and maybe "no."


In many native tribes, it was the duty of a woman's brother to take over caring for her and her family in the event the husband died. Census takers often just asked who was the head of the household and the number of people living in the household. Any assumption on our part is just that -- an assumption. The fact is, even Charlie Two Horse may not have been your g-g-g-grandfather. Many tribes followed a matriarchal hierarchy in which the brother of the mother acted as the teacher and role model for the male children because only through the mother could ancestry be truly verified. The woman's husband didn't even live in the same tipi, wigwam, or lodge.


All this means that if you have some idea of the main tribe or tribes you are researching, it would be beneficial to study that tribe's culture. I've provided some links to tribal home pages that will help you do just that! You'll find more links in my link category: Tribe specific genealogy, history and culture.


[1] General Population: Remember that the name Charlie Two Horse is used as an obvious example of the twists and challenges of researching Native American ancestry. If your ancestor is listed as the head of household on the general population schedule prior to 1890, it means he was listed as "white" or possible as a "free person of color." Officially, Indians were not counted on this type census until 1890.


[2] Slaves: Yes, some Native Americans owned slaves. And, many Native Americans were slaves themselves. In fact, Indians were the first slaves in the Western Hemisphere and many thousands of Indians were shipped to Europe and parts of Asia as slaves.