Carolyn Earle Billingsley's Web Site

The Reality of Researching Your Indian Ancestors

Rather than teaching how to trace Five Civilized Tribe ancestors through the normal avenues, this lecture gets real. Most Native Americans didn’t sign up on the Indian Rolls, and, thus, genealogists must use other methods to “prove” Indian ancestry.

Intended Audience:
All levels, but probably best suited for Intermediate or Advanced

Summary of presentation:

Speaker after speaker lectures on how to research Five Civilized Tribes ancestry, that is, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, and Creek, as well as other, smaller tribes of the South. The truth of the matter is that a very small percentage of Native Americans enrolled or were counted on the “official” Indian rolls. All the standard methods of researching Indians will never be the answer for the majority of us with Native American ancestry. This lecture will present the reality of the task; but while bursting a few bubbles, it will also help guide the genealogist into more fruitful avenues.

In fact, few of us are able to “prove” Indian ancestry. We can, however, use the Genealogical Proof Standard and the different perspectives from this lecture to arrive at the most satisfactory resolution of the question possible.

After briefly describing the official records and explaining why your ancestor isn’t found there, I will point out the undesirable social standing of anyone who was known to be Indian by using sources from social history of the eras in question. The fact of the matter is, there was only one acceptable color to be in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, and that was white (as defined by society): Native Americans and African Americans, and any combination including either or both of these two groups, were not white—according to the standards of the time. Thus, it was prudent for such people to live and act as white people, and it was imprudent for them to admit Indian ancestry. This included filing applications for the Indian rolls.

But there are certain markers that the educated researcher can use to build a case for Indian ancestry. Native Americans lived in certain areas, for example; if your people were in the mountainous area of northwest Tennessee, this, along with other facts about their lives, is a clue to possible Indian ancestry. Another sign is the kinds of people your ancestor interacted with; if s/he lived in or near a group of those known to be Indian, if they moved with such groups to areas known for Indian residence, if they intermarried with those known to be Indian—then the probabilities rise that your ancestors were also Indian. Taken with a grain of salt, oral history from within the family is also important (although it’s difficult to believe that that many people had Cherokee princesses for grandmothers!).

One of the most important signifiers of Indian ancestry arises from the fact that Native Americans living in tribal relations (and I’ll explain what that means) were not taxed and were not counted on early censuses. In other words, particularly in the early 1800s, they don’t appear in white records. They may not have even had “white” names at this time. Therefore the absence of anyone resembling your ancestor before about 1830 could be a sign that they were still living as Indians.

I will also discuss my experience in DNA-testing to prove Indian ancestry. Although this has a very limited application, it can be another piece of evidence to bolster one’s case of Indian ancestry. Even so, it won’t tell you who that Indian ancestor was or how far back s/he lived, and, at this point in time, it cannot tell you which tribe that ancestor belonged to.

In sum, the genealogist needs to examine the traditional records, but, when that fails to elicit the identification desired, the tools presented in this lecture will help construct a GPS theory that will extract every bit of evidence from the records and allow genealogists to assemble the threads of possible Indian ancestry.