Monday, December 5, 2011

Counting Indian Heads

Many people with Native American ancestry—proven or “family lore”— have no idea how to go about proving or tracing that ancestry. For some, I regret to say, the desire is to prove eligibility to participate in casino profits or in the recently-settled case of Cobell v. Salazar, a case brought against the then Secretary of the Interior because of a century and a half of mismanagement of the lands and funds belonging to tribes and individuals. That mismanagement resulted in vast sums of money simply disappearing and left generations of Indians dying poor without ever having control over lands and funds belonging to them.

To its credit, the present federal administration agreed to the settlement and is in general making a serious effort to get its records in order and compensate for the losses. However, it is still a major hassle to access the Federal records which can help you trace your Native ancestry for genealogical purposes—unless you know already what resources are available. If you don’t, read on.

As soon as the United States began make treaties with the indigenous inhabitants of the continent, the Feds were very eager to ensure that as few people as possible could claim benefits under the many treaties between Uncle Sam and the numerous tribes whose ancestral lands and rights were being hijacked. During the oral negotiations, the Indians would agree to certain terms, but since they could not read the treaty documents, they signed with an X mark and didn’t learn until too late that the document as written had terms different from what had been orally agreed upon. 

The technical term for this is cheating. If you’re angry enough about it, you call it swindling or just plain bare-faced theft. (I’m very angry about it, myself.)

If money, land, or goods were to be handed over in exchange for the ceded territory, the government, not unreasonably, insisted that these things should go only to the people who were entitled to them. And of course, the Indians themselves wanted to receive what they had been promised and not have it diverted to people who had no right to it. They also wanted to provide for their mixed-blood relatives who lived among them in the ceded territory and maintained and honored their relationships with their full-blood kin. Therefore, in relation to treaty benefits, the government often made every effort to record the names and relationships and the reasons for inclusion or exclusion decisions. My cousin Theresa M. Schenck’s All Our Relations: Chippewa Mixed Bloods and the Treaty of 1837 (Amik Press: Madison, Wisconsin 2009) is a compilation of the applications and the vetting process for persons of mixed white and Chippewa ancestry applying for benefits under that treaty.

Many treaties included annual payments spread over several years to the bands and tribes whose lands and usage rights were being ceded. Governments being governments, this means that for many tribes there are Federal annuity rolls, made (usually) every year to record who was entitled to payment, the name of the family head who collected the payment on behalf of the others in the family, and the number of adults and children for whom payment was made. And bureaucracies being bureaucracies, many of those annuity rolls have survived. 

Usually annuity rolls list only male heads of families by name; eligible women and children whose payments he collected on their behalf were only listed by total number. If the male head had died, only then would the woman’s name be recorded. Annuity rolls generally give, at most, a rough classification of the children by gender, and/or by whether they are over or under age 10. This is not always very helpful if your proven ancestor’s name is not recorded and you don’t know the names of that ancestor’s parents. You can’t even depend on the number of persons in the household being genealogically correct for a family group: a widowed grandmother, aunt, sister or cousin might be included among the adults, and the number of children may include nieces or nephews, grandchildren, or even unrelated orphans or foster children.

On the other hand, the annuity rolls can help pinpoint the year of a marriage and the approximate year of the parents’ births, as well as the birth years of children. This helps a lot when marriages were according to “Indian custom” rather than ceremonies presided over by a white clergyman or a judge and reported to the government. (One of the good things about the bureaucratic records was that “Indian custom” marriages were recognized as legal marriages.)

Many annuity rolls have been preserved and microfilmed by the National Archives; the Family History Library (LDS church) has many of these in its collection and you can order them online to view them at the nearest LDS Family History Center.

Like white families, Indian families change over time. Children are born. Children grow up and become independent. Family members of all ages die. Other relatives are taken into the household. Not only that, but many Native American people—like everyone else—felt free to move (temporarily or permanently) to another jurisdiction to join other relatives, to cope with a shortage of vital resources in “their” territory, to join in a bountiful harvest in an area where they had kinfolk, or indeed for any purpose they wished. Eventually the government agents had to switch tactics and track individuals as well as family groups.

The result: Indian Census records. Probably the best-known are the Dawes Rolls, which are lists of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole who were accepted as eligible for tribal membership as of 1897-98, and the Guion Miller Rolls of Eastern Cherokee (1909-1910), These are available on microfilm or in book or CD-ROM form. The same goes for the Durant Rolls of Ottowa and Chippewa in eastern Michigan who were listed on the 1870 annuity rolls and/or their known descendants living as of March 1907. 

Even more helpful for family historians, there are also annual census records of members of many other tribes, most dating from the the 1880s onward up to the 1920s or, in a few cases, the 1930s. (Later records are not available because of privacy laws. Censuses are still being made annually, but now they are made by the individual bands or tribes to keep track of their own members and are not available to the general public.) 

A goodly percentage of the Indian census records available are for the Chippewa (Ojibwe or Anishinaabe), mainly because the Chippewa were not among the Eastern tribes whose territory was simply seized by the early white settlers. The Chippewa and their allies did, however, control access to the Great Lakes and its resources by about 1660 and had enough military power for the whites to prefer negotiation over war. The Chippewa therefore made more treaties with the US than any other tribe.

(Note: I usually use the preferred term of Anishinaabe, but in Federal records we are always—then, now, and probably forever—called Chippewa, and if you need to research that people, that’s the name you need to search for.) has many of the Indian census records filmed by the National Archives online, covering a period from the mid-1880s up to, in some cases, the mid 1930s. You can also purchase the microfilms from the National Archives or rent them from the Family History Library for viewing at your local Family History Center. 

You will find that the records list only persons actually enrolled in the particular band or tribe (although a spouse not enrolled may be described or mentioned by name in parentheses). By the 1890s, when the allotment system was foisted on “pacified” tribes, allotment numbers were often included. Children are usually listed with their parents until age 21, when they are listed separately. The earliest censuses for my own Bois Forte ancestors appear to have been made by agents who trooped from encampment to encampment in no particular order in relation to the order of the previous census; the chief (who may be chief of only 10 or 15 people) is usually indicated. Later censuses were more organized and the agents followed the same route each time. 

Going through the Indian census records requires a certain flexibility of the mind as well as patience, because the census formats are not uniform from year to year. Many are organized by band, with the chief’s name as band identification. . Sometimes the censuses are organized alphabetically by the name of the head of the family (separate lists for those still using only their Indian names and for those who have more or less settled on a family surname). Often there are individual annotations added later stating that a person has died or that another child has been born (with the dates given); in fact, many agents used last year’s roll as the basis for this year’s, noting changes such as births and deaths during the interim, and sometimes—hooray!—the agent’s working copy is the one which was filmed. Children who have married or reached the age of 21 are shown as separate entries, often cross-referenced to where they were listed last year.

You will quickly discover that the spelling of Indian names on the censuses varies wildly from year to year. This is because many sounds of any Indian language generally do not equate to the sounds of American English. Thus “Gi wi gi jig” in one census is “Ke way ge shig” in another and you have to be alert to the alternate spellings. Moreover, there was a high turnover among Indian Agents, so each new agent would often devise a new spelling for a given name. And just to make things interesting, many Indians have more than one Indian name and therefore some persons are listed under alternate names some years. 

In the Chippewa rolls, you will find a lot of young children listed as Kwe-sens or Kwe-we-sens: those are not names, but simple gender designations. Kwe-sens means “little girl” and Kwe-we-sens means “little boy”. As the years went by most Indians eventually adopted surnames (often derived from the preferred Indian name of the head of the family) and English first names.

In short, navigating the Indian censuses can be a little tricky, particularly since the individual pages of a given census may not have a header telling you what band and what year you are looking at, and there may not even be original page numbers. I finally made for my own use a list telling me what exactly is on each of the rolls as displayed by along with the starting image number for each year and/or band. This applies only to the Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan Chippewa and at this point it’s not complete; one of these days I’ll finish it and try to put it online for other people researching those groups, but until then you’re on your own.

There are other useful government records for tracing Native American ancestors. Here’s an example: claiming it was all for our own good, the American government set about “civilizing” us, starting with the most vulnerable. Children would be rounded up like cattle or forcibly dragged from their parents’ arms (this is not an exaggeration but a precise description) and sent to boarding schools, where they would be viciously punished if caught speaking any language other than English, exposed to fatal diseases from the unsanitary condition of the boarding schools, forcibly baptized and given good Christian names, and taught enough reading and writing to help them get menial jobs. Boys might be trained as gardeners or other sorts of manual labor; girls were taught how to cook and sew and make good maids or nannies for white children. My own mother was a victim of the boarding school system; so were most of my cousins.

Do I sound angry? Well, I am. But I digress.

The boarding school system, like any other government system, kept records too. Some records are just accounting records. (These can be interesting and very revealing of the prejudices of the time: for example, the cost of food for the children was often considerably less than the cost of food for the staff.) 

Other Indian school records are specialized census lists of the students, usually with appraisals of each student’s progress in becoming “civilized"  Many of these school records still exist in the National Archives and/or in the Regional Branches of the National Archives; some are available on microfilm either from the National Archives or the Family History Library or even in university or state or local historical society libraries. (I found my mother's report cards on one microfilm.) 

More information about Indian schools can turn up online in websites for historical societies (such as the Visual Arts Collection of the Minnesota Historical Society, or just by searching the web for the name of the school, such as "Carlyle Indian School" or Flandreau Indian School". Who knows? You might find your great-grandfather's photo online!

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