I saw a British TV documentary a few years ago about wildlife in the western United States. The program told the story of how Geronimo and his Apache warriors lived off the land in their decades-long battle against the United States and Mexican governments. The host noted that while the names of the officers that pursued the Apache’s are now forgotten you can go to almost any country in the world and say the name Geronimo and they know exactly who that is and what that name represents.
November is Native American Heritage Month and while we honor and admire Native American history and culture today it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when having a Native American ancestor was something you kept hidden. For years many people had misconceptions about Native Americans and often held deep felt prejudices. It wasn’t until June 2, 1924 that the Indian Citizenship Act was passed granting citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States. Up until then many Indians were not legal citizens and could not vote and often could not own land.
One way Native Americans managed to assimilate into society was to give their children very American sounding names. My college roommate’s grandfather was a Native American. His name was Sam Davis. No one looking at the name Sam Davis on a land deed would ever guess he was a Native American.
Today people take great pride in being of Native American descent. I often have patrons visit the Iredell County Public Library Local History Room trying to prove one of their ancestors was a Native American. They come in telling stories passed down through the family of an ancestor who was an “Indian.” Sometimes they get the idea from looking at a photo.
Tracing one’s Native American ancestry can be a challenge though. As with any genealogy, you start with yourself and your parents and grandparents and work your way back until you run out of names. Then you turn to records to try and fill in the blanks. Records we normally use include marriage, birth, death, land, tax, military, church, newspaper, and census records. The 1900 Census included special questions asked of those listed as Indians.
Separate from the United States Federal Census is the American Indian Rolls. These rolls were a separate census taken of the names of Indians in different tribes and locations. There were many rolls taken through the years for various reasons. Membership in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians requires a minimum one-sixteenth Cherokee blood quantum, equivalent to one great-great-grandparent, and an ancestor on the Baker Roll of 1924, the last roll of the Eastern Band of Cherokees.
In looking for church records, remember that most Cherokees are either Methodist or Baptist. The Cherokee have served our country in both peace time and war. During the Civil War the Cherokee sided with the Confederacy serving in Thomas’s Legion. The North Carolina Office of Archives and History recently published the roster to Thomas’s Legion along with information about their service in volume 16 of the “North Carolina Troops 1861-1865: A Roster” series.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee has established a research office on the reservation to assist people with researching records prior to the 1924 Baker Roll. These records go back to 1835 and record the Eastern Cherokee within the limits of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. This office can assist with determining Native American ancestry, but does not aid in determining eligibility for enrollment with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The enrollment office can be reached at 828-554-6467.
The Cherokee enrollment website is http://nc-cherokee.com/enrollment, Other useful online resources include Cyndi’s List at www.cyndislist.com/native-american/specific/cherokee, the United States of Interior at www.doi.gov/tribes/trace-ancestry.cfm, and Access Genealogy, a free website, featuring many indexes to Native American rolls at www.accessgenealogy.com/native.
Joining a tribe is not as important to most people as just knowing and proving their Native American ancestry. Some people take DNA tests to help prove they have Indian blood. It should be noted though that a DNA test cannot be used to join a particular tribe. The Iredell County Public Library has an excellent collection of books listing various Native American rolls along with other materials to assist in tracking down your Native American ancestor.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Library can help trace Native American roots” on Nov. 22, 2013