Tracing Your Family's Heritage

This article originally appeared in the OCB Tracker newspaper, a paper devoted to Native American resources, news, and events in California. I should know - I wrote it! However, it is copyrighted by the OCB Tracker; I reprint my article here with permission. Permission to use this article for anything other than personal use should be gotten from the OCB Tracker editing staff.  Even though the Tracker is currently not in publication, all stories are still copyrighted, and the editorial staff can still be reached through their powwow calendar website. Thanks!

So you're looking into your family history, trying to locate your ancestors and see where you fit into your family line. Are you finding it easy? If so, you're doing better than the vast majority of us. Most family histories, especially those of Native Americans, are darned near impossible in some ways to research. It can be done, however, with profuse quantities of what we call the Three P's - patience, perseverance, and profanity (all of which also apply to beadwork, incidentally!).

Ask your family for as much history as they can give you. If both your sets of grandparents are still living, ask them about their folks, and their grandparents; most people are more than willing to share the family history. If they aren't, however, don't push them; for many people during the early part of this century and most of the last, it was a "bad thing to be Indian". In fact, many families in the Southwestern region of the US spontaneously turned Mexican - amazing what public opinion will do, isn't it? It's a sad thing, but true. However, it still doesn't hurt to ask, and who knows? Maybe you'll be the first person to get Great-Grandma Alma to talk about her background... it's happened before.

While talking to your family, keep a written record of what's said about the family. Also, if you can, make a photocopy of every family photograph you can, and all the Bibles that may have family information in them. If someone remembers that Great-Grandma Alma was a little, short, old lady who did neat beadwork, write that down as well; sometimes those little insignificant-sounding bits are the clue that leads you to your goal.

Do you have birth and death certificates? If not, that's the next place to start looking. Find your parents' certificates. If your parents are still living, ask for their birth certificates, and from there locate your grandparents' certificates. Continue doing this until you can no longer find any birth or death certificates. If you can find these through the 1800's, you're still doing much better than most - many people lived so out-of-the-way in those times that many people were born and died with no documentation that they ever lived.

Once you've gone as far as you can on your own with both talking to relatives and digging up certification of existence, go to the Mormon Church. You heard me right; the Mormon Church has one of the most complete genealogical research libraries that ever existed, due to their interest in baptizing long-lost relatives of the church (whether they're dead or alive). Most local Mormon churches in your area will at least have a small research library for that area; larger churches or major hubs will have more. There generally is no cost or very little cost to research through these libraries, although I will warn you that it is sometimes very hard to read some of the microfiche that is available, so be prepared to spend as long as you are allotted examining everything you can find.

Along those same lines, put your name out on the Internet; there are many different resources for searching there as well. The Internet has made major inroads into information services, and not the least of this are tremendous genealogical resources for people of all backgrounds and racial heritages. There are, in fact, large groups who do major family research online, but keep in mind; some of the genealogy businesses are in fact just that - businesses. While they can help you find some things that may be extremely buried, I personally would leave them as a last resort, if you cannot get far enough on your own. Many places will offer you "family books", such as the Fuller Book in our case. These books might have something, sure; they likely will have you and your kin in them. However, they may not go back very far, and in many cases, just list the people of your family name rather than their connections to each other. This is neat, but hardly productive in a genealogy search. Still, not all of the family books are bad. Somewhere down the line, I recommend getting them. However, much like the research organizations, keep in mind that it would be best left as a last resort.

So where else can you go online? Well, there's lots of Internet websites, groups, and email lists which deal strictly with genealogy. There are places that you need special software to go to, but then can input your history into the list and - who knows? - you might run across a distant relative searching for the same thing. There are sites that deal strictly with the Dawes or Miller census rolls, mostly related to Eastern tribes such as the Cherokee. However, there are other census rolls out there as well, some of which are online. There are also many other people searching who may have run across information pertinent to your search, whether it's relevant to their own or not. Networking can be a wonderful boon to the genealogist.

So now that you've started researching, you've run across a Great-Great-Grandpa Stone. He may only have one name - his full, legal name may just be "Stone". Or, perhaps, his name was "Storm", but the person who wrote down his information heard the name wrong and wrote "Stone", instead. This stuff does and will happen in genealogies - after all, it was not so long ago that people didn't need to read or write. Is this unusual? No, not really; after all, times were a little different then. Many people assumed that they, like their ancestors, would be either taken at face-value or would be remembered for who they were in the family by an oral history. Because times have changed, and so many elders have passed on, it's hard to find remnants of the oral histories, however... so keep an eye open for multiple spellings of your family's name(s). After all, it could have just been a typo before typewriters were common.

Are you looking specifically for a Native relative? Start with your parents, yet again, and research backwards. Were your parents enrolled, and do they have a CIB (Certificate Of Blood card)? A census number? If not, were your grandparents enrolled? Etc., etc... keep working backwards, until either you find something or you don't. You can occasionally, once you've found something, look back through old Bureau of Indian Affairs documents and locate relatives. You can also contact the National Archives, city halls and county records around where your relatives lived, historical societies, and major libraries that deal with genealogical information. If you get far enough back, and happen to find relatives in the eastern seaboard, you can also look through various colonization records and see if there is any mention of your relatives.

What happens if you hit a dead end? Well, I'm still trying to figure that out myself. Using my history as an example, my great-grandfather was left at an orphanage at an extremely young age. While we know the location of where the orphanage was, it burned down in the late 1800's, destroying all records which may or may not have been there. My great-grandfather, while he was still alive, used to wonder what his birth name was on a fairly regular basis. However, he was given the rather generic name of " William Miller" as a replacement for his real name, and he died in the 1980's, an extremely elderly man, never knowing who his parents were. If you run across something like this, keep searching; I know I am, and I have hopes of eventually cracking through the dead end and finding out which peoples my great-grandfather came from.

I can't guarantee you that you'll find anything immediately. I can't even guarantee that you'll ever find anything. However, searching for your roots is still an interesting pasttime; I can now trace a goodly portion of my family back to the late 1600's/early 1700's, and found out that I'm a Daughter of the American Revolution - a title which I haven't claimed, but may eventually get around to. It's also a wonderful way of preserving what little is known about your family's heritage for your children, and their children, and so on to the seven generations beyond you.

May you find luck on your search!

Questions? Comments? Drop me a note!
Reprinted with permission. Page content copyright OCB Tracker, 2004.
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Requests to use this article for non-personal uses (i.e. reprint, etc.) should be directed to the editor of the OCB Tracker newspaper.

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