One of the go-to tools for the genealogist/family historian is the population census. The U.S. Federal Census is the first tool I reach for when looking for Native American ancestors and can really help in establishing where your ancestors were, who was around them and how they migrated.
However, when tracing your ancestors back you may find that your family may suddenly disappear from the U.S. Federal census. There are several reasons for this absence. Always do your due diligence to find out if they moved somewhere or were simply left off. If there is no evidence of such a migration or error and if you have other evidence linking them to a tribe, then it could mean that they were living with their tribe at that specific period of time.
If that’s the case, you’d want to check out the census of the nearest tribe or the tribe your ancestor claims. Tribal censuses could be taken by the government or the tribe itself. While these censuses don’t contain as much detail as what we are used to seeing in the U.S. Federal Census, they can help us place the ancestor with the particular tribe at a particular time.
Always be sure that the names in the household on the tribal census match the names for your ancestor and their immediate family. Don’t fall into the trap of claiming the wrong set of ancestors. Also, don’t assume that just because an ancestor isn’t on the U.S. Census that it automatically means they are on a tribal census.
It used to be quite a chore to find these records. However, thanks to sites like Ancestry.com, you can now locate censuses for larger tribes like the Cherokee as well as smaller tribes such as the Nooksak, Monache and Klamath. Another side benefit of tribal censuses is that they were not always taken at the same intervals as their U.S. counterparts. That means you can often locate Native American ancestors during years not covered by the Federal Census. For example, there are censuses of the Cherokee for 1835 (pre-removal), 1867, 1883, 1886, 1890 and 1896.
While Ancestry is a paid site, you can use it for free at many libraries. There are also some free sites on the web such as accessgenealogy.com that have transcriptions or images of tribal census pages. Whichever source you choose, tribal censuses can be an invaluable resource for locating Native American ancestors.
Here are just a few of the census records found on Ancestry.com:
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