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A How-To Guide For Beginning Your Genealogical Journey

No matter what they claim on TV or online tracing your ancestors is more complicated than clicking on a link or grabbing a family tree from a website.

No matter what they claim on television or online tracing your ancestors is more complicated than clicking on a link or grabbing a family tree from a website.

You know the State Farm television commercial—the one where the girl says, “They can’t put anything on the Internet that isn’t true.”

“Where’d you hear that?”

“The Internet. Oh look, here comes my date. I met him on the Internet. He’s a French model.”

Then this scruffy looking dude shows up and says, “uhhh, bonjour!” in a non-French accent and they walk away together?

Keep that in mind as you research. There is lots of false information and half-truths out there—especially about genealogy, and especially about Native Americans.

Talk to relatives and learn as much as possible about your heritage. You need three things:

Names (full names, nicknames, and women’s maiden names)

Dates (approximate years are all right)

Places (where they lived or died, married or were born)


Write down the information. In genealogy, you work from the known backward. You can’t start from a famous Indian like Cochise or Red Cloud, even if your family stories claim he is your ancestor, and work forward successfully.

A primary objective should be to establish any tribal affiliation that your ancestors have or had. Determining what tribe your family belongs to is essential to continued research. For Native American research the vast majority of records are grouped, published, and accessed by tribe, clan, or nation. Sometimes this information is already known by your family members but you may encounter conflicting tales or learn you descend from ancestors from different tribes or that you are of mixed heritage. Interview your older relatives and write down their oral stories. While these recollections may not be completely accurate in every detail, they are invaluable clues to your past.

If you learn that a grandparent or great-grandparent was part Indian but not a tribal member, or if you have a family tradition about having Indian blood but don’t know which tribe, or if your family has splintered branches with conflicting information, it is critical that you consult all privately held information available about previous generations. This includes oral histories, Bibles, family papers, scrapbooks, photograph albums, and diaries. However, your heritage is not just about tribal membership or lack thereof and each family is unique.

Obtain vital records (birth, death, marriage) for yourself, your parents and all four grandparents. These are usually available from state, county or city vital records offices in the United States. Some are available online. Be forewarned, most of them are not free to obtain. Next, locate your families in the 1940, 1930, 1920, 1910 and 1900 U.S. Censuses. These are online but mostly available through subscription genealogy services. Your local library may have also access.

Work backwards in time. Forget about modern-day standardized name and place spellings—you will encounter many spelling variants in your search. Census enumerations provide information, though are not always 100 percent accurate, about individuals, such as:


Where each family member was born and their age;

Where the father and mother of each person was born;

How long the couple has been married;

Whether it is a first or second marriage for each spouse;

How many children the mother has given birth to and how many of those children were still living at the time of the particular census.

Arm yourself with facts and documentation about your families as you begin to search. Don’t fall for a “French model” tale—your family history deserves better.

Here are some links to explore along the way:

Family Search: American Indian Genealogy

Family Search: American Indian Genealogy Records

Family Search: American Indian Census Rolls

Access Genealogy: Native American History and Genealogy

Cyndi’s List: Native American

Genealogy Branches: Native Americans

Indians By State

Native American Indian Tribes and Languages

Books About Tribes

Myra Vanderpool Gormley is credentialed as a Certified Genealogist ? by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (1987-2012), retired (2012).