Researching American Indians and Alaska Natives

For researching American Indians at the National Archives, the following records are often used:

Click here for blank Census forms to help decipher the questions asked per each census year.

Page from the 1920 Federal Population Census in South Dakota

Federal Population Censuses:

Few American Indians are identified prior to 1900.

  • 1790–1840: American Indians are not identified by race.
  • 1850: People are identified as white, black, or mulatto.
    View list of questions asked in the 1850 census
  • 1860: This Census includes Indian Territory (at the end of the Arkansas schedules), but no American Indians are identified.
  • 1870-1880: American Indians in the general population are identified by "I" or "In." Some reservations and Indian agencies are identified, but the schedules mostly list white or non-Indian residents.
    View list of questions asked in the 1880 census
  • 1900-1910: American Indians on reservations and in the general population are identified. The special Indian schedule contained additional questions to the general schedule.
    View list of questions asked in the 1900 and 1910 census.
  • 1920: American Indians are identified, but there are no special Indian schedules.
    View list of questions asked in the 1920 census
  • 1930: American Indians are identified. The degree of Indian blood and tribe are noted. There are no special Indian schedules.
  • 1940: American Indians are identified. No mention of blood or tribe.

Census Records

Federal Population Censuses

Federal Population Censuses, 1790-1940

Researchers generally begin with the most recent Census and work backwards in ten year increments to locate individuals or families in previous generations. To search you will need the name and location of the individual or family. Try to find your individual or family on as many Censuses as possible, as certain questions change with each Census. Please visit our partner organizations for digitized images and indexes.

Census records can include:

  • Name
  • Age/birth information
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Location
  • Family relation
  • Tribe
  • And more!

Special Notes

Location and race can be useful in determining American Indian ancestry; however, key details may differ from what you know about the individual or family. Discrepancies can be caused by the following:

  • Individual’s response and self-identification
  • Who reports the information to the enumerator
  • Enumerator’s error
  • The individual or family may be listed by their English or American Indian name

If they are not identified as a tribal member on the Federal Population Census, the individual or family may actually still be American Indian. Continue your search with Indian Census Rolls and followed by Bureau of Indian Affairs records. If the individual or family is among the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma: Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, visit: Dawes Records.

Can't Find Them? Consider these possibilities:

  • The name may be spelled differently.
  • There may be transcription errors with the indexing.
  • The individual or family may not have submitted accurate information to the enumerator.
  • The enumerator may have inadvertently left the individual or family off of the Census.
  • The individual or family may not have been identified as American Indian on any Federal government records.
Read a Prologue article about American Indians in the Census, 1860-1890.

All National Archives research facilities provide free on-site access to Ancestry.com, Heritagequest.com, FamilySearch.org, and Fold3.com.

Researching American Indians and Alaska Natives >

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