Digitized Tribal Records Making it Easier to Research Native Connections

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division / This image from the Library of Congress is simply titled "Navajos" and is from 1905.

As a professional genealogist, BIllie Fogarty helps people understand their ancestry and where they come from.

With the release of more than 1.5 million tribal records recently digitized and placed online, Fogarty is having an easier time helping people identify and learn about their Native American roots.

“They are wonderful to look at,” Fogarty said of the newly released records.

Last fall, Ancestry.com partnered with the Oklahoma Historical Society to digitize and release 1.5 million records relating to tribes in Oklahoma. The majority of the records focus on what are known as the Five Civilized Tribes—the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole nations. The records include Census rolls, marriage and citizenship records, land records and a collection of photographs, according to Brian Peterson, senior manager for content acquisition and relationships at the Utah-based Ancestry.com. Peterson said a significant portion of the people using the records are looking for American Indian ancestry because they are interested in applying to become a member of a tribe.

Fogarty and other genealogists have long used the Dawes Rolls in their research, but the new digital versions are providing new information and new details. “By having those new images, we are able to pick up the pencil marks and the notations that are on there that we did not see before,” Fogarty said. “So it has led to other records, some of the prior rolls and Census rolls that are on there.”

The land allotment records have also been helpful, Fogarty said, because “it’s like looking at a brand new record because of the added detail we can now see.”

Many of the people who reach out to Fogarty who have lost connection with a tribe are mostly interested in the Five Civilized Tribes, she said. Other tribes seem to be more closely connected and have held on to their tribal identity, but because there was a lot of intermarriage among the Five Civilized Tribes and Europeans, many lost their connection, she added.

There is often family lore that people have Native American ancestry, and that drives people to start researching their family’s past, said Matthew Deighton, spokesman for Ancestry.com. “It’s an interesting switch in dynamic and it’s very progressive and a good switch,” he said. “You look at 50, 60 years ago, people tried to say that they were just one race or one ethnicity. But now it’s exciting for everyone to have diversity, and it’s something that we look for and celebrate. I think it’s a great switch in that mindset in our country.”

That switch in thinking can also be seen at the Oklahoma Historical Society, where Laura Martin, deputy director of research, said they receive daily phone calls and questions from people interested in trying to trace their American Indian ancestry. Martin said it’s nice to be able to share the new digitized records with those people. So far, it’s unclear how many people have accessed the digitized records, but Martin said the Oklahoma Historical Society is working with Ancestry.com on a tool that will help the organizations see how many people have visited the records since they went live in November 2014.

“We are extremely pleased with the amount of traffic and number of telephone calls we have received as a result of the placement of Indian records on Ancestry,” Martin said. “I feel we are servicing a greater number of patrons and we are able to highlight the records available at the Oklahoma Historical Society.”

Peterson, with Ancestry.com, said the new treasure trove of records helps fill a gap and removes roadblocks for people coming to Ancestry.com trying to find something out about their family. That’s a key mission for him in acquiring new collections, he said. “This just happened to be a way in working with the Oklahoma Historical Society that we could do this with a particular population, that being the Native American population,” he said.

Though other states including South Dakota, North Dakota, Arizona and New Mexico have large American Indian populations and deep tribal histories, Peterson said there are no plans for similar partnership efforts in those states that he can immediately comment on.

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