Sources of records on US Indian tribes

The majority of records of individuals were those created by the agencies. Some records may be available to tribal members through the tribal headquarters.They were (and are) the local office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and were charged with maintaining records of the activities of those under their responsibility. Among these records are:

  • Allotment records -The General Allotment Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1887, marking the establishment of the allotment of land to individuals as the official and widespread policy of the federal government toward the Native Americans. Under this policy, land (formerly land held by the tribe or tribal land) was allotted to individuals to be held in trust until they had shown competency to handle their own affairs. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was the trustee.
  • Annuity rolls – Treaties often led to annuity rolls, or record of payments to the Native Americans. Many of the earlier records, especially those made to the leaders of the tribe, consisted of a receipt filed with the general correspondence of the offices overseeing Indian Affairs. When payments began to be made to heads of families, annuity payment rolls (which contain the names of those family heads) began to be kept. The National Archives has a very large collection of these annuity rolls (at least 959 volumes), which have not been microfilmed or otherwise made available outside of the National Archives Building in Washington D.C. They are arranged alphabetically by name of tribe, band or jurisdiction and then chronologically.

    Copies of some annuity rolls remained in the custody of the local BIA agents and can be found at the local Agency Office. Some of the Agency Office records may also have been transferred to a regional archives of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

    Microfilm copies of some are available through the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Family History Library and other archives.

  • Census records – The American Indian Census Rolls (not to be confused with the United States Census Indian Schedules) were created by an Act of Congress on July 4, 1884 (23 Stat. L, 98) and required the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to begin recording an annual census on most Indian reservations in the United States beginning in 1885.  Not all reservations were included, and a few agents were inconsistent in creating the records annually.
  • Correspondence – The Bureau of Indian Affairs and its predecessors were responsible for the generation of several sets of correspondence and reports. Many of those records have been preserved in the National Archives of the United States.
  • Health records – The responsibility for the health care of American Indians was assigned to the Office of Indian Affairs from the late 1840s. Indian health facilities were created, including clinics on reservations, health sanatoriums, and hospitals. Some of these facilities focused on specific health issues, such as tuberculosis, mental health, etc. Individuals reported health concerns to the Office of Indian Affairs Agent on the reservation, who passed the information along to the Commissioner’s Office in his correspondence and reports. These letters and reports often mentioned individual Indians by name, the location of their residence, and something of the health problem. These records were far from a complete record of everyone living on the reservation, however.

    Perhaps the most complete record of health kept prior to 1934 was the Sanitary Record of Sick, Injured, Births, Deaths, etc. Sometimes the word “Wounded” was substituted for “Injured.” These records may be listed in inventories under other names such as physician’s reports or sick ledgers. Some of these records are now housed at the various National Archives and Records Service facilities to which they have been transferred by the BIA offices on the reservations. Many are still in the respective agencies. Other health records, not as commonly kept, may have been compiled, such as an “Individual Health Record” or a “Household Record.”  

  • Reports – The Bureau of Indian Affairs and its predecessors were responsible for the generation of several sets of correspondence and reports. Many of those records have been preserved in the National Archives of the United States. Some of those sets are: 
    • Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1824-1880
    • Reports of Inspection of the Field Jurisdictions of the Office of Indian Affairs, 1873-1900
    • Superintendents’ Annual Narrative and Statistical Reports, 1907-1938
  • School census and records – The agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs on each reservation were required to maintain records of potential students. School census records included names of school-age children, their age, place of birth, and, in some cases, the name of their parent or guardian. From 1870 until 1980, Indian children were sent to boarding schools, often far away from their reservations. These schools also maintained records. Some boarding schools were managed by church groups under government contract, which may have also kept baptismal records. Indian children during this period may have attended one of these kinds of schools:
    • Mission early -1870
    • Independent Mission Schools
    • Reservation boarding schools
    • Reservation day schools
    • Off-Reservation schools
    • Agricultural and industrial schools
    • Advanced Schools — Carlisle in Pennsylvania, Chemawa in Oregon, Haskel in Kansas, Chilocco in Oklahoma, Sherman in California and Inter mountain in Utah
  • Vital records – Beginning in 1925, special supplements were added to the annual Indian Census Rolls taken by field agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. One of these supplements bore the title “Births Occurring Between the Dates of July 1, 1924 and June 30, 1925 to Parents Enrolled at Jurisdiction.”  This supplement was completed annually with the census roll until it was discontinued in 1939.

    Another supplement to the census rolls of 1925 recorded “Deaths Occurring Between the Dates of July 1, 1924 and June 20, 1925 of Indians Enrolled at Jurisdiction.”