Changes in the Indian Census Rolls Index

The records recorded in Indian census rolls changed over time. Between 1928 to 1930 the Indian Census was significantly changed.The Act of July 4, 1884, (23 Stat. 76, 98) was vague, saying, “That hereafter each Indian agent be required, in his annual report, to submit a census of the Indians at his agency or upon the reservation under his charge.”

The Act itself did not specify the collection of names and personal information. However, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs sent a directive in 1885 (Circular 148) reiterating the statement and adding further instructions: “Superintendents in charge of Indian reservations should submit annually, a census of all Indians under their charge.”

He told the agents to use the plan he had prepared for gathering the information. The sample showed columns for Number (consecutive), Indian Name, English Name, Relationship, Sex, and Age.

Other information on the number of males, females, schools, school children, and teachers was to be compiled statistically and included separately in the annual report.

The first form drawn up by the Commissioner asked only for name, age, sex, and family relationship. It was so little information that these Indian Census rolls were never considered to be “private” in the same sense as the federal decennial census, and there was never any restriction against the release of the information.

Gradual changes in the form of the data required and special instructions for the census are documented in National Archives Microfilm Publication M1121, Procedural Issuances of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Orders and Circulars, 1854-1955 (17 rolls).

The 1885 and later censuses were compiled by the agents using forms sent by the Bureau. There was supposed to be only one census for each reservation, except in a few cases where part of the reservation was in another state. Multiple copies were not made.

The original was sent to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The earliest censuses were written in by hand, but typing appeared quite early. Eventually the Commissioner issued instructions on exactly how to type some entries in, and requested that the family names be placed in alphabetical sections on the roll.

For a while, a new census was taken each year and the entire roll redone. Agents were told in 1921 to list all the people under their charge, and if a name was listed for the first time, or was not listed from the last year, an explanation was required.

It was considered helpful to indicate the number for the person on the previous year’s census. Persons also could be designated by a number peculiar to that reservation, if it was explained somewhere, or they could be listed as “N.E.”, or “Not Enrolled.”

In the 1930s, sometimes only supplemental rolls showing the additions and deletions from the previous year were submitted. The regular process of taking the Indian censuses was discontinued in 1940, although a few later rolls exist.

A new Indian Census was taken by the Census Bureau in 1950, but it will not be open to public use until 2022.

How names were recorded on the various Indian Census Rolls

There were no instructions with the earliest census forms, except to include all Indians under the agent’s charge, but the Commissioner did occasionally issue a statement about the census.

Primarily he urged the agents to get the information and send it in on time, without much comment. The early instructions just said to include family groups with all the people living in each household.

The agent was instructed to list the Indian and English names of the head of the household and the names, ages, and relationship of the other family members.

The column for Indian Name continued, but in fact, Indian names were falling out of usage and were seldom included after about 1904. A directive in 1902 gave suggestions for how to translate Indian names to English in what would now be termed “politically correct” fashion.

The usefulness of having all the family members share the same surname was pointed out, especially for the purposes of property or land ownership, so that children and wives would be known by the names of their fathers and husbands in questions of inheritance.

The agents were told not to simply substitute English for the native language. It was suggested that a native name be retained as much as possible, but not if it were too difficult to pronounce and remember. If it were easily pronounced and mellifluous, it should be retained.

Names of animals could be translated to the English version, such as Wolf, but only if the Indian word was too long and too difficult. “Foolish, cumbersome or uncouth translations which would handicap a self-respecting person should not be tolerated.”

Complex names such as Dog Turning Round might be better rendered, for example, as Turningdog, or Whirlingdog. Derogatory nicknames were to be dropped.

Agents were often confused on who they were supposed to include in the Indian Census Rolls

For years little guidance was given to help the agent determine whom to include. In 1909, he was asked to show how many resided on the reservation and how many allotted Indians were living on their allotments.

That information was not included on the census roll itself, but as part of the annual report. He was urged to take pains to make the numbers accurate.

It wasn’t until 1919 that any clarifying instructions about whom to include were added. The Commissioner directed superintendents and agents in Circular 1538, “In enumerating Indians who are not attached to your jurisdiction, they should be classified by tribal affiliations, in which case they should be designated by approximate blood relationship.”

He was referring to people living in the jurisdiction, but not from that reservation or tribe, rather than people not present and living off reservation.

If they were listed with a family, the agent should tell what family relationship they bore to an enrolled person, and what tribe or jurisdiction to which they actually belonged.

The Commissioner pointed out that both parents might not be members of the same tribe, for example, one might be Pima and one might be Hopi. The parents had the right to determine with which tribe the children should be identified, and agents were instructed to show the parents’ selection as the first one, with a hyphen and the second tribe, as in Pima-Hopi.

Very likely the only thing new by 1919 was to be sure to indicate the formal tribal affiliation of all.

Formerly it might simply have been assumed from the census that the grandmother living with the family was actually a member of that tribe and reservation. Or she might not have been listed, because she really did belong with another tribe.

Or if more than one tribe resided within a jurisdiction, the distinction might not have been made.

In urging accuracy, the Commissioner said in 1921, “It does not seem to be generally appreciated that the census rolls are often the basis of the property rights of the Indian enrolled. An allotting agent looks to the census roll to determine who are entitled to allotments.

An examiner of inheritances secures much of his information … from the census rolls.” (Circular 1671). But in many ways it was still the decision of the Superintendent or Agent as to whether someone should be included in the census.

More changes occurred in the Census of 1928-1930

Between 1928 to 1930 the Indian Census was significantly changed. The format was changed to “landscape” orientation instead of “portrait.”

In addition, new information was required, there were more columns, and instructions were printed on the back. The forms used for 1930 and thereafter showed the following columns:

(1) Census number – Present
(2) Census number – Last [previous]
(3) Indian Name
(4) Engligh Surname
(5) English Given Name
(6) Allotment, Annuity Identification Numbers
(7) Sex
(8) Date of Birth – Month
(9) Date of Birth – Day
(10) Date of Birth – Year
(11) Degree of Blood
(12) Marital Condition (married, single, etc.)
(13) Relation to Head of Family (Head, Wife, Daughter, Son, etc.)

Questions of Jurisdiction: Reservation and Nonreservation

One important change for 1930 concerned people who did not live on the reservation. The understanding was that the agent was to include all his enrollees, whether there on the reservation or elsewhere, and no residents who were enrolled on another reservation. They should be recorded on another agent’s list.

Circular 2653 (1930) said, “A special survey of absentees is to be made at each jurisdiction and their addresses determined.”

The Commissioner further stated: “names of Indians whose whereabouts have been unknown for a considerable number of years are to be dropped from the rolls with the approval of the Department.

The same pertains to bands of Indians of whom no census has been made for an extended time and who have no contact with the Service, viz., the Stockbridges and Munsees, the Rice Lake Chippewas and the Miamis and Peorias.

These will be enumerated in the 1930 Federal census.”

Indian agents were requested to cooperate with Bureau of the Census officials who were conducting the 1930 decennial census, but it is clear there were two different censuses taken in the same year, by two different government bureaus, with different instructions.

However, some 1930 BIA censuses have penciled information that may correlate to the federal 1930 census data found in National Archives Microfilm Publication T626, Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930 (2,667 rolls).

For example, the 1930 census for Flandreau has handwritten numbers in the columns for county. The instructions shed no light on this.

But, the since same number appears sometimes with several names having the same surname, it looks like it could be the family number from the federal census for that county, or perhaps a postal code or other correlating number.

Although the agents were cooperating with the federal census takers, they were taking their own census.

If the federal census takers figured the number of Indians counted on a reservation as a member of a tribe, they did not want to recount the same people living off reservation. Sometimes there might be notes done on the form to check off and make sure that people were not being counted twice.

The Commissioner directed the superintendents in Circular 2676 that the “census must show only Indians at your jurisdiction living on June 30, 1930. Names of Indians removed from the rolls since the last census, because of death or otherwise, must be entirely omitted.”

A later amendment altered this to state, “The census must show only Indians enrolled at your jurisdiction living on April 1, 1930. This will include Indians enrolled at your jurisdiction and actually living on the reservation, and Indians enrolled at your jurisdiction and living elsewhere.” (April 1, 1930, was the official census day used by the Bureau of the Census in enumerating the 1930 census found in National Archives Microfilm Publication T626, Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930 (2,667 rolls).)

The commissioner was still hammering on this theme in Circular 2897, when he said, “Dead Indians reported on Census Roll as was done by some agencies last year will not be tolerated.”

He also took care to define the meaning of the Superintendent’s area of jurisdiction to include “Government rancherias and public domain allotments as well as reservations.”

The agents were urged to be careful to remove names of those deceased, and to include names of those who were still “under their jurisdiction” but perhaps on a rancheria or public domain allotment.

The implication is that the information for previous years could be erroneous.

Also, it is clear that the jurisdiction did include some people living on allotments in the public domain, whose lands were no longer considered as a part of a reservation.

However, spouses of Indians who were themselves not Indian, are not listed. Charles Eastman’s wife, a non-Indian, does not appear on the Flandreau census with her husband.

By 1930 many Indians had gone through the allotment process and received patents for their lands, now considered as part of the public domain, as opposed to lands reserved for a reservation.

Agents were told to consider Indians living on allotted lands on the public domain as part of their jurisdiction. Some censuses made that distinction between reservation and nonreservation Indians.

For example, the Grande Ronde-Siletz present day membership criteria mentions the “public domain” rolls of 1940 prepared by the Grand Ronde-Siletz Agency, Bureau of Indian Affairs.

A revised census form was used in 1931, prompting the Commissioner to give further instructions in Circular 2739. The 1931 census had the following columns:

(1) Number
(2) Surname
(3) Given Name
(4) Sex
(5) Age at Last Birthday
(6) Tribe
(7) Degree of Blood
(8) Marital Status
(9) Relationship to Head of Family
(10) At Jurisdiction where Enrolled (Yes or No)
(11) At Another Jurisdiction (name)
(12) [Living] Elsewhere: Post Office
(13) [Living Elsewhere:] County
(14) [Living Elsewhere:] State
(15) Ward (Yes or No)
(16) Allotment, Annuity, and Identification Numbers.

The members of a family were defined as:

(1) Head, father
(2) wife
(3) children, including step children and adopted children
(4) relatives; and (5) “other persons living with the family who do not constitute other family groups.”

A grandparent, brother, sister, nephew, niece, grandchild, or any other relative living with the family should be listed and the relationship shown. A column was included to list roomers or friends living with the family, if they were not listed as heads of households on another census sheet.

A single person living at home could only be a “Head” if the father was dead and the oldest child was serving in that capacity. The agent was also told to report all tribes making up the jurisdiction, not just the predominant one.

Further instructions on residence said that if a person resided at the reservation, column 10 should say “Yes” and columns 11 through 14 should be left blank. If an Indian resided at another jurisdiction, column 10 should be “No” and column 11 should indicate the correct jurisdiction and state, and 12 through 14 left blank.

Finally, “When Indian resides elsewhere, column 10 should be NO, column 11 blank, and columns 12, 13, and 14, answered. County (column 13) must be filled in.

This can be obtained from the Postal Code.” Children at school but technically still part of their families were to be included. They were not to be reported at another jurisdiction or elsewhere.

There is evidence that the census takers were unclear themselves on whether to list someone who was not present.

The Commissioner kept after them about mistakes. “Please see that columns 10 to 14 are filled in as directed, as two people spent over two months correcting the errors in these columns last year.”