As with many family histories, there are stories that are handed down through generations; tales that seem to grow toward fact with every passing year. Often times, there is no proof or documents to support the anecdotes, but they are woven as truths just the same.
My own family is not immune to this phenomenon, as it has been told through decades that we were Native American because of our high cheekbones. It was even said that Charles Kelly, engaged to my great-great aunt Jennie, had been told by his parents that he could not marry her because she looked too “Native”. He boldly married her anyway; no word on whether her family thought he looked too Irish.
But it got me thinking about how I could find out if my family truly had Native American roots. Up until now, I had viewed myself though the lens of a descendant of western Europeans, with the most exotic parts of my ancestry lodged in France and Austria. How would my identity change if I found out I indeed had Native American heritage? Having grown up in the Midwest, I was always aware of Native American history and the strong legacy they have in this country. Collectively, Native Americans have endured indignities and massive struggles and continue to battle issues within their communities. But many, from tribal leaders to the next generation, are working to preserve languages, customs, and ways of life so they may live on for years to come.
Intrigued by the possibility of Native American ancestry, I decided to start my search, the old fashioned way. I have always wanted to have my DNA analyzed, but it is expensive and there is no guarantee that the information is kept private. So I decided to start with a broad overview on how to start my research.
My familial line that I’m tracing begins in Illinois, but for more general information, I reached out to the Oklahoma Historical Research Society.
During the presidency of Andrew Jackson, millions of members of the five civilized tribes; Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw, and Creek, were moved from their homelands east of the Mississippi River and relocated to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. The journey, known as “The Trail of Tears“, was a grueling and devastating experience, as the forced travelers endured hunger, disease, and forces of nature to arrive in a harsh and unfamiliar land.
Referred to as “The Five Civilized Tribes because of their abilities to conform to previous European influences within their cultures, the federal government kept close track of these members. In 1896, The Dawes Roll was created with the intent to “break up the lands held in common by the tribes, assign a specific tract of land to each Indian individual, and open up the remainder for settlement by non-Indians” (OHSRC). Two years later, the roll was started again, and some of those who had registered previously were erroneously omitted.
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society Research Center, the most accurate way to determine Native American heritage is to check the Dawes Roll for your ancestor’s name. The Dawes Roll index is available on the website listed above. If your ancestor’s name is listed, there are individual tribal websites to go to in order to apply for memberships, the links to which can also be found on the Oklahoma Historical Research website.
While this is a great lead, it does not account for any of the over thirty tribes in Oklahoma or throughout the United States. Since my family did not settle in Oklahoma, I quickly realized this was not the path for me to take.
More educated and undaunted, I then turned my attention towards Illinois. What would I uncover under the famous Cahokia Mounds outside of St. Louis? What would a great-great-great-great grandmother’s picture tell me? Would I get my questions answered with patience and perseverance?