New Ways to Trace Your Native Ancestry

BIA School Records

In the 1880s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs established 26 non-reservation boarding schools in 15 states and territories for vocational education. The first federally funded off-reservation school was Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Created in 1879, it existed until September 1, 1918. More than 10,000 students from 140 different tribes from all over the United States attended Carlisle. One of its most famous alumni was Sac and Fox athlete Jim Thorpe (1888-1953), who won gold medals in the 1912 Olympics.

The National Archives holds many records about these BIA-operated schools and the students who attended them.  Most of these non-reservation schools created and maintained a case file for each student. Family history researchers will discover that students were often sent to schools by the Indian Agency, which had jurisdiction over their tribe. Specific BIA-operated schools can be found by the state with information about the years and material available.

First, search the state-by-state Guide to Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs online.

Then to request Indian Student Case Files, contact the National Archives facility that holds the records for the pertinent school. That information will be found at the link above. For example, if your ancestor attended Pipestone Indian School (1894-1959) in Minnesota, the records will be found at the National Archives in Kansas City.

When submitting a request to the National Archives, include the individual’s date of birth, as well as variant spellings of his or her name. Additional information, such as the names of parents or tribal affiliation, may be helpful in identifying a match. While the specific documents can vary widely, the records may include applications for enrollment, medical examination forms, attendance and grade reports, examples of student work, newspaper clippings, documents related to student employment, and correspondence. Photographs generally do not appear in student case files.

Military Service and Pension Records

American Indians have served in the U.S. Armed Forces since the Revolutionary War and have participated in every major conflict, including both sides of the American Civil War. They provided unique services such as being U.S. Army Indian Scouts and the U.S. Army and Marine Corps code talkers in both World Wars. Many of the older military records are digitized, indexed, and fully searchable on and/or (subscription online services). Online access to both of these websites is free at all National Archives research facilities.

The service and pension records of these men and women can be found at the National Archives.

Prior to 1917: These records are located at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and can be requested by fax or by mail.

From WWI through today: These records are located at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, by fax or by mail.

Pictures of Native Americans

The National Archives also has pictures which show Native Americans, their homes and activities. Pictorial records have been deposited in the National Archives by 15 government agencies, principally the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of American Ethnology, and the United States Army. English names of individuals have been used, with Native or secondary designations in parentheses.

All of the pictures described are either photographs or copies of artworks. Any item not identified as an artwork is a photograph. Whenever available, the name of the photographer or artist and the date of the item have been given. This information is followed by the identification number. The pictures are grouped by subject. Tribal names as specific as possible have been incorporated into the descriptions where known and where appropriate and an index by tribe follows the list at the website.

Myra Vanderpool Gormley is credentialed as a Certified Genealogist ℠ by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (1987-2012), retired (2012).