Researching Indian Ancestry

by | Jun 1, 2011 | 2 comments

Researching Indian AncestorsOne of the number one questions Coastal Carolina Indian Center gets via e-mail is how to find Indian ancestors, or how to determine the tribe of certain ancestors who were said to be Indian. This article was written to help people get started on finding those answers.

If you are embarking on a search for Indian ancestors, there are several tips to consider:

Don’t assume they’ll be listed as “Indians”

Very rarely in the southeastern states will you ever see Indian people actually listed as Indian after the early colonial period. They are occasionally listed in census records as Free People of Color or Other Free. If they are mixed race, they may be listed as white, black or mulatto.

Because of the wars between the Indian communities and the colonists in the early colonial period, those Indians who chose to remain in areas that had been ravaged by war often tried to hide their identities, or they just chose to blend in with the population at large. It was typical that these families intermarried with other families like there own so that there still remained a strong indigenous bloodline, while the culture and language were, in many cases, lost to assimilation.

Don’t look for “Indian-sounding” names

A very good clue for starting in researching Indian ancestry (or an ancestor who is “rumored” as being Indian in your family tree) is to try to focus on that person’s line. Go back as far as you can and do not be discouraged if you don’t find anyone specifically named as Indian. The fact is, you probably won’t.

Also, they probably won’t have a name like “Johnny Running Deer” or “Bonnie Bluebird.” Instead, they’ll probably have very European-sounding names like John Squires or Tom Blount, two leaders of eastern North Carolina Indian communities in the 18th century.

Make a list of all the surnames on your reputed Indian ancestral line

Record all the related surnames you can find, both of your direct ancestors, as well as those with whom your ancestors were connected. Try to keep in mind the surnames you see witnessing deeds, wills, etc for these individuals. What families do your family surnames marry into? A list of these other surnames are helpful, because they will be key to establishing connections to known Indian families.

Keep track of migrations

Many of these families also moved together, so let’s say that in 1760 several Indian families are living in one county, as more white settlers came in, these same families would feel the urge to move usually slightly south or west to stay ahead of the colonial expansion, so perhaps by 1780 or 1790, these same families are not showing up much in the original county, but all the same names show up one or more counties south or west.

Learn about local Indian history – tribes and personal names

This is critical: Investigate what tribes were living in the area at any given time. If the history has it that the tribe no longer existed in a particular area after such-and-such a time, know that this only means that the tribe no longer existed as a force to be reckoned with.

The people, were in most cases, still living in the area, albeit assimilated in to the population at large.

Try to learn what you can about when the tribe WAS known to live in the area. Try to find out what names were associated with that tribe when they WERE still vibrant in the area.

Check county records

Perhaps there were deeds or court records where Indian people in a given area are named. You’ll probably have to go back to the very early colonial period, though, because eventually, the “Indian” designation goes away in many counties.

You’ll start seeing trends with certain surnames showing up as related to a tribe at an early point in history, and these same names are still living in the same area later, but somes cases identified as “colored”, “other free”, or in many cases, even just white or black. The relationships with these families stay very interconnected.

Obviously, when dealing with some very common surnames such as Smith, Johnson, Jones, etc, this can be a little misleading, but at that point, you can start looking at given names of children and you’ll see evidence tying people to either the native branches or the non-native branches of that surname.

Please note, just because someone has a surname that was a known surname for Indian people in a particular area does NOT guarantee that the individual was Indian. There are a number of other variables that will need to come together to establish proof, or at least a likelihood that the individual was, in fact, Indian.

Researching Indian ancestry is not an exact science. In fact, more often than not, it has to do with uncovering what is referred to as a “preponderance of evidence” that certain individuals were Indian, or at least were dealing a great deal with families with known Indian surnames.

An example of uncovering indigenous roots

In eastern North Carolina, one fantastic example of uncovering Indian surnames comes from researching the reservation that was established at Lake Mattamuskeet in 1727 (in the period following the Tuscarora War).

There are a number of families that are identified as being Indian on this reservation including (but not limited to): Squires, Longtom, Mackey, Barber, Brooks and Russell.

These families are VERY interconnected with other families at Mattamuskeet that may or may not be Indian, themselves, such as Gibbs, Spencer, Prescott, Brinson, Delamar, etc..

You’ll find at some point that individuals once specifically identified as Indian are no longer referred to in official documents as Indian, but are identified as other races, or not described by race at all.

You’ll also see that a lot of these families move together to other counties. For example, there were a large number of Squires, Brinsons, Delamars, Prescotts, etc, who begin showing up along the Bay River in what is known today as Pamlico County in the same period that the reservation starts being sold off in large pieces.

These same families also have many interactions with other families identified on early census records as “Other Free” or “Free People of Color” such as the Mackelroys.

There were Prescotts living on the Mattamuskeet reservation during the reservation period, and they had intermarried with the Russell family, who were known to be Indian. You start finding enough bits and pieces of information like this and a picture starts to emerge.

It’s a lot like detective work, solving a mystery. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes very time consuming and tedious, but whenever answers are uncovered, always very rewarding.

©2007, 2014 by Sara Whitford for Coastal Carolina Indian Center. All Rights Reserved. (Used with permission of Coastal Carolina Indian Center.)


  1. Steven James Coker

    And, do DNA tests. If a native american ancestor is in the direct male or female lineage then yDNA or mtDNA will show it. If the ancestor is somewhere other than those two lineages, then current generation autosomal tests might find them. More advanced tests (e.g. full genome) that aren’t affordable yet might find them even if today’s tests can’t. So, get DNA samples from your elderly relatives while you can and maybe someday those samples will tell you much more than they can today.

    • Sara Whitford

      You make such a good point, Steven, about getting folks DNA samples while they’re alive. Older relatives, especially. Can you imagine how much easier it would be for us to piece together our genealogies if we all had samples of our grandparents and great-grandparents DNA? Our future descendants will surely thank us for being forward-thinking on this. 🙂


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