Finding Native American roots

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Do you have a Native American ancestor? Did a DNA test indicate Native roots or is there a family story? Until recently many families felt a Native American relative was something to hide. I knew a woman in my hometown who only learned in her seventies she had a Passamaquoddy great-grandmother. Her mother never told her about this and it was only when some family letters were discovered after the mother’s death that the fact came out. Armed with the exact name, the descendants visited the reservation and discovered family members. They were extremely lucky.

Fortunately, attitudes have changed with time and today people rejoice in their Native American connections. In fact, there are many people so eager to claim they are Native American they refuse to believe otherwise even if there is no written or DNA evidence to support the claim. I have a distant cousin who swears we’re Native American, but my research refutes this.

Sometimes all you know is a family story involving a chief or an Indian princess. By the way, there were no Indian princesses. Those of you who know me are aware that I caution family legends must be treated carefully until they can be proven with evidence to support them. But finding proof of Native American connections can be especially challenging.

All Native American languages were oral with no written vital records. It was only with the advent of French and English settlers that written records began in the U.S. and Canada. This means you can hit a brick wall in your written research after only a few generations.

If you know or believe you have Native Americans in your ancestral tree, start your genealogical quest as you would for any ancestors by building one generation at a time. Look for census records including the Indian special schedules, vital and church records, and other forms of proofs to construct your tree. And note that sometimes Native Americans are listed as “white” in censuses. Be warned also the written records will probably end somewhere around the fourth to fifth generation unless you are extraordinarily lucky.

If your family was Catholic, you are more likely to find baptismal or marriage records for your Native ancestor than if you are dealing with Protestant records. French settlers historically treated their Native Americans much better than the English Protestants, so French records are better. The Quebec Notarial records for example will often record a marriage between a French settler and a Native American, though the wife’s name will probably be her baptismal name since Native Americans didn’t have surnames. Just think of Crazy Horse or Geronimo as examples of this.

But the sad fact is that you will reach a certain point where you can’t find anything else that will give you exact names and dates of your ancestors. This is normal for a culture where the records are mostly oral. But rejoice in what you do find and accept the limitations of your search.

Nancy Battick is a Dover-Foxcroft native who has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds a MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. You can contact Nancy at

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