Meet Black Bull: A Story of Blackfeet Genealogy

Today’s post is by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records.

The Blackfeet Agency superintendent arrived at the well-maintained spread in the Heart Butte District—“probably the nicest home on Little Badger,” as another official traveling with him noted—to make the rounds of the reservation as part of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs’ early 1920’s edict to survey every Native American and their living conditions. The commissioner had also ordered a photograph taken of each family, and though we can only speculate now 100 years later, it would seem that 52-year-old Black Bull/Stum ik tsa sik see num, was, as grandfathers through time are, so proud of his young granddaughter that he included her in his photograph, smiling while holding her up along with one very photogenic puppy.

Black Bull posing with grandchild and puppy, outdoor landscape.
Black Bull with his granddaughter, photograph from the Industrial Survey (see below).

Black Bull’s story does not start, nor end, there. A unique aspect of Record Group 75 [Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)] at the National Archives is the personal and genealogical information the records can and do include. Typically, vital records—those documenting the birth and death of individuals—are not found in the National Archives, as they are usually created and maintained at the state level. Given the BIA’s responsibilities in administering tribal reservations, however, BIA records often depart from the dry, bureaucratic nature of most government records and can often be used to track individual lives. What is present varies greatly from reservation to reservation. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a veritable wild west when it came to reservation superintendents’ records management; general correspondence and financial records were most often saved, but beyond that, the variety runs the gamut, with some superintendents taking an interest in collecting and maintaining family history records and some not. In the case of the Blackfeet Agency, in northern Montana, the preserved records are rather detailed, and so through them we can learn more about the life and times of Black Bull.

Map of Montana showing the Blackfeet Jurisdiction.
An undated map showing the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where Black Bull lived (NAID 2641463).

Black Bull, a Piegan, was born in 1869 to Bull Chief and Underground Woman. His paternal grandparents were Chief Lovak and Little Woman, and his maternal grandparents were Seeing Every and Shooting Back. His older brother Wolf Plume had been born around 1860 and would end up being his neighbor in 1921.

Black Bull’s entry in a 1908 volume of family histories, NAID 1184792. Note the loosening binding, a common issue with volumes from this era.
The family history notes Black Bull’s older brother Wolf Plume, who also has an industrial survey entry and photograph in NARA’s holdings, NAID 292952.

Census records provide the backbone of genealogy research, and this is no different when researching Native American individuals. The most famous of these are the Indian Census Rolls, 1885–1941, (National Archives Identifier 595276), which were mandated by Congress and collected by the Office of Indian Affairs headquarters. Digitized and indexed copies of the microfilm rolls (series M595) can be found on several genealogy websites, both free and subscription based. But often additional census material can be found in the reservation agency files, going back even before 1885 and well into the 1970s. Some are typed, some are handwritten, and some appear to be working copies for the rolls sent into headquarters. Others, based on the year taken, appear to be unique. In the case of NARA’s Blackfeet records, it is here we can really start to trace Black Bull’s life.

Blackfeet agency files.
Most census records in local BIA agency files are loose sheets, seen in part here in this box from the series “Census Rolls, 1891–1947” (NAID 1700461).
Early census reference to Black Bull in 1892, prior to his marriage to Jennie.

ledger page close-up.
In addition to censuses, agencies in the early 1900s often filled out “Registers of Families,” and these can be found at National Archives facilities nationwide. This handwritten entry for Black Bull dates to November 1901.

Ledger page.
1921 census reference to Black Bull’s family; the youngest, Maggie, was the only one still living at home.

In the mid 1890s Black Bull was still single but in 1897 he’s married, his wife’s name in a census given as Jennie, but in the 1908 family history, her name is given as Different Black Bird. The couple lost a baby girl, but soon after gave birth to Fire Stealing Woman, later known as Josephine. After Different Black Bird’s death, which predates NARA’s death registers, father and daughter were not alone for long, as Black Bull married Dressed Like a Woman in 1899. The family register notes they were married by “Indian Custom” and this is further insinuated by other records in our holdings, as during those years the agency maintained a record of church marriages and the couple are not present there. By 1904 the rapidly expanding family included Josephine, age six, and sisters Lucy/Owl Woman, age two, and Maggie/Under Kit Fox Woman, age one.

The early 1900s brought the allotment process to the Blackfeet reservation. Starting with the 1887 “Act to Provide for the Allotment of Land in Severalty to Indians on the Various Reservations, and to Extend the Protection of Laws of the United States and Territories over the Indians, and for Other Purposes,” more commonly known as the General Allotment Act or the Dawes Act after its author, Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, and continuing with subsequent laws over the next 20 years, the federal government broke up many communally held reservations and parceled out allotments to individuals, opening up “surplus” land to various outside interests. Black Bull took to farming; he along with his wife and daughters all getting land allotments. Along with his brother Wolf Plume and soon to be son-in-law George Horn, Black Bull entered into a farming cooperative with three other men and pooled their land, raising wheat, oats, and potatoes.

Which brings us to the 1921 industrial survey. Who was the little granddaughter Black Bull was holding in the photograph? The records, as oft can be the case, are muddied. According to the 1921 reservation census, Black Bull, Dressed Like a Woman, and Maggie were all living together. The survey states the same, noting Black Bull only lived with his wife and daughter. The survey states that this daughter was married to George Horn (“George #2” in many censuses), but marriage records have that as occurring in 1922, so this is the first indication that this survey was written after 1921. Marriage records state that Black Bull’s eldest daughter Josephine also married in 1922 to Harry Bite, but baptism records available via Ancestry.com indicate their daughter Minnie as being born in December 1921. If the reporting on the birth was late, as was common for the era, or if the survey photograph was taken after the initial reporting in 1921, the little girl was most likely Minnie, who had been visiting that day.

One might leave the story there, to preserve the happy ending. But that’s not realistic; the family’s history, emblematic of the hard life on the reservation and high mortality, takes a different turn.

Prior to 1923, many individual reservation agencies maintained birth and death registers. But in that year, the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) began cooperating with the U.S. Census Bureau to track Native American births and deaths. Across the nation, both birth and death certificates were to be generated and forwarded to the OIA headquarters for consolidation, before being sent to the Census Bureau. These took one of two forms: the state certificate or a generic Bureau of Census one. While it appears that the certificates sent to the commissioner’s office are no longer extant, some agencies kept local copies, which are today found in NARA’s holdings. Some agencies also submitted them to the state, and so in this case, the holdings of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services show what happened to Black Bull’s family in the following years.

Ledger page.
Superintendents also created supplemental census sheets to report on births and deaths between when the regular censuses were taken. In this excerpt, we see Minnie Bite’s death at the age of six noted at the bottom, her birth year being 1921.
certificate of death ledger book
Black Bull’s 1928 death certificate, courtesy of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

After Minnie, Josephine gave birth to Philip in 1922 and Thomas in 1923. Thomas passed away in 1925 due to whooping cough, and Minnie died of abdominal tuberculosis in 1927, at the age of six. Black Bull succumbed a year later to volvulus. Philip Bite passed away due to pneumonia in 1930, after which at some point Josephine and Harry divorced. Josephine remarried, but her life was cut short by a runaway wagon in 1940. Dressed Like a Woman lived until 1952, passing away at the age of 90.

Tragedy struck Black Bull’s family again and again, but judging from his photograph and his survey there had been joy in the family as well. That so many lives were brutally cut short is not unique, but what is, is that their stories – which might have continued to be hidden in American history and lost to time – were in fact captured in the records, and so their names and images will live forever in our holdings.


National Archives records described above are found among the Blackfeet Agency records in Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which are located at the National Archives at Denver. For more information or inquiries about these records, please contact denver.archives@nara.gov.

Author’s note: Throughout the historical record both “Black Bull” and “Blackbull” are used interchangeably. Because “Black Bull” appeared more often, that version of his name was used throughout for consistency.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.