“I Trust You Will Be Able to Assist Me”: Genealogy Researchers Contact the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Today’s post is by Rose Buchanan, Archivist and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records

On July 20, 1964, Ida Ellen Stansbury Robinson of Merced, California, wrote to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) headquarters in Washington, DC, to request information about her family history. “For a number of years I have been aware that my family believed there was a considerable amount of Indian blood in us. I have never bothered to verify this,” she wrote. “I now have a son, however, who is very interested and wants to trace his Indian ancestry if possible. This, in my opinion, is one of the finest heritages that I could possibly pass on to him.” Yet, “I haven’t the slightest notion how to go about this matter and I trust you will be able to assist me.” She went on to provide the names and birthplaces of her parents and siblings, when known.

Robinson’s letter is just one among many that the BIA headquarters received in the early 1960s from members of the public who were researching their family history. In honor of the upcoming 2024 National Archives Genealogy Series, I wanted to highlight some of these inquiries and the BIA’s responses to them, which are found in the multipart file 2458-1964-003-General Services in the Central Classified Files, 1958–1975 series at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The BIA was no stranger to public requests for genealogical information. Although the BIA did not (and still does not) conduct genealogy research for requesters, the agency’s involvement in tribal enrollment, allotment, and probate processes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries cemented its image in the public consciousness as a go-to source for information about Native Americans—whether or not the BIA was the best source for that information.[1] Due to the high volume of public requests that they received, BIA headquarters staff put out multiple calls in the early 1960s to the agency’s field officials for facts about the tribes, reservations, and programs in their jurisdiction. They aimed to use this information to develop form letters and fact sheets, which would facilitate quicker responses to public inquiries, counter persistent misconceptions about federal government services for Native people, and explain the scope and limitations of the records that BIA offices maintained. Although file 2458-1964-003-General Services does not include the letters that field officials provided in response to headquarters’ calls, the file does include copies of some of the form letters that BIA headquarters staff created for responding to public requests, as well as copies of unique responses that staff sent when a form letter was not appropriate.

[1] Non-genealogy requests in file 2458-1964-003-General Services range in subject from the location of an “old Indian trail” in Wisconsin and the linguistic origins of the name Batsto, a village in New Jersey; to information about Native American religious beliefs and “legends of Indians put to song.”

BIA memorandum
June 10, 1964, memorandum to BIA area directors requesting reservation information to use in publications (File 2458-1964-003-General Services; National Archives Identifier 1719105)

In the case of genealogy requests, staff were to follow a decision tree that helped them determine which form letter to use. The decision tree divided genealogy requests, which the BIA called “ancestry inquiries,” into four categories based on the amount of information the requester provided, and it assigned a different response to each category:

  • Ancestry Letter No. 1 was used if the requester did not provide sufficient information to check records or did not mention a tribe.
  • Ancestry Letter No. 2 was used if the requester mentioned a tribe or a person born prior to 1907. The letter referred the requester to the National Archives.
  • Ancestry Letter No. 3 was used if the requester provided sufficient information to check records but did not mention a tribe.
  • No form letter was used if the requester provided sufficient information to check records and mentioned a tribe or person born after 1907. The letter referred the requester to the appropriate BIA field office for a response.
BIA Memorandum re: Ancestry inquiries
BIA headquarters staff’s decision tree for responding to ancestry inquiries (File 2458-1964-003-General Services; National Archives Identifier 1719105)

File 2458-1964-003-General Services does not include a copy of Ancestry Letter No. 1 or Ancestry Letter No. 2, so we do not know the exact content of those letters. However, BIA staff typically annotated a requester’s letter with the form letter number that they sent in response, which provides some insight into how staff categorized each request. For example, LaVerne Bennett of Azusa, California, wrote to the BIA on June 5, 1964, for information about her American Indian ancestry: “I am part Indian,” she wrote, but “I am having a difficult time proving this.” She explained that her grandmother had told her of their family’s Native heritage, but her grandmother had since passed away, and she had no way to verify the stories. The only information she had was that her family had lived near Corydon, Indiana, and “some were from Oklahoma.” Unfortunately, this was not enough information for BIA staff to check records: annotations on Bennett’s letter indicate that staff sent her Ancestry Letter No. 1. The annotations also indicate that staff sent Bennett an ancestry sheet, which she could presumably use to help trace her ancestry as she continued her research.

The BIA responded similarly to Oscar Blevins of Patchogue, New York, who wrote to the BIA headquarters on December 21, 1964, for advice about researching his Cree ancestors: “I am interested in tracing my Indian ancestry and wondered if you can give me any information on the best procedure to follow. My grandmother was of the Cree tribe—living in West Virginia.” Even though Blevins indicated the tribe he was researching, this was still not enough information for BIA staff to check records. They annotated his letter with references to Ancestry Letter No. 1, to “sheet” (possibly a reference to the ancestry sheet that they sent to Bennett), and to the date they responded (December 29).

correspondence: Blevins to BIA
Oscar Blevins to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, December 21, 1964 (File 2458-1964-003-General Services; National Archives Identifier 1719105)

Annotations on incoming responses reveal that BIA staff frequently used Ancestry Letter No. 2 to refer requesters to the National Archives to research people and events prior to 1907. This is unsurprising because the BIA had transferred many records from 1907 and prior to the National Archives by the early 1960s. In fact, the two-volume Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (Record Group 75) describes over a thousand series of BIA records in the National Archives holdings by 1965, the year the inventory was published.[2] Ruth Marie James Handy’s letter is an example. Handy, of Memphis, Tennessee, wrote to the BIA headquarters on August 30, 1964, to inquire about her grandmother’s Native American heritage. “After learning recently that my grandmother was a full-blooded Indian girl,” Handy wrote, “a concerted effort has been made to learn more about her.” Handy had found a reference to both grandparents in the 1880 U.S. Census, but little else. As she explained, “the only persons living who remember her [Handy’s grandmother] can only tell me she was supposed to have been a Cherokee Indian and that seems to be all I can find out about her.” Handy added that she was seeking information about her grandmother “to fill out genealogical records for my children.” BIA staff annotated her letter with a reference to Ancestry Letter No. 2 and to “ancestry sheet,” meaning that they referred Handy to the National Archives and also sent her a sheet for compiling her genealogy.

[2] Edward E. Hill (compiler), Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (Record Group 75), PI-163 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Service, 1965). This inventory is available on-site at the National Archives in Washington, DC, and in digital form by emailing our staff at archives1reference@nara.gov. Note that the inventory includes many BIA records that postdate 1907, and NARA has since received even more. For the most up-to-date information about our holdings, please search the National Archives Catalog, which includes descriptions of archival records at NARA’s research facilities around the country.

Correspondence: Handy to BIA
Ruth Marie James Handy to Bureau of Indian Affairs, August 30, 1964 (File 2458-1964-003-General Services; National Archives Identifier 1719105)

Sometimes, BIA staff went ahead and forwarded a requester’s original letter to the National Archives in addition to sending the requester a copy of Ancestry Letter No. 2. This was the case when Mary V. Pier of Payson, Arizona, wrote to the BIA on April 18, 1964, for the “birth, parentage, etc.” of “Elizabeth Pharis, Choctaw Indian, born about 1850, 1870; married Sylvester Pierre who was a civil war veteran.” In addition to annotating Pier’s letter with a reference to Ancestry Letter No. 2 and to the ancestry sheet, BIA staff also included the note “orig [original] copy to archives 4-28-64,” indicating that they had forwarded Pier’s letter to the National Archives on April 28, 1964.

Correspondence: Pier to BIA
Mary V. Pier to Bureau of Indian Affairs, April 18, 1964 (File 2458-1964-003-General Services; National Archives Identifier 1719105)

We do not see any examples in file 2458-1964-003-General Services of public inquiries that merited the BIA’s Ancestry Letter No. 3 as a response. However, the file does include a copy of this form letter, at least the version approved for use on August 21, 1964. The letter explains that BIA headquarters staff needed to know the tribal affiliation of the person a requester was researching so they could refer the requester to the appropriate BIA field office: “Tribal rolls, you see, are maintained locally—not in the Washington Office. Without the name of the tribe involved, there is little we can do to assist you.” To soften the blow, however, staff were to send the requester a list of BIA field offices and “literature” that might help with the requester’s research.

BIA Ancestry Letter
BIA’s Ancestry Letter No. 3 (File 2458-1964-003-General Services; National Archives Identifier 1719105)

This literature is only designated as “1,” “21a,” and “Ancestry Sheet” in the list of standard enclosures to Ancestry Letter No. 3, and copies of the literature are not included in file 2458-1964-003-General Services. But a different file in the Central Classified Files series provides some insight into what this literature may have been. File 5778-1965-003-General Services includes a list from April 1966 of BIA publications authorized for “general distribution.” While there is no item 21a on the list, item 1 is for “Answers to Questions About American Indians,” which was perhaps a forerunner to the BIA’s current Frequently Asked Questions web page.[3]

[3] Bureau of Indian Affairs, “Frequently Asked Questions,” https://www.bia.gov/frequently-asked-questions (accessed April 3, 2024).

BIA Publication List
General distribution list of BIA publications as of April 1966 (File 5778-1965-003-General Services; National Archives Identifier 1719105)

As noted above, the fourth option in the BIA’s ancestry inquiries decision tree did not involve a form letter; rather, BIA headquarters staff were supposed to refer the requester to the appropriate BIA field office for a response. Occasionally, the field offices would send a copy of their response to headquarters, copies that are now in file 2458-1964-003-General Services. This was the case when Susan Phillips of Rodeo, California, wrote to BIA Commissioner Philleo Nash on January 18, 1966, to inquire about the “George Marshall Indian Grant” near Porter, Oklahoma. “I wish this information concerning my interest in family background,” she wrote. “I understand that at one time a branch of them once homesteaded or farmed on this land and I am very interested in all the facts available.” Because Phillips was interested in land in Oklahoma, the BIA headquarters forwarded her letter to the Muskogee Area Office in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

Correspondence: Phillips to BIA Commissioner Nash
Susan Phillips to BIA Commissioner Philleo Nash, January 18, 1966 (File 2458-1964-003-General Services; National Archives Identifier 1719105)

On February 14, 1966, Acting Muskogee Area Office Director Thomas J. Ellison wrote to Phillips, explaining that “the records in this office pertain to the enrolled members of the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma, their properties and affairs.” Since Phillips did not indicate the tribe she was researching or whether George Marshall had a roll number or an allotment, the Muskogee Area Office “would have no way of identifying him or the land.” However, “we would be happy to look into this matter further,” Ellison assured, if Phillips could provide more information.

Correspondence: Ellison to Phillips
Acting Muskogee Area Office Director Thomas J. Ellison to Susan Phillips, February 14, 1966 (File 2458-1964-003-General Services; National Archives Identifier 1719105)

When we look at examples of other letters that BIA field offices sent in response to genealogy requests, we see that Ellison’s response is typical. In most instances, BIA field employees explained the specific records that their office maintained and the type of information they needed to search those records, and they offered to assist further if the requester had more information.

When a requester provided enough information upfront, however, BIA responses could be quite detailed, which the BIA headquarters’ June 15, 1965, response to RaVae Abernathy of Fontana, California, shows. Abernathy wrote to the BIA headquarters on March 22, 1965, about land grants to the LeFlore family. “I’m trying to find family history,” she explained, “and thought it might help with some of the dates and names.” She then listed three members of the LeFlore family—Louis, Basil, and Greenwood—and the states where they lived.

Although it took BIA staff nearly three months to respond, their letter included a wealth of information that would be useful for genealogical research. First, they identified Louis, Basil, and Greenwood’s tribal affiliation as Choctaw. Abernathy may have already known this, as Greenwood LeFlore in particular was a prominent historical figure, having served as a chief of the Choctaw Nation in the early 1830s and as a member of the Mississippi legislature during the 1840s.[4] However, she did not mention the LeFlore family’s tribal affiliation in her letter to the BIA, so this could have been new information that possibly unlocked other research avenues for her to pursue. The BIA also indicated the specific sections of land that had been reserved for Louis (Lewis) LeFlore and Greenwood LeFlore under the provisions of the U.S.–Choctaw Treaty of September 27, 1830. For Louis, they provided the patent number and dates of the fee patent that was issued to him. For Greenwood, they explained that fee patents were issued for most of his land in 1839, except for one section that was sold to Ferdinand Sims and Oliver B. Cobb in 1847. The BIA headquarters staff did not find information about Basil LeFlore in their records, but they suggested that Abernathy contact the Muskogee Area Office in Oklahoma, which might have relevant records.

[4] Oklahoma Historical Society, “LeFlore, Greenwood,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, published January 10, 2010, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=LE008 (accessed April 3, 2024).

Correspondence: Abernathy to BIA
At left: RaVae Abernathy to Bureau of Indian Affairs, March 22, 1965. At right: LaFollette Butler, assistant to chief of the BIA’s Branch of Real Property Management, to RaVae Abernathy, June 15, 1965. Both letters are part of file 2458-1964-003-General Services (National Archives Identifier 1719105).

Today, we can use the information that the BIA provided to Abernathy to find the patent issued to Louis LeFlore and his heirs; the patent is digitized on the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office Records website.[5] Additional research might uncover other records relating to this patent, and to the land reserved for Greenwood LeFlore, in Record Group 75 or in Record Group 49 (Records of the Bureau of Land Management) at our DC research facility.

[5] Bureau of Land Management, “General Land Office Records,” https://glorecords.blm.gov/default.aspx (accessed April 3, 2024).

US Patent 483816
Patent 483816 for Lewis LaFlore, alias Louis LeFlore, and his heirs (courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management)

Fortunately, conducting genealogy research in historical BIA records is much easier today than it was in the 1960s, as many BIA records of genealogical value at NARA are digitized and can be researched online. However, some of the core tenets of researching an individual in BIA records remain the same: it is critical to know the individual’s name(s), their tribal affiliation, and approximately when they lived to research the records effectively.

For more information about researching individuals and families in NARA’s BIA records, please see NARA’s Native American Heritage: Researching an Individual or Family web page. For questions related to the records discussed in this blog, please contact the Archives 1 Reference Branch in Washington, DC, at archives1reference@nara.gov.

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