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BIA Indian Census Rolls

Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1885-1940


As a reference archivist at the Washington DC location of the National Archives whose special knowledge is in the area of the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I get many questions from people who are seeking to establish their Indian heritage. This search often leads the inquirer to the Indian Census Rolls, compiled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, between 1885 and 1940. These records are microfilmed and are available at our regional branches as National Archives and Records Administration microfilm publication M595, in 692 rolls, and at some of the many state and local history and genealogy centers.

Sometimes there are questions about these rolls that are hard to answer. How was the agent to decide what persons should be listed on his census roll? What guidelines were given? How did he determine if someone should be on his list or not? What if the grandmother was living with them but she was from another tribe? What if they said they had a son away at school? How did the census relate to questions of enrollment or tribal membership? What was the agent supposed to do about Indians not living on the reservation- were they to be included? How could a person who was on the Flandreau rolls for the Indian census in the 20s and 30s, also have had children listed in a "street directory" at the same time, in Massachusetts. How would you find out why the children were not included in the Flandreau Indian Census Roll along with the father? Are there instructions? To answer these questions, the first thing I did was to locate the original act establishing the Indian Census rolls, to see what was intended.

Introduction to Indian Census Rolls

The original Act of July 4, 1884, (23 Stat. 76, 98) was vague, saying, "That hereafter each Indian agent be required, in his annual report, to submit a census of the Indians at his agency or upon the reservation under his charge.” The Act itself did not specify the collection of names and personal information. However, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs sent a directive in 1885 (Circular 148) reiterating the statement and adding further instructions: "Superintendents in charge of Indian reservations should submit annually, a census of all Indians under their charge." He told the agents to use the plan he had prepared for gathering the information. The sample there showed columns for Number (consecutive), Indian Name, English Name, Relationship, Sex, and Age. Other information on the number of males, females, schools, school children, and teachers was to be compiled statistically and included separately in the annual report.

The first form drawn up by the Commissioner asked only for name, age, sex, and family relationship. It was so little information that these Indian Census rolls were never considered to be “private” in the same sense as the federal decennial census, and there was never any restriction against the release of the information. Gradual changes in the form of the data required and special instructions for the census are documented in National Archives microfilm publication M1121, Procedural Issuances of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Orders and Circulars, 1854-1955, in 17 rolls.

The censuses from 1885 on were compiled by the agents using forms sent by the Bureau. There was supposed to be only one census for each reservation, except in a few cases where part of the reservation was in another state. Multiple copies were not made. The original was sent to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The earliest censuses were written in by hand, but typing appeared quite early. Eventually the Commissioner issued instructions on exactly how to type some entries in, and requested that the family names be placed in alphabetical sections on the roll. For a while, a new census was taken each year and the entire roll redone. Agents were told in 1921 they were supposed to list all the people under their charge, and if a name was listed for the first time, or was not listed from the last year, an explanation was required. It was considered helpful to indicate the number for the person on the previous year's census. Persons also could be designated by a number peculiar to that reservation, if it was explained somewhere, or they could be listed as "N.E.", or “Not Enrolled.” In the 1930s, sometimes only supplemental rolls showing the additions and deletions from the previous year were submitted. The regular process of taking the Indian censuses was discontinued in 1940, although a few later rolls exist. A new Indian Census was taken by the Census Bureau in 1950, but it is not open to the public.

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