The Five Civilized Tribes - Are your Ancestors on the Rolls?

by Elizabeth Walker

Many families have passed down oral traditions of Indian ancestry. The stories are wide spread among Oklahomans and people whose ancestors lived in nearby states like, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas. It’s not surprising in this part of the country, considering most of present day Oklahoma was literally “Indian Territory" less than a hundred years ago. People often begin their research believing that they are only a generation or two removed from a full-blood Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek (a.k.a Muscogee) or Seminole Indian. Is this even possible? How does a person go about affirming or debunking their family’s stories?

A Very Brief History

The Five Civilized Tribes (those listed above), were called “civilized” by white settlers because they lived in European style settlements as farmers and planters, built stone and brick buildings and even owned slaves. They also dressed in a more European style than the plains Indians and had organized forms of government. Many of them, particularly Cherokee, married people of European descent and so were “mixed bloods” even before 1800. This early inter-marriage also means that a full blood ancestor would be several generations back for people living today-thus debunking many full-blood grandma stories.

Civilized or not, the European settlers saw them as a threat to their plans for westward expansion. As a result, the Five Tribes were removed from their traditional homelands in the eastern United States in a series of forced removals beginning in the 1830s. These forced removals are commonly referred to as, “The Trail of Tears”.

At the end of the trail was the promise of tribal land, but within a generation that promise was already being broken. The federal government began a policy of breaking up tribal held lands and allotting lands to individuals. On June 27, 1898, an act of Congress authorized a Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes headed by Senator Henry L. Dawes to determine who was eligible for tribal membership and land allotment. The result of this commission eventually produced what is called, the Dawes Rolls or the Final Rolls of the Five Civilized Tribes.

Are Your Ancestors on the Native American Rolls?

Finding ancestors on the Dawes Rolls is a relatively simple process if you know who you’re looking for, what tribe they are from, and where they were living around 1900. As with any genealogy, you start with yourself and work backwards. Interview living relatives, gather Bible records and any available birth and death certificates. Trace your family on the federal census from 1930 back to 1900. If you find your direct ancestors on the 1900 census in Indian Territory on the Indian Population Schedule (at the end of the regular U.S. Population Schedule), you may be in luck. If your family was living anywhere else, you will not find them listed on the Dawes Rolls.

The Dawes Rolls were taken between 1898-1906 in Indian Territory, basically the eastern half of present day Oklahoma. The rolls only included people who could prove their family had lived with the tribe continuously from removal times.

You can find copies of the Dawes Rolls and related documents in the LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints) Family History Library in Salt Lake City and some genealogy libraries, like the Tulsa City County Library Genealogy Center  and the Muskogee Public Library. There is also an alphabetical index online at Access Genealogy and the entire index and final rolls have recently been scanned and put online by the Ft. Worth branch of the National Archives.

If you use the books in a library or the online rolls at the National Archives you need to know what tribe and category you are looking for. Within each of the 5 tribes there were between 6-8 categories;

Citizens by Blood -These are people who could prove (through previous tribal rolls) that they and/or their family had been living with the tribe since before removal times. Each person was given a blood percentage supposedly based on ancestry but it was not always accurate. This is the largest category within each tribe.

Citizens by Marriage - Whites who were adopted into the tribes due to their marriage (prior to 1895) to a tribal citizen.

New Born Citizens by Blood or Minor Citizens by Blood - Children born after their parents enrolled.

Freedmen - former slaves of the tribes

New Born Freedmen and Minor Freedmen - Born after their parents enrolled.

Delaware Indians adopted by the Cherokee.

As part of the allotment process the Freedmen were adopted into the tribes and were given land allotments but their descendants cannot become citizens or receive any tribal benefits. Some of these Freedmen may have Indian ancestry but they do not have a blood percentage listed in the rolls (like the “By Bloods”).

To find your ancestor, start alphabetically with the Dawes Roll Index and write down the roll number you find there. Then check the Final Rolls, to get the Census Card number. The Census Card (on microfilm) will give you information about the family who was living together at that time and will tell what previous rolls they are listed on. In most cases it gives you the names of each person’s parents so you’ll also have information about the preceding generation. The Freedmen cards give the names of the former Indian slaveholders as well.

The Final Rolls only include those individuals who were accepted for enrollment by the Dawes commission. Individuals who had doubtful (“D” cards) or rejected (“R” cards) status are not included on the rolls. These cards have however, been microfilmed and some have been indexed.

Now What?

The application process for the Dawes Rolls created a lot of paper, much of which can be seen in the microfilmed application files available in Tulsa, Muskogee and Oklahoma City. The original application jackets are at the Fort Worth Archives. If the individual was an undisputed Full Blood, the application file may not contain much information but if your ancestor was on a “D” (doubtful) or “R” (rejected) card, or had to provide a lot of documents to prove his or her citizenship, you could be in for a genealogical goldmine. In fact, people who were ultimately denied may have the thickest application files.

Once you have your Dawes Rolls information and can connect each generation from yourself back to that Dawes applicant you can contact the tribe. There are links to all tribal websites from the Tulsa Genealogy Center webpage.

It’s a Flawed Process, But it’s all There is

It’s common knowledge that the Dawes enrollment process was fraught with errors. It was started in 1896 only to have all those original applications denied. There were whites who bought their place on the rolls so they could get free land and there were some Freedmen descendants with Indian blood who were left out because of intermarriage with former slaves. But it’s the only source available for verifying continuous tribal status and it is the only source accepted by any of the Five Civilized Tribes for obtaining present day citizenship.

The Five Civilized Tribes are sovereign nations and have set these rules as their requirements:

    • You must prove unbroken lineal descent from an individual on the Final Rolls … period.
    • In order for your ancestor to be on the Final Rolls, they had to be living in Indian Territory, with the tribes, between 1898-1906 … period.

The only exception to this rule among the Five Tribes is the Eastern Band of Cherokee who did not remove to the West and have lived as a community continuously in North Carolina.

Some Freedmen descendants are attempting to regain what they believe is their heritage. Recent articles like, “Blood Feud” in the September 2005 issue of Wired Magazine claim that DNA can help them prove their Indian heritage. Many white citizens would like to prove their Indian ancestry as well, but unlike other genealogy related DNA studies (like surname Y chromosome studies), the Indian DNA test results are not specific enough. The results can’t identify tribal affiliation, and unfortunately, even if they could, none of the tribes show any indication of changing their requirements to allow DNA results as evidence.

But Wait, There’s More …

Whether you are able to prove or disprove your Indian ancestry using the Dawes Rolls, there is still a lot more to learn. The following list of books, articles and websites can get you started. In particular, the Indian Pioneer History Collection, which consists of thousands of Works Project Administration interviews with citizens of all races who lived in Oklahoma in the 1930’s, can help bring your family history to life. You can also contact the libraries mentioned through their websites for assistance and research policies.

Elizabeth Walker, Library Associate,
Tulsa City County Library
Genealogy Center

Books & Articles:

  • Carter, Kent. The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1893-1914 (Orem, Utah:, 1999).
  • Carter, Kent. “Wantabees & Outalucks: Searching for Indian Ancestors in Federal Records.” The Chronicles of Oklahoma Vol. LXVI, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 94-104.
  • Debo, Angie. And Still the Waters Run, The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991).
  • The Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory [and] Index to the Final Rolls. (Baltimore, Maryland: Reprinted by Genealogical Publishing, 2003, 1907).
  • Foreman, Grant. Indian Removal (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).
  • Foreman, Grant, editor. Indian Pioneer History Collection (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Indian Archives Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, 1978-1981). Portions transcribed online. Available in book form at the Oklahoma Historical Society and on microfilm at the Tulsa City County Library Genealogy Center.
  • Mooney, Thomas G. Exploring Your Cherokee Ancestry: A Basic Genealogical Research Guide. (Tahlequah, Oklahoma: Cherokee National Historical Society, Inc., 1987, 1988).
  • Sober, Nancy Hope. The Intruders. The Illegal Residents of the Cherokee Nation, 1866-1907 ( Ponca City, Oklahoma: Cherokee Books, 1991).


Elizabeth Walker, "Five Civilized Tribes Genealogy Are your Ancestors on the Rolls?" (Online:  Elizabeth Walker, 2005) [Reprinted by with permission], <>.

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