In the early 1900s, 61-year-old Clement Rogers filled out federal paperwork at a post office in Claremore, Okla., that detailed his ties to the Cherokee Indians.
Among the details provided by Rogers was information about his 20-year-old son, William P. Rogers.
Under sworn testimony, the elder Rogers answered a series of questions to establish whether he was eligible for tribal membership in one of the Indian groups known as the Five Civilized Tribes. Native Americans who qualified could obtain land allotted by the federal government.
“Are you Cherokee by blood?” asked a government agent.
“Yes, sir,” Rogers answered.
That documentation is included in what has come to be known as the Dawes Rolls, and Will Rogers became a legendary entertainer whose name is on highways, parks and building across the nation, including the sprawling Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth.
Documents that authenticate his Cherokee heritage are among the thousands kept at the National Archives at Fort Worth, the government’s second largest repository of records from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. It serves as genealogical treasure chest for people searching their family’s roots, an alternative to digging for information online or in libraries, cemeteries and attics.
“People like to know about their own heritage,” said Donna Akers, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, who teaches a course on Native Americans.
The information at the archives center is significant because documenting first-hand accounts from older Indian relatives can be challenging as they age. Additionally, Indian languages have been disappearing, Akers said.
Akers, who is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said documenting this history is critical and should be shared with younger generations.
“It gives kids roots,” Akers said “It gives them a sense of identity.”
Into the past
The desire to document a family’s roots often starts with a family story. Sometimes, families hear that “Grandma was a Cherokee princess,” or that family members were part of the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Native Americans in the 1830s.
“That’s a source of curiosity that a lot of people want to know if it is true,” Akers told UTA students at a recent campus workshop aimed at helping document American Indian family ties.
Family stories get retold during the Thanksgiving holidays, said Meg Hacker, director of archival operations at the National Archives at Fort Worth.
Hacker said the Friday after Thanksgiving Day has typically been busy, with people calling with questions or visiting to start genealogy research.
“We are open,” Hacker said. “Avoid Black Friday... . We really want people to come in and do their research.”
The National Archives office at 2600 West 7th Street allows people to access digitized records. They can use online tools such as Ancestry.com for free, she said.
People can also access free online tools at the Fort Worth Central Library, which is the third largest genealogy facility in Texas, said Beth Shankle, manager of the genealogy, history and archives unit.
At the library, people can get a beginner’s packet that includes family tree charts and a checklist of sources, Shankle said.
People can also find records on other tribes at the National Archives by searching the 1900 Federal Population Census, which counted Native Americans.
The Dawes Rolls
Sometimes, families find evidence that a relative was listed on a Census card and is among thousands enrolled in the Dawes Rolls, the hard copies of which are housed in Fort Worth.
Being listed on the Dawes Rolls establishes ties to one of the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole.
The Dawes Rolls has Census information that includes names recorded from 1898 to 1914, according to the National Archives. The rolls have the names, sex, blood degree (also known as blood quantum) and Census card number.
The Dawes Rolls can be accessed online through the National Archives website and through Oklahoma Historical Society’s genealogical resources.
The Dawes Rolls gets their name from Henry Dawes, who chaired the Dawes Commission. That body negotiated lands with the Five Civilized Tribes, according to the National Archives.
Under this government program, established tribe members could get land if they abolished their tribal governments and recognized federal laws.
Akers said those negotiations paved the way for the land runs in which settlers obtained homesteads.
“It’s the old Indian land that they were claiming,” she said.
Sometimes, families can’t prove Indian heritage, said Vicki Prough, a genealogy manager at the Choctaw tribal headquarters in Durant, Okla. Other times, families find a connection, but learn they don’t have a direct blood line required for tribal membership.
Prough said her family has ties to the Dawes Rolls, but she is not in a direct line to those enrolled in government records. Her family apparently didn’t do the paperwork, she said.
“We know that the Choctaw blood is there, but we just can’t prove it,” she said. “You will hear a lot of people tell you that.
Hacker said document records likely don’t tell all the stories. It difficult to know how Native Americans learned they needed to enroll.
“You have to be at the right place at the right time for the right reason,” Hacker said of how the Census was documented.
Prough said sometimes a sibling married and moved out of state before the Census took place. That person would not be considered a tribal member for purposes of the Census, she said.
But Prough said she has witnessed many genealogical triumphs.
“We have people who come in and say they have been searching for something for years and, ‘I found it!’ They get all excited,” Prough said.