November is Native American Heritage Month, and longtime Wisconsin families may retell stories of their ancestors’ interactions with different tribal members. Maybe a great-great-grandfather passed down a recollection about seeing a Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) encampment when he was a boy. Or perhaps there’s even a family story about shared Menominee roots.
Yet oral history accounts are cause for questions, not beliefs. A single mention of an ancestor with Native American roots may suggest an intriguing possibility, but it is not a reason to revise the family tree. Lacking corroboration, experienced family historians become the ultimate skeptics and fact checkers. How to know if your family includes Native American ancestors?
While DNA testing has solved crimes and revealed biological parents, it cannot answer every question. A DNA test may reveal Native American markers, however, if your Native American ancestry dates from more than a few generations back, these markers may not show up.
Still there may be other evidence. Look for the designation “I” or “In” in the race column of the federal censuses of 1860 or later. Searching for connections on Ancestry.com, www.familysearch.org and other genealogy sites may yield clues, too. Fold3 (https://blog.fold3.com/free-access-to-the-native-american-collection/) offers access to these records, as well as to Dawes enrollment cards for Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole members who removed to reservations west of the Mississippi River. Not all tribal nations relocated beyond Wisconsin, and the state is home today to 11 federally recognized nations, plus the Brothertown Indian Nation headquartered in Fond du Lac.
Any written document may corroborate a story handed down about Native American ancestry. A letter, diary or photo recognizing a Native American ancestor will provide some corroboration. Two or three different, unrelated sources are usually sufficient to add that ancestor to a family branch.
Visit the Wisconsin First Nations website (wisconsinfirstnations.org) for links to tribal nations and resources like the Chippewa Valley Museum (wisconsinfirstnations.org/chippewa-valley-museum). Books by Dr. Patty Loew — “Indian Nations of Wisconsin” and “Native People of Wisconsin” — are reliably accurate. The Wisconsin Historical Society (www.wisconsinhistory.org) provides online essays and maps. Forts Folle Avoine Historical Park (www.theforts.org) offers research materials including Burnett County plat maps, cemetery information and obituaries, in addition to two fur-trading forts, an Ojibwe village and an old schoolhouse. On the Milwaukee Public Museum website (www.mpm.edu), look at the “educators” tab for “WIRP” (Wisconsin Indian Resource Project). Wisconsin’s Native American history is fascinating, complex and vital.
Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Caves, Mines, and Tunnels.” Also available: “Minnesota Underground,” co-authored with Greg Brick. Visit http://henschelhausbooks.com.