“Observations” of Native American Records at the National Archives

November is Native American Heritage Month. Visit National Archives News for more information on related events and resources.

In 1972 the National Archives held a conference on the history of the Federal Government’s relationship with Native Americans. The Archives heldand still holdsa vast amount of material documenting Native Americans, so it was only natural to explore the topic. This was the 10th in a series of conferences designed to promote more frequent interaction and improved communication between the agency and the scholarly community, and to draw attention to the rich resources in our holdings.

Oliver W. Holmes, former Chief of the Natural Resources Records Branch at the National Archives, gave a talk titled, “Indian-Related Records in the National Archives and Their Use: Observations over a Third of a Century.” In it, he spoke about the agency’s holdings at that time and the history of the files themselves. 

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Oliver W. Holmes speaking at the National Archives Conference on Research in the History of Indian-White Relations, June 15, 1972. (National Archives Identifier 35810018)

Holmes had begun his career at the National Archives in 1936 as a deputy examiner. Deputy examiners were responsible for surveying Federal agency records and deciding which should be transferred to the new National Archives. Over his career, Holmes was involved with the transfer of many Indian-related records to the National Archives and later, through his various positions, gained extensive experience with our files relating to Native Americans.

The first Indian-related records we received, records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), came over as a series of small moves from the Department of the Interior. These were files stored in various basements, attics, and closets; due to water exposure, their immediate transfer was necessary.

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Bureau of Indian Affairs records in the basement of the Hurley Wright Building in Washington, DC, 9/10/1935. (National Archives Identifier 18519642)

In 1938 Holmes worked in the North Interior Building in Washington, DC, inventorying the bulk of the historic BIA records. That year the National Archives accessioned 7,000 cubic feet of BIA records covering the years 1800–1921, the equivalent of two miles of shelving.

The reason the records started in 1800 was because most Indian Affairs records from 1789–1800 had been destroyed in an 1800 War Department fire. The War Department had been in charge of Indian Affairs before the Interior Department was created in 1849.

After the establishment of the National Archives in 1934, some agencies were initially resistant to transfer their records. Because BIA records were actively used for ligation and research, BIA was hesitant to move records to the Archives. However, the country was in the midst of the New Deal, and the Department of the Interior was responsible for the Public Works Administration, in addition to other New Deal agencies. Interior needed space, and emptying the basement where the records were being stored mitigated their space concerns.

Space in Washington continued to be an issue for BIA going into World War II. In fact, BIA was forced to move out of Washington, DC, to Chicago. This prompted the agency to send an additional 2,000 cubic feet of records from 1921–1933 to the National Archives. 

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Register of Cherokee Indians who have emigrated to the west of the Mississippi, 1834. (Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Archives Identifier 595556)

By the end of the war the National Archives had over 10,000 cubic feet of BIA records. The volume continued to grow in the 1950s and 1960s, when we gained the central classified files and card indexes for the records. By the time Holmes retired in 1972, the Archives had 14,000 cubic feet of BIA records; today we have more than 71,500 cubic feet.

But as Holmes pointed out, BIA is not the only place in the National Archives with Native American–related records. Records of the Secretary of the Interior, and several other departments within Interior like the Geological Survey, Bureau of Reclamation, Office of the Territories, and National Park Service, all hold relevant material.  

And the possibilities outside of the Department of the Interior are nearly endless.

The War Department’s extensive contact with Native Americans is reflected in the records. And of course the Department of War was in charge of BIA before Interior was created. While some records were transferred to Interior, some, such as bound letter books, remained with the War Department.

Other groups of records include those of the Department of State. Since Native American tribes were treated as foreign nations, State maintained treaty records. Records of the Departments of Justice and Treasury are other places Holmes suggested looking, as well as General Records of the U.S. Government, which contain the original ratified treaties.

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Treaty with Sauk and Fox Indians, signed at Saint Louis in the District of Louisiana, 11/03/1804. (General Records of the United States Government, National Archives Identifier 7891103)

Files aren’t only located in Executive branch records. The U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives both had committees devoted to Indian Affairs and collected numerous petitions on Indian matters going back to 1789. The Senate files also contain ratification documentation, including unratified treaties, since the Senate had responsibility for “advice and consent” over Native American treaties.

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Message of President George Washington requesting the Senate to advise him on the treaty to be negotiated with the Southern Indians, 8/21/1789. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives Identifier 306283)

In the judicial branch, the United States Court of Claims, the Federal court that heard claims against the U.S. Government, is a rich source as well.

These are just a few of the many sources Holmes cited in his lengthy paper. These records, and many more, are available for research at the National Archives in the Washington metropolitan area and at our archival locations around the country.

To learn more about researching American Indian records, visit our Guide to American Indian Records in the National Archives.

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