American Indian Heirship Records
Probate records are court records that describe the distribution of a person’s estate after he dies. These records are helpful because authorities often began recording probate actions before birth and death records. Probate records often identify additional children or relationships that may have been missed or unreadable in other records. Native Americans were allowed to make wills starting in 1910.
In general the probate process produces court records created after an individual’s death that relate to a court’s decisions regarding the distribution of his estate to his heirs or creditors and care of his dependents, land allotment, registers of families, heirship and wills are all types of records that may be involved in an Native American’s probate process.
Traditionally the Indian groups distributed personal belongings after death in customs unique to their group. Some burials included not only the deceased but his or her personal belongings as well. You will want to study a tribal history to learn its customs.
Register of Families: (1890-1900) These registers were compiled by agents of the BIA to determine relationships for the purposes of heirship finding in allotment cases. The records contain the Indian and English names of the individual, marital status, his age or birth date, names, ages, relationships, and allotment information regarding his parents, brothers, sisters, children, uncles, aunts, and at many times other living relatives as well. After many years the Register of Families became too bulky and awkward to use, so many agencies began keeping an “Heirship.”
Heirship: (1908-1923) In 1908 the BIA began determining the heirs of a deceased Indian allottee. The property, especially land, owned by Indians could be passed on to the heirs of the deceased. A number of records, called heirship records, were created to determine the heirs of the Indian and the percentage of the property they should receive. Types of heirship records include: Affidavit as to Lawful Heirs, Report of Heirship, Data for Heirship Finding, Departmental Findings Determining the Heirs of Deceased Indians, Inherited Interests in Estates, Index and Heirship Card-Enrollee, Estate Files, and Heirship Cases.
These records usually contain the name of the deceased, the birth and death date, the allotment, patent or probate number, a description of the allotment, number of acres of land, and the names of his heirs, including the percentage of their share of the estate. These records may also include the names of the parents, spouse, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, children, and other relatives with their ages or birth dates, marital status, address, and tribe or band affiliation.
Heirship records can be found in the offices of the different BIA agencies. Some records are available at the Family History Library, such as:
- United States. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Grand Ronde-Siletz Agency. Heirship Records, 1887-1930. Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1978. At various Libraries (WorldCat); FHL Films 1025306-308. Included in these records are allotment heirship cards, allotment of estate record cards, estate record sheets, and inherited interests in estates cards. These records contain the name of the deceased and his birth and death dates, parents’ and spouse’s names, the allotment, patent, probate and file numbers, a description of the allotment, the names of the heirs, and their percentage of the share.
After 1910 Indians could make a will with the approval of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington DC. Wills contain the testator’s name, residence, legatees or names of heirs, relationships, description of land and property (allotment number), date of will and probate, the tribe, date of death, age at death, signatures, witnesses, and date of approval by BIA.
For Native American wills in the National Archives, see:
- Jeff Bowen, Indian wills, 1911-1921 : Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (Baltimore, Maryland : Clearfield, ©2006-2007). At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 970.1 B675n. Includes will transcripts and an index.
These files were collected by various levels of the Bureau of Indian Affairs consist of wills, reports on heirship. They usually include such information as name, tribe, agency, allotment number, description of allotment, place of residence, date of death, age at death, names of heirs, and their share of the estate.
Inheritance Examiners Report
These reports include applications, decisions of the tribal commissioner, and notices to applicants. They are arranged alphabetically by name of an applicant. Carbon copies of letters sent arranged by surname.
Probate records are available at the National Archives, National Archives regional offices, local offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Family History Library.
- Paula K. Byers, Native American Genealogical Sourcebook. "Indian Wills and Heirship Matters," 75, and "Probate and Heirship Records," 36-45 (Detroit: Gale Publ., 1995). At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 970.1 B991n.