As I've noted before, manuscript records collected by the census can be fascinating and informative windows to the past. They can be used to learn more about groups of people that appear only occasionally in the historical record, and since they are generally well-structured, they can be used (with care) to ask data-driven historical questions. When most historians think of using historical census sources, it's the forms from the decennial census of population that come immediately to mind. These are well-known sources, but there are always fresh nuances to discover. I stumbled over one of these just the other day.

This was news to me: the 1910 federal census used different forms to record American Indians. These filled-out forms were combined on microfilm together with those manuscript schedules that had been used to record the rest of the population, but the Indian-specific forms reflected and reinforced their non-equal place in American society.

But then one find led to another: in the course of trying to find out more about these forms, I quickly became aware of how little I knew about finding American Indians in the census. In the 1800s, American Indians were only rarely counted by enumerators in the way the non-Indian population was. On the other hand, the U.S. government occasionally tried to record American Indians specifically. So policies of separation and difference ended up having an unintended outcome, leaving behind primary sources that help us know more about these groups than we otherwise might.

The "Indian Census Rolls"

Though information about American Indians can be found in a variety of census publications, one of the largest is the set of microfilmed copies of the Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940. These forms were the result of instructions to federal Indian agents to tally all of the American Indians living on reservations under their jurisdiction. As this detailed article from the National Archives makes clear, despite the wide scope of coverage, the forms did not cover every recognized group of American Indians, nor did they list non-affiliated members.

Image from Indian Census, 1933

But these documents do have certain advantages over traditional census forms. Unlike the regular census, the "Indian Census" rolls were supposed to be recorded or updated every year. Many of the records were typed instead of handwritten (hooray!), and for some years, records of individuals included a direct reference to the same person on the previous year's form, greatly easing the work of tracing a person through time.

The Indian Census Rolls were long available only on microfilm, which limited access to them. Recently they have been digitized and made available for searching through genealogy websites and, where they are available to paid subscribers. If you are just looking for the name of a particular ancestor, the paid sites are undoubtedly the easiest way to find that needle in a haystack. But the records can also be accessed for free with a little extra work, as the microfilm reels published by the National Archives have been digitized by the Internet Archive. Usage patterns for 9CHRIS, a site I built to help make historic court records accessible, suggest that there is a lot of demand for greater access to federal records about American Indians, so I thought it might be useful to describe how to use the freely-available Indian Census.

Using the Finding Aid and the Internet Archive

Here's how to find the rolls for a particular American Indian tribe or group in the freely-available Indian Census sources:

  1. First look them up in the finding aid to find out what "agency" was responsible for reporting about them. Agencies were units of geography, which sometimes (but not always) reflected federally-designated reservations. Sometimes a single agency might report about several tribal groups, and the opposite was also sometimes the case, where a particular tribe might fall under the jurisdiction of several agencies.

    For example if I were looking for the Washoe (also spelled "Washo"), I would see that the Bishop, Carson, and Walker River agencies each had jurisdiction.

  2. Next, use the second list, located later in the same finding aid document, to find out what reels of microfilm contain the records for that agency. (The agencies are listed in alphabetical order.) Some agencies share space on the same reel of microfilm, and in other cases the agency's records are spread across multiple reels, with a few years to each reel. Note the reel number you are interested in, in the left column.

    To continue the example, the Carson agency has records on reels 18, 19, 20, and 21. If I wanted to see records from 1933, I'd choose reel 20.

  3. Now we can go to the Internet Archive and look for the reel we want. I searched for "Indians of North America" AND census AND Reel 020" (note the reel number is always three digits) and it returned precisely the result I wanted.

  4. The reel can be read online, or downloaded as a (very large) PDF. Within each agency, the records are typically divided by year, and then by the "reservation" or administrative unit within the broader agency, which are organized alphabetically within each year.

    In this case, the records from 1933 were at the beginning of the reel. I skipped over several administrative units (Austin, Battle Mountain, Beowawe) before coming to the Carson Valley subunit, where the people I was looking up lived.

  5. To save a copy of a page in the online viewer, right-click on the image and choose "Save Image As..." to download it. The Internet Archive also built their online viewer so that each specific page in every document has a unique URL, so you can just copy and paste the URL from your browser bar.


Historians, social scientists, independent researchers, and genealogists all make extensive use of the manuscript historical census. The discrimination and unequal treatment faced by many ethnic and racial minorities in the past is sometimes reflected in their absence or unequal treatment in the census. But sometimes, as in the case of some Native Americans, these social attitudes led to policies that left behind, as a side effect, documentation that helps us understand their lives and history better than we would otherwise.