About Roll Numbers

People are always writing and asking to “find their grandmother’s roll number.” Or they say, my great grandmother had a roll number and threw it away!  Or they say, my husband has Native American heritage and I want to get my son a roll number. Or they say, I got my DNA checked and have Native American heritage and want to “get registered.”

But as far as I know, there was no universal "government registration number."  In all the years (30) that I have worked with the records, I have never found anything like that, meaning numbers assigned to all American Indians that registered them with the government because of their race or cultural identification. 


There were other numbers, like for example a person could have an allottee number for a certain tribe/reservation. Lands were allotted as a result of a treaty, or in general after the 1887 General Allotment Act. The allottee number was important as showing that each person did actually receive an allotment. That number was important when the trust patent was issued, and was often quoted later when the person died, and the land was inherited by his descendants. But an allottee number is not an “Indian Registration Number.”


Sometimes people are thinking of the BIA Indian Census numbers. The agents prepared a list every year between about 1885 and 1940 of all who resided on the reservations in their areas.  There was no permanent list, just the census list for that year. This was talked about as a census, and not an enrollment or registration number. Towards the end, this list got adjusted every year with additions and deletions.  One I just checked had a full list for the year 1934, and then a new one in 1935, and then just additions and deletions for 1936. Then another new full list was made for 1937, and again, deletions and additions after that. Numbers for particular people changed but usually the agent also listed what the person's list number was the year before. Sometimes they also included the allottee number. You can check these on Fold3.com and Ancestry: they are the Indian Census Records. The 1935 list has been taken by some tribes as a sort of "base enrollment" to start from in compiling their own membership lists. 


These records were the closest thing to an enrollment list. They included everybody the agent thought was a legitimate tribal member who lived there on the reservation, and some who did not. It seems to have depended on whether he considered them to be members of the group he supervised in some sort of a permanent way. Although we routinely tell people these censuses were only of people living on the reservations, that was not always the case. There are rolls labeled “non-reservation.” For example, in Nevada and some parts of California, the agents included everyone they considered as under their supervision even though they were living in scattered small communities outside the reservations. If you examine the rolls for Shoshone, Paiute, and Washoe, under the Carson agency supervision, you find people who were living in all sorts of places, referred to as just a county, Inyo County, California, for example, or an Indian Ranch, or Public Domain. Indeed, you can find other allotment records listed under the name of the land office for many of these “public domain” Indians lands in the General Land Office records.  The land office interacted with the BIA to issue trust patents, and later Indian Patents, for these lands outside of reservations. But again, these were census numbers, not registration numbers.


There were other lists prepared every year, such as an Annuity Roll, that listed heads of households and the number of their dependents who were due money from a promised annuity amount as a result of a treaty or agreement.  These annuity rolls go back to some of the earliest treaties. These were not enrollments or registrations either, as they also changed every year according to whoever the head person or principal chief wanted to receive some of the annuity money.


The BIA generally agreed that it was up to the tribe to decide who was eligible to receive their annuity money. This is an important point. The government was not making the decision or registering people. Presence of a name on an annuity list cannot literally be taken as either proof of tribal heritage, or enrollment. Some tribes "adopted" people from other tribes, or non Indians for as long as they were accepted by the group. This is brought out and made especially clear in a Court of Claims Case I recently examined, RG 123, General Jurisdiction Case 166629, about the Weas, Piankashaws, Kaskaskias, and Peorias. The consolidated tribes had split up into two factions and split their wealth. They later disputed the legitimacy of some names on the annuity lists claimed by the other as deserving any of the funds. They sued each other in the Court of Claims. It was testified in the court case repeatedly that the list was up to the tribe and the Office of Indian Affairs preferred to leave it that way. So it was flexible, and changed from year to year. Annuities were not a permanent enrollment list either.


Then there is the possibility that people who think the government registered every Indian were influenced by the Dawes Commission and their responsibility to draw up “correct” rolls of the entire citizenship of the Five Civilized Tribes. Every person who was legitimately identified to be a citizen or freedman enrolled in the Five Civilized Tribes did receive an enrollment number.

These roll numbers are often taken by the current tribal leadership to be an important factor in eligibility for membership in the tribe. And it is true that the government played a part in these roll numbers, but they still were not universal “registration” numbers and did not apply to all Indians. 


The most legitimately permanent lists of members were probably those prepared by the government for certain tribes, when they had won lawsuits against the government. The government wanted to be completely sure they were only paying money to the ones who were actually covered by the lawsuit. These are often called Judgment Funds, especially in recent years, and a person will have a roll number indicating eligibility to receive those funds. This entitlement list may or may not be recognized by the tribe as a membership list. Since 1934, the determination of members has been up to the tribe. Even though someone might have been determined to be eligible to share in funds from a judgement, the tribe still might not accept that person as a member.


Often times the people were solicited to turn in an application for these types of funds, to show how they met the terms of eligibility, and the application might give details such as their actual birth date. There were applications for the Dawes Rolls, and for later enrollments that resulted from lawsuits. There are applications for example, for the 1928 California judgement roll.  But there never were applications universally filed by all tribes for all roll lists.


I have heard of a few more instances in which there were numbers assigned, apparently by the government, but these appear to have been unusual, for some specific purpose, not universal, and not kept permanently.  Maybe some others will know a little more about these instances. There were some tags issued by the military to Indians living at San Carlos, for instance, in the late 1800s.  An occasional person has remembered being given a number in the mid-1900s, that was related to schooling, and seemed to be for people in Oklahoma. Or it might have related to poverty programs, or to the later “resettlement” situations.  


Nevertheless, I still say, there were no so called Indian Registration numbers issued to everybody who was an Indian, by the federal government. This is a myth. However, they do seem to have such a system in Canada! And of course, they also have a National Archives, and people who cross the borders and are “registered” in Canada.  So there is one more source of confusion.