By Rose Buchanan, Archivist and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records
What are BIA probate case files?
Since 1910, the BIA has been involved in probating Native American estates in which the deceased person had federal trust assets. Trust assets can include funds, securities, personal property, and/or real property that the U.S. government holds in trust for the benefit of an individual Native American or federally recognized Tribe. See the BIA’s Your Land, Your Decision—What is a Probate? page for more information about federal trust assets.
Probate case files document how the BIA determines the trust assets that the deceased person owned, the deceased person’s legal heirs, and the order in which trust assets should be distributed to the legal heirs. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has BIA probate case files in Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
How are BIA probate case files useful for genealogy research?
In determining a deceased person’s legal heirs, the BIA often interviewed surviving family members, friends, or neighbors about the person’s spouse(s), children, parents, and other family members. The BIA also gathered information from their own records about the deceased person’s trust assets, including allotments. Officials often compiled family and asset information in a document known as a “summary of report on heirs.”
Although every BIA probate case file is different, the summary of report on heirs and other documents in BIA probate case files can include the following information:
- Full name of the deceased person (including maiden name)
- Dates of birth, marriage, divorce, and death
- Tribal affiliation
- Allotment number
- Spouse’s name, Tribal affiliation, and allotment number
- Children’s names and ages
- Parents’ names, marriage date, Tribal affiliation(s), and allotment numbers
How do I find out if my ancestor has a BIA probate case file?
BIA probate case files are located at different NARA research facilities around the country, depending on the BIA field office that handled the case. Our Navigating Record Group 75 guide lists which NARA facilities have BIA field office records; the guide is arranged by state. You can browse descriptions of probate case files across NARA’s facilities by performing an advanced search in the National Archives Catalog for “probate case file” in the Keywords field and “75” in the Record Group Number field.
There is no central index to all BIA probate case files in NARA’s holdings, and most BIA probate case files are not digitized. But a great place to start is with the BIA headquarters’ Probate Index, ca. 1908–1961 (National Archives Identifier 1225075). This index is arranged alphabetically and is digitized in the National Archives Catalog. The index covers most BIA probate case files found in the BIA Central Classified Files at the National Archives in Washington, DC, and it provides the file numbers needed to access the records. The cards also typically provide the individual’s Tribal affiliation and death date.
How do I search the BIA headquarters’ Probate Index?
First, go to the BIA headquarters’ Probate Index page in the National Archives Catalog. On this page, select the “Search within this Series” link. This will bring up a list of digitized file units in the series.
The National Archives Catalog page for the BIA headquarters’ Probate Index (National Archives Identifier 1225075)
List of file units in the BIA headquarters’ Probate Index
You have two options for searching the file units: you can search by name or keyword using the search bar under the series title, or you can browse by surname. In the latter case, you may want to sort the file units by “Title (Alphabetically, A–Z)” so the file units will appear in alphabetical order.
Search the BIA headquarters’ Probate Index by name or keyword.
Browse the BIA headquarters’ Probate Index by surname.
File units are arranged alphabetically by surnames that start with a particular letter or letters. An example is the file unit Surnames starting with Brow, which includes index cards for individuals with the surname “Brown” as well as “Brown Bear,” “Brownbird,” “Brown Bull,” and so on. If there are multiple index cards for the same surname, those cards are usually arranged alphabetically by the individual’s first name.
File unit for “Surnames starting with Brow” (National Archives Identifier 241533629)
I found my ancestor in the BIA headquarters’ Probate Index. What should I do next?
Please email the Archives 1 Reference Branch in Washington, DC, at firstname.lastname@example.org with either a copy of the index card or a link to the card’s Catalog page. Our staff will check to see if the related file exists. If so, we will provide you with information about accessing it.
Example of a BIA headquarters’ Probate Index card for Charles (C. H.) Brown (Seminole)
I did not find my ancestor in the BIA headquarters’ Probate Index. What should I do?
First, keep in mind that the BIA was not involved in probating all Native American estates, just those from 1910 onward that involved federal trust assets. So, your ancestor may not have a BIA probate case file, depending on their circumstances. See Native American Probate Records from the 1800s? for more information and suggestions for researching probates that the BIA did not handle.
Also, consider that the BIA headquarters’ Probate Index only goes until 1961. If your ancestor died after 1961, then they will not appear in the index, and NARA may not yet have a BIA probate case file about them. You can email the Archives 1 Reference Branch at email@example.com for suggestions about researching them further.
It is also possible that your ancestor appears in the BIA headquarters’ Probate Index, but not where you expect. Make sure to browse the complete file unit where your ancestor’s card should be, based on their surname. The BIA clerks did not always file the cards in strict alphabetical order by first names. For example, Belle Stacy or Mike’s index card appears directly after Stella Mary Stacy’s index card in the file unit for Surnames starting with St, even though “B” (for “Belle”) and “M” (for “Mike”) both appear before “S” (for “Stella”) in the alphabet.
BIA headquarters’ Probate Index card for Belle Stacy or Mike (Wisconsin Winnebago/Ho-Chunk)
Additionally, check the index under different spellings or versions of your ancestor’s name. Consider how abbreviations may have factored into alphabetizing. For example, although Veronica Amyotte St. Clair’s surname begins with “St.,” her card is alphabetized as if “Saint” was spelled out. Thus, her card appears in the file unit for Surnames starting with Sag, not the file unit for Surnames starting with St.
BIA headquarters’ Probate Index card for Veronica Amyotte St. Clair (Turtle Mountain Chippewa)
Look especially for index cards with the person’s name in red ink at the top. These are cross-reference cards; the name in black ink is the version of the person’s name that the full index card is filed under. Some cross-reference cards may not include the person’s name in red ink, but the cards themselves are often a different color (e.g., bright yellow, bright green) from the standard tan index cards.
BIA headquarters’ Probate Index cross-reference card for Linda Kendall (Cherokee), indicating that the full index card is filed under the name Linda Seevers
BIA headquarters’ Probate Index card for Linda Oliphant Kendall Seevers (Cherokee)
BIA headquarters’ Probate Index cross-reference card for Mrs. John Stacy, Sr. (Wisconsin Winnebago/Ho-Chunk), indicating that the full index card is filed under the name Martha Stacy (Wisconsin Winnebago/Ho-Chunk)
If you still do not find an index card for your ancestor, contact the Archives 1 Reference Branch at firstname.lastname@example.org for additional assistance. In your email, please include your ancestor’s full name (including married and maiden names, if known), their Tribal affiliation, and their death date.
Can I help transcribe the BIA headquarters’ Probate Index to improve name searches?
Yes! The National Archives Catalog includes a transcription tool, which you can use to help improve the accuracy of name searches for everyone. You will first need to register for a free Catalog user account. See Get Started Transcribing for more information.
Does the National Archives have other records that could help me research my Native American ancestors?
Yes! Please see our Native American Heritage: Researching an Individual or Family page for more information.