Today we call this the Dawes Rolls, although it encompasses the original Five Civilized Tribes of the South East (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole).
This article is specifically about the Cherokee Roll. To describe this roll and purpose, first, we must do a bit of history and hopefully give the reader a better understanding of this particular Roll.
Dawes Commission & General Allotment Act, or Dawes Severalty Act
An act of Congress approved on 3. March. 1893 (27 Stat, 645) authorized the establishment of a commission to negotiate agreements with the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole tribes providing for the dissolution of the tribal governments and the allotment of land to each tribal member. The sponsor, Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts was appointed Chairman of the Commission on 1. Nov. 1893, after which it has commonly been referred to as the Dawes Commission.
The Commission was authorized by an Act of Congress approved 28. June. 1898 (30 Stat. 495) to prepare citizenship (Tribal Membership) rolls for each tribe. Under this act, subsequent acts and resulting agreements negotiated with each tribe, the Commission received applications for membership covering more than 250,000 people and enrolled more than 101,000. The Tribal Membership Rolls were closed on 4. March. 1907, by an Act of Congress, approved on 26. April. 1906 (34 Stat. 370), although an additional 312 persons were enrolled under an act approved 1. August. 1914.
The thought at the time was to give each individual tribal member their own land to farm and thus strengthen the family unit and do away with the tendency of tribes to cluster in social groups and hold land in common and at the same time disband the court and government systems of these tribes.
Although the General Allotment Act, or Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 originally did not cover the Five Civilized Tribes, by 1893 Congress decided to add them to the list for an allotment. The Cherokees fought this until 1899 when it was decided to bring it to a vote of the Cherokees and it passed by about 2015 votes. The vote included hundreds of intermarried whites among the Cherokee that were later found to be ineligible for a share of the Land Allotment. This GAA or DSA was devastating to these tribes and by 1936 the Allotment Act was terminated by the Howard-Wheeler Act and Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act which allowed tribal governments to reform.
Workings of the Commission and after 1900
Now that we have briefly covered the History of the Dawes Commission lets dive into the inner workings of the Commission to allow millions of acres of land to the individuals. The Cherokee Nation prior to 1900 was divided into 9 districts with a courthouse in each district housing the courts and offices of the tribal council-member representing that district. The districts were Tahlequah District, Delaware District, Cooweescowee District, Saline District, Goingsnake District, Illinois District, Flint District, Sequoyah District and Canadian District.
The Dawes Commission advertised the intended action of the commission by posting informational flyers at Post Offices throughout the Districts calling for all Cherokees to come in and be registered for tribal membership. The next step was to “set up shop” so to speak in each Courthouse in each district. The Committee at each of these courthouses would consist of several members of the Commission, a stenographer, and a hired local Cherokee as interpreter.
So now we have the mechanism for how the commission was to take testimony from over 250,000 people of the Five Civilized Tribes and enroll over 100,000 people from 1900 to 1906 all over Indian Territory.
We can dispel one of the many myths that have cropped up about the Roll: The “Hideout Myth.” It goes something along these lines,
“My ancestor was not on the roll because they refused to enroll…” or “My ancestor was not on the roll because they left the Cherokee Nation to keep from being enrolled…” and also “My ancestor is not on the roll because they hid out in the backwoods and they could not find them….”
The Cherokee Nation Tribal Government had done several “recent” Census of tribal members in 1880 and 1896 with both provided to the Dawes Commission for their use. The Commission was only interested in Living Cherokees (1900-1907) that resided within the Cherokee Nation that could be verified by virtue of being counted by their own tribe on the previous census.
If one was not on the census of the Cherokee themselves, nor could one provide names of parents or grandparents that would be on either census then one could not be enrolled. Over 250,000 people physically showed up in one of these courthouses and filled out an application to be included in this Land Allotment. That is double the number of members of each one of The Five Civilized Tribes and records indicated that people came from all walks of life and from just about every territory including as far away as the Hawaiian Islands.
It is difficult to believe that any of the Five Civilized Tribes had large groups of Full-bloods totaling some 250,000 hiding in the backcountry. Thus it is very hard to believe that some quarter of a million Cherokee were hiding out in every district of the Nation.
No, it is far more likely that anyone who showed up to enroll that did not have a prior history would end up on the Rejected Rolls or the Doubtful Rolls which brings us to the next part.
Who Is Cherokee
The Commission enrolled individuals as citizens of a tribe under the following categories:
- Citizens by Blood
- Citizens by Marriage
- New Born Citizens (enrolled under an act by Congress approved 3. March. 1903).
- Minor Citizens by Blood (enrolled under an Act of Congress approved 26. April. 1906).
- Freedman (former black slaves of Indians, later freed and admitted to tribal citizenship).
- New Born Freedman
- Minor Freedman
- Delaware Indians adopted by the Cherokee Tribe were enrolled as a separate group within the Cherokees.
Within each enrollment category the Commission maintained three types of cards:
“Straight” cards for persons who applications were approved (Generally those that showed up on multiple rolls).
“D” cards for persons whose applications were considered doubtful and subject to question (Generally those that may have left the nation for a time but came back for allotment).
“R” cards for persons whose applications were rejected.
Author Research Example
To use the rolls first you do a lookup in the index but you must have some vital information on hand such as 1) Tribe 2) Name 3) Approx. age between the years of 1900 to 1906. Some other great information to have is names of any spouse and children as this will aid in nailing down the exact person you are looking for.
So as an example let’s look up Bird Hair in the index.
We do not find him so let’s look for an alternate spelling like Hare and we find a Bird Hare with roll number 29052.
Next, we look up the Enrollment packet listing for 29052 to get the census card number and that is 7757. Then we look in the Dawes Packet for 7757 and a wealth of information spills out. We now know his parent’s names, that he enrolled in the Tahlequah District, where he got his mail, and what his age was at the time of enrollment. We can now cross-check to make sure he is the right age for the person we are looking for. Most importantly we can read his testimony and from this, we know the date he enrolled, in this case, was 14. April. 1902 which with his age of 23 we can reasonably establish his approximate birth year of 1879 or so.
The Testimony pages are typed answers to questions the Commission asked like: name, age, where one lived, names of parents, marital status and more. But here is the kicker, in this case, they asked if Bird Hare was known by any other name and he indicated that yes he was called Nelson Hare when he was little. At the bottom of the page notes by the Commission are included and in this case, it mentions that indeed they found a Nelson Hare on 1880 Roll page 767 Number 989 and on the 1896 Roll they found a Nelson Hare.
This brings up several very important points and in some cases why one cannot find a person they are looking for. The example I used was my Grandmas first Husband who passed away in the 1930′s. From family stories, he was known as Bob Hair. But he had called himself Bird Hare and even earlier he was Nelson Hare. I looked and looked in vain for a Bob Hair and never knowing his parent’s names I came to a dead-end. Recently I was talking to my cousin about our genealogy and she passed on her enrollment information which showed her Grandfather’s name was Bird Hare. The mystery was solved and I was able to add his name to our family tree.
An important issue when searching genealogy is that of multiple names. Cherokees in the 1880′s and earlier did not use surnames such as the Europeans and Americans. The name that one was known by could change as they grew older and this was a part of the culture to change names as one changed or personality changed or certain happenings in life gave a name change. Thus one could be known by many names.
Another name problem was the person writing down the information would phonetically spell the name. Most Cherokees did not read and write English, so the error would be passed down generation by generation. A good example would be the names Ummerteskee, Ahmadeske and Askwater that are the same person. Ummerteskee is the modern spelling of the name and is now known as a surname, Ahmadeske is the phonetic spelling of the name and Askwater is the English translation of the Name with a literal translation of He Asks for Water.
So the name is everything and one must look in the right place and have the right spelling. Finally if one still cannot find that ancestor then perhaps that family story was just that – a family story.
Preface of the National Archives Records Group of the BIA Microfilm No 75 Housed in Ft Worth Texas pg 1
Wright, Muriel H. A Guide to the Indian Tribes of Oklahoma. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. 1968
Garrick Bailey and Roberta Glenn Bailey, “Redbird Smith,” in Encyclopedia of North American Indians, ed. Frederick E. Hoxie (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996).
The Authors own Cherokee Genealogy Research