Dawes Severalty Act

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Over the first century of its existence, the United States government tried various strategies to solve what it often called the "Indian problem"—the persistence of Native American communities in the face of expanding Euroamerican settlement. Early policies were informed by a belief that Euroamericans and Indians could not coexist. Initially, the federal government sought to remove Indians from lands Euroamericans desired. As Euroamerican expanded to every part of U.S. territory, policy shifted from removal to that of creating reservations, small islands of Indian land surrounded by a sea of Euroamerican settlement. Pressure grew in the late nineteenth century both to open up reservations to settlers and to find a way for Indians and Euroamericans to coexist peacefully. Policy makers and reformers alike began to promote allotment in severalty—the division of Indian lands into individually owned parcels—and the sale of leftover lands as a final solution to the "Indian problem." These ideas were incorporated into the 1887 General Allotment Act.

The General Allotment Act sought to impose private property ownership on Native Americans by dividing their reservations into individual farms. Its more familiar name, the Dawes Act, pays tribute to Massachusetts Senator Henry L. Dawes, who promoted the legislation. The Dawes Act fit into a broader federal policy of assimilating Indians into the American mainstream, and it dovetailed with government-sponsored education programs and Christian mission work in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Although the ideas underlying the assimilation policy had long existed, Congress and reformers alike showed renewed interest in assimilation in the aftermath of military conflicts like the Battle of Little Big Horn (1876) and the Nez Perce conflict (1877). They sought a more humane way to coexist with (or dispossess) Indians. Many reformers and politicians believed that private property was essential to what they considered "civilized" life and thought Indians were doomed to perish if they held land collectively. Other supporters of the legislation believed that Indians controlled more land than they could or would use productively, and these supporters wanted Indians' holdings reduced to family farm-sized parcels. The Dawes Act became law because it incorporated both humanitarian and expansionist ideals.

Under the act's terms, the president used his discretion to identify which reservations would undergo allotment in severalty. The original legislation specified varying amounts based on a person's age and family status, but it was amended in 1891 to provide at least eighty acres to each person. The federal government could purchase so-called "surplus" land—anything remaining after the allotments were made-but the allotments themselves were to be held in trust for twenty-five years. At the end of the trust period, Indians would receive fee patents—full ownership rights—to their lands. Subsequent amendments eroded the trust period and permitted allottees to lease or sell their lands. Between the sale of "surplus" land and the sale of allotments, many tribes lost substantial portions of their reservations.

Scholars generally agree that the Dawes Act was poorly implemented and that it failed to achieve its assimilationist goals. In addition, some tribes successfully resisted allotment, while others escaped it because their land was of little interest to non-Indians. Congress officially overturned the allotment policy in 1934 and indefinitely extended the trust period on existing allotments. Since then, tribes have actively confronted the problems of checkerboarding (the intermixing of Indian and non-Indian lands) and fractionation (the division of inherited trust allotments into uselessly small shares).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Dawes Act has featured prominently in a new battleground: the courtroom. The class action lawsuit Cobell v. Norton (filed in 1996) involves individual accounts that were established primarily to hold revenue generated from the lease and sale of Indian land allotments. The plaintiffs charge that the United States has mismanaged individual Indian moneys and cannot provide a proper accounting of the funds. Although the Dawes Act was intended to be the ultimate solution to the "Indian Problem," it has instead generated ongoing conflict.


Greenwald, Emily. Reconfiguring the Reservation: The Nez Perces, Jicarilla Apaches, and the Dawes Act. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

McDonnell, Janet A. The Dispossession of the American Indian, 1887–1934. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Meyer, Melissa L. The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicity and Dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinaabe Reservation, 1889–1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Otis, D.S. The Dawes Act and the Allotment of Indian Lands. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973 [1937].

Emily Greenwald

See also:Indian Removal and Response.