Dawes General Allotment Act

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DAWES GENERAL ALLOTMENT ACT. Named after its chief sponsor, Republican Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, the Dawes Act of 1887 represented an attempt to speed the assimilation of Native Americans into U.S. society. The act proposed to break up tribal communities, which were seen as impediments to the civilizing process, and redistribute communal lands to individual Indians. In the view of reformers and government supporters of the policy, distributing lands "in severalty" (that is, to each member) would promote individual initiative and enable Indians to become self-supporting. The act provided for the issuing of 160 acres of land to each head of household, 80 acres to each single adult and orphan under the age of eighteen, and 40 acres to each minor child. The act also stipulated that the government would hold allotted lands in trust for twenty-five years, thereby preventing them from being taxed or sold and protecting the allottee's interests. At the end of this period the allottee would receive a fee-simple patent to the land. After a reservation had been allotted surplus land would be purchased by the government and sold to homesteaders.

Although conceived primarily by eastern reformers, the Dawes Act also responded to the land hunger of western states and settlers. Indian tribes resisted the new law, but the government applied pressure to numerous tribes to accept its principles. Between 1887 and 1934 the government allotted 118 out of 213 reservations. During this period the Indian estate shrank from 138 million acres to 52 million acres through the cession of surplus land and the alienation of land after the end of the trust period.

Overall, the act failed to convert Indians into self-sufficient farmers. On many reservations allotments proved too small to be commercially viable, and heirship proceedings following the deaths of the original allottees often left Indians with scattered and fragmented landholdings. Ironically, the act also failed to destroy tribal communities on most reservations. After its failures were documented by the Meriam Report, issued by the Department of the Interior in 1928, the Dawes Act was finally repudiated as federal Indian policy by the Indian Reorganization Act, passed by Congress in 1934.


Hoxie, Frederick E. The Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

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


See alsoIndian Land Cessions ; Indian Reorganization Act .