General Allotment Act

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General Allotment Act

United States 1887


The General Allotment Act, or Dawes Severalty Act, was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Grover Cleveland in 1887 to give formally (or "allot") land to individual Native Americans. This federal policy would replace the existing communal tribal landholdings that historically had been a part of Native American culture with individual ownership of land. The allotments were usually 65 hectares (160 acres). U.S. Senator Henry Laurens Dawes sponsored the bill that intended to incorporate tribal members into the "civilized" white man's world, a world declared to be based on freedom, individualism, opportunity, and progress. The act stated that allotments could only be sold after a statutory period of 25 years, and all surplus lands not allotted to the Native Americans were open to public sale. Within a few decades following the passage of the act, whites owned the vast majority of what had been tribal land. The act was designed to absorb Native Americans into the society of the United States but instead contributed to the further decline of their populations, customs, and well-being.


  • 1867: United States purchases Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.
  • 1872: The title of Claude Monet's painting Impression: Sunrise gives a name to a new movement in art.
  • 1877: Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake debuts.
  • 1880: Cologne Cathedral, begun 634 years earlier, is completed. With twin spires 515 feet (157 m) high, it is the tallest structure in the world, and will remain so until 1889, when it is surpassed by the Eiffel Tower. (The previous record for the world's tallest structure lasted much longer—for about 4,430 years following the building of Cheops's Great Pyramid in c. 2550 B.C.)
  • 1883: Brooklyn Bridge is completed.
  • 1885: German engineer Karl Friedrich Benz builds the first true automobile.
  • 1887: Heinrich Hertz proves the existence of electromagnetic waves, which are propagated at the speed of light.
  • 1887: Thomas Edison invents the first motor-driven phonograph.
  • 1887: John Emerich Edward Dalbert-Acton, a leader of the opposition to the papal dogma of infallibility, observes, in a letter to Cambridge University professor Mandell Creighton, that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
  • 1889: The 986-foot (300.5-m) Eiffel Tower, part of the Paris exposition, becomes the tallest structure in the world. It will remain so until the Chrysler Building surpasses it in 1930.
  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.
  • 1897: In the midst of a nationwide depression, Mrs. Bradley Martin, daughter of Carnegie Steel magnate Henry Phipps, throws a lavish party at New York's recently opened Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where she has a suite decorated to look like Versailles. Her 900 guests, dressed in Louis XV period costumes, consume sixty cases of champagne.

Event and Its Context

As early as 1792 President George Washington's secretary of war, Henry Knox, stated that individual ownership of land by Native Americans would help convert them to a "civilized" lifestyle. Lewis Cass, U.S. secretary of war in 1831, and T. Hartley Crawford, U.S. commissioner of Indian affairs in 1838, continued to emphasize the adoption of "severalty in property" (that is, individual ownership of land) as a way to eliminate the tribalism of the Native Americans and to incorporate them into the white man's way of life.

Local and regional laws and treaties emphasizing individual ownership of land for Native Americans were common in the early years of the United States. By 1885 the government had thousands of these "lands-in-severalty" agreements for various tribes. The predominant attitude of American leaders during this period can be summed up with the words of Carl Schurz, U.S. secretary of the interior in 1877: "The enjoyment and pride of the individual ownership of property [is] one of the most effective civilizing agencies."

Winning the Battle, Losing the War

Before 1870 many Native American lands had been guaranteed to remain under the control of the various tribes within the United States. However, unscrupulous whites (sometimes in the official guise of government bodies) had frequently violated these treaties whenever anything of value was found on or under these lands.

A famous example of this treaty-breaking practice occurred in the Black Hills of South Dakota when white miners were lured to the area in the early 1870s by rumors of valuable minerals. When disputes erupted between the miners and the Native Americans, the federal government tried to buy the land from the tribes. The Native Americans—who had been guaranteed the land by the Treaty of 1868—refused the offer. In 1876 the Seventh Cavalry Regiment, under the leadership of George Armstrong Custer, entered the land, only to be massacred by warriors from the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne tribes. Although they won the battle, the Native Americans eventually lost the war as they were killed, imprisoned, ejected from the country, or evicted to the Indian Territory (now called Oklahoma).


The years following the Civil War (1861-1865) brought the first concerted effort to force private land ownership upon the Native Americans. They possessed little power by the end of the 1870s and posed little threat to white settlers in the West. Native American treaties to which the federal government had formerly agreed were rarely honored.

Some humanitarian organizations tried to force the government to support existing treaties, maintain the tribes' customs and lifestyles, assure the tribes' right to hold community land, and to protect individual Native Americans against white confrontations. A few organizations, such as the Boston Indian Citizenship Association, which included Massachusetts governor John Davis Long, poet and novelist Helen Hunt Jackson (originally from Massachusetts), and Massachusetts senator Henry L. Dawes, formed with the purpose of helping the Native Americans. Jackson had written the book, A Century of Dishonor, that rejected U.S.-Native American policy. Other noted organizations that generally sided with the Native Americans were the Indian Defence Association, the Woman's National Indian Association, and the Indian Rights Association. Dr. Thomas A. Bland, editor of The Council Fire, regularly voiced his opinions against allotment in severalty. Even though such organizations were against dividing up land in severalty, they often had their own agendas, such as Christianizing and educating the tribes in the ways of the white man.

Reformers tried to incorporate Native Americans into mainstream America. During the 1870s such organizations attempted to speed up the assimilation of Native Americans by white society. An important part of the assimilation was the transfer of tribal land ownership to individual ownership. A popular theory of the time held that Native Americans would be assimilated more quickly if they were owners of land and encouraged to pursue civilized agricultural pursuits as opposed to their traditional pursuits, such as hunting, fishing, and gathering. Alice Fletcher, a prominent ethnographer (a scientist who studies the customs of cultures) and leader of a Boston group called Friends of the Indians, felt that private land ownership by the Indians would allow the Native American to be a free person without any need for a tribe to secure his future.

Allotment in Severalty

The policy of allotment of land in severalty would divide up all Native American lands so that individuals would own individual parcels. Major John Wesley Powell, leader of the Bureau of Ethnology within the Smithsonian Institution and an authority on Native Americans, said that creating individual property for Native Americans was necessary for them to advance along with the rest of the country.

During the Lake Mohonk Conference, an annual symposium of the Friends of the Indian, participants concluded that the organization of Native Americans in tribes was one of the major factors that prevented them from achieving a "civilized" culture. Conference attendees felt every action should be taken to eliminate tribal organizations. The editor of the Christian Union urged the rejection of the tribal system because it had only led to barbarism over the years. General S. C. Armstrong, principal of the Hampton Normal School, which educated Native Americans, recommended that if an allotment could not be obtained voluntarily, then it should be done without tribal consent. Armstrong felt, as did many whites, that the white man must save the Native Americans, because they could not save themselves.

Dawes and the General Allotment Act

Although Henry Dawes was originally against any type of rapid and forced allotment, he still was in favor of slowly and voluntarily assimilating Native Americans into the American way of life. Without strong convictions, Dawes conceded to the greedy landgrabbers and went along with the majority opinion when the General Allotment Act became national legislation in 1887. The new plan to rescue Native Americans from extinction actually contributed to the elimination of the tribes by parceling out communally owned reservation land to individuals. The law basically provided for the following:

  • Transfer of 160 acres to each family head, 80 acres to each single person over 18 years of age and to each orphan under 18, and 40 acres to each single person under 18
  • Holding of all transferred lands in governmental trust for 25 years, during which time it could not be sold or mortgaged
  • A period of four years in which Native Americans could make their land selections; failure to select land would result in the choice being made by the government
  • Citizenship granted to any Native American who abandoned his tribe and adopted the "civilized" way


The declared objectives of the General Allotment Act were to enable the Native Americans to become self-supporting farmers and to be assimilated into the culture of the whites. The government hoped to incorporate the Native Americans into the labor market and make them productive members of society, that is, "civilized taxpayers." However, the act's underlying purpose was to release land to such groups as homesteaders, land companies, and the railroads, and to resettle Native Americans from valuable lands to much-less productive ones.

The act had an underlying goal to individualize and absorb the Native Americans by ending tribal land ownership and replacing it with private, individually owned land. The act was basically a plan to make the Native Americans independent farmers and ranchers by making them individual landholders. It also was intended to break up the reservations where the tribes could shut themselves off from contact with the rest of the country. The intent of the law was to loosen tribal bonds so as to bring the Native Americans under U.S. laws and eventually make them citizens.

The Native American View

The results of the General Allotment Act were less than satisfactory for the Native Americans. It provided for each head of a Native American family to be given 160 acres of farmland or 320 acres of grazing land. The remaining tribal lands were to be declared "surplus" and opened up for whites. Tribal land ownership and tribes themselves were intended to simply disappear. Before the act, the tribes held approximately 150 million acres of land. Within 20 years, two-thirds of their land was gone and the reservation system was nearly destroyed. Whites soon controlled the land that had been allotted to individual Native Americans, who lost much of their land and received inadequate payment for the land they relinquished. Moreover, because most Native Americans were unfamiliar with managing money, the money that they did receive for their land was often quickly spent. Few historians judged the act as successful from the Native American point of view.

The Allotment Act turned out to be a gigantic disaster. In addition to losing their "surplus" tribal land, many Native American families lost their allotted land as well, despite the government's 25-year period of trusteeship. Hundreds of thousands of acres that were left over after the selection of the individual 160-acre allotments were then sold cheaply to land-hungry or land-speculating whites. The Native Americans, then landless and still resisting assimilation, reached their lowest population numbers soon after the turn of the twentieth century.

The White View

Most whites considered the General Allotment Act to be the "Indian Emancipation Act" and felt the "Indian problem" would soon end. Land-hungry citizens of the western states eagerly awaited the passing of the act because excess land that was not needed for the allotment would be opened up for sale. This process resulted in the gain to white men of approximately 90 million acres of tribal land between 1887 and 1934 through the sale of surplus lands and purchases of original allotments.

Several circumstances contributed to the transfer of allotments from Native Americans to whites. The Burke Act of 1906 authorized allotments to be taken out of trust if the individual owner was declared incompetent to manage his own land. When an allotment was taken out of trust, the land became for the first time subject to state and local taxes. It was often sold at a tax sale several years later for unpaid taxes, often without the knowledge of the Native American owner.

Act Administration

The administration of the General Allotment Act failed to help the Native Americans adjust to their new circumstances. The administrators did not consider Native American education and welfare. Many tribal historians feel that the originators of the act failed to consider the possibility that some Native Americans would be unable to farm their allotment because of age, lack of experience, physical disability, or other such circumstance.

The misapplication by the act's administrators was primarily responsible for the unsuccessful result of the General Allotment Act, which was the United States' first systematic effort to provide for Indian welfare. The Native Americans for the most part evolved from a poor land-owning minority to an even poorer landless minority.

Many historians of the American West concur that the policy of breaking up Native American lands into individual allotments had its origin in the General Allotment Act, which was forced through Congress by the combined efforts of land-hungry westerners and moralistic easterners. The injustices thus perpetrated were not corrected to any noticeable degree until the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when reforms were begun with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

Key Players

Dawes, Henry Laurens (1816-1903): Dawes graduated from Yale College in 1839. He became a teacher and edited the newspapers Greenfield Gazette and the North Adams Transcript. He later studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1842, and began to practice law in North Adams, Massachusetts. During the late 1840s and mid-1850s, Dawes was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, the Massachusetts Senate, and the Massachusetts constitutional convention. He was also a district attorney for the western district of Massachusetts. Dawes was a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1857 to 1875, where he served as the chairman on the Committee of Elections, Committee of Appropriations, and Committee of Ways and Means. Dawes was a Republican member of the U.S. Senate from 1875 to 1893, where he served as chairman for the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds and the Committee on Indian Affairs. Dawes served as the chairman of the commission created to administer the tribal affairs of the five "civilized" Tribes of Native Americans in the Indian Territory from 1893 to 1903.



Bruchey, Stuart, ed. The Rape of Indian Lands. New York: Arno Press, 1979.

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

Washburn, Wilcomb E. The Assault on Indian Tribalism: The General Allotment Law (Dawes Act) of 1887.Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1975.

—William Arthur Atkins

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General Allotment Act

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