Indian General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) (1887)

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Indian General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) (1887)

Steven J. Gunn

Excerpt from the Indian General Allotment Act

In all cases where any tribe or band of Indians has been or shall be located upon any reservation ... the President shall be authorized to cause the same or any part thereof to be surveyed ... whenever in his opinion such reservation or any part may be advantageously utilized for agricultural or grazing purposes by such Indians, and to cause allotment to each Indian located thereon to be made in such areas as in his opinion may be for their best interest not to exceed eighty acres of agricultural or one hundred and sixty acres of grazing land to any one Indian.

The Indian General Allotment Act of 1887 (24 Stat. 388), also known as the Dawes Act after its leading sponsor, Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, authorized the president to divide Indian reservations into separate tracts of land for individual tribal members. These tracts were to be used for farming and cattle grazing. The act was implemented without the consent or consultation of the tribes. Native-American heads of household received allotments of 160 acres, while single adults received 80 acres and minors 40 acres. Double those amounts were provided if the land was suitable only for grazing. Married Native women were ineligible to receive land. The act was amended in 1891 to treat all Native-American adults equally, regardless of their sex or familial status. However, the size of the allotments was cut in half.

The act also authorized the government to negotiate with Indian tribes for the sale of all tribal lands remaining after allotments were made to individual members. The government often paid less than $1.00 per acre for these so-called "surplus" lands, which it then sold to non-Native homesteaders and corporations.

The Dawes Act applied to most, but not all, tribes. Many tribes not covered by the act were subjected to allotment by later acts of Congress, such as the Curtis Act of 1898, which authorized the allotment of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek reservations in Oklahoma.


The Dawes Act had two primary purposes. The first was to "civilize" the Native peoples. Those sympathetic to the Indians, mainly philanthropists from the East, believed that the reservation system, in which most tribes held their lands communally, was preventing the economic and cultural development of the Native peoples. By the late nineteenth century most tribal economies were in dire straits, with indigenous people living in abject poverty. The Friends of the Indians, an influential group of philanthropists and reformers in the Northeast, believed that if individual Indians were given plots of land to farm, they would flourish and become integrated into the American economy and culture as middle-class farmers. In the Report of the Secretary of the Interior of 1886, Senator Dawes said he wanted the government to:

put [the Indian] on his own land, furnish him with a little habitation, with a plow, and a rake, and show him how to go to work to use them .... The only way [to civilize the Indian] is to lead him out into the sunshine, and tell him what the sunshine is for, and what the rain comes for, and when to put his seed in the ground.

The forced allotment of tribal lands was consistent with other government policies to assimilate the Native peoples into American society, including the forced education of Indian children in off-reservation boarding schools and the suppression of Native religions, languages, and cultural practices.

The second major purpose of the Dawes Act was to gain use of Native-American lands for non-Natives. The act called for breaking up large tribal landholdings to enable settlement of the West by non-Natives. The act secured only a part of the tribes' lands to the Indians, opening the remainder to settlers.


Approximately 41 million acres of tribal reservation land were allotted under the Dawes Act. The act established a period of twenty-five years during which the U.S. held title to the allotted lands in "trust" for the individual Indian owners. The government legally owned the lands, but it allowed the Native peoples to use them. The government's intention was to protect new Native landowners. During the trust period, states could not tax the Natives' lands, nor could the Indians sell them. The latter restriction protected Indians from exploitation by land-hungry settlers. Once the trust period expired, the government delivered title to the lands to the Native peoples. With a free and clear title, the Native peoples became citizens of the U.S. and of the states in which they resided. They were then subject to state law, and their lands were subject to state taxation.

Some of these provisions were later amended. For example, in 1906 Congress authorized the president immediately to give land titles to individual Indians who were deemed competent to manage their own lands. Further, in 1924 Congress enacted a law making all Native peoples U.S. citizens, regardless of whether or not they had been given title to their lands.


The Dawes Act was one of the first acts of Congress to deal with nearly all tribes at once, and to alter their rights without their consent. Previously, the U.S. government dealt with tribes individually through treaties. In most treaties the tribes agreed to relinquish large sections of their territory while reserving portions of their lands for themselves. In exchange, the U.S. government promised to protect the tribes and to allow them to live permanently on their remaining lands, or reservations. (The term "reservation" comes from the treaty-based process in which Native-American tribes reserved a part of their land to themselves.) However, in 1871, Congress terminated this treaty-making process. In the 1880s it began enacting comprehensive legislation that applied to all tribes without their consent.

The Supreme Court explained the basis for this new approach to Indian policy when it ruled in the case of Kagama v. U.S. (1886) that Congress has complete power to regulate Native-American affairs. The Court stated that Indian tribes, "once powerful," were now "weak and diminished in numbers," economically and politically dependent on the United States. As a result, the Court said, the government had a duty to protect them, and with that duty came the power to regulate all aspects of their affairs. Historians have argued that most Native peoples opposed breaking up the tribal system but that the U.S. government was indifferent to the Natives' own wishes.

Other clauses in the U.S. Constitution have been used to justify the government's power over Indian tribes: Article 1, section 8, clause 3, giving Congress the power "to regulate commerce with ... the Indian tribes," and Article 2, section 2, clause 2, giving the president the power to make treaties.


Historians and other observers agree that the Dawes Act was disastrous for the Indians. Most allotted lands were not suitable for agriculture. The government made only minimal efforts to provide farming equipment to the indigenous peoples. Its annual appropriations for that purpose were often no more than $10.00 per Native. Many Indians with lands suitable for farming or grazing lacked the resources or training to succeed at those pursuits and so leased their land to non-Natives. The government often forced Indians to lease their lands, whenever in its judgment the Natives were not using lands productively. These leases were seldom lucrative for the Indians and thus did not help Natives to become self-sufficient.

The primary effect of the Dawes Act was a severe reduction in the quantity of Indian landholdings, from 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million acres in 1934, the year Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which ended allotment. Most lands were lost through the sale of "surplus" lands by the government to non-Native homesteaders. In addition, many Indians who had received title to their lands sold their allotments to non-Natives, often for less than market value. Others were unable to pay state property taxes and lost their allotments in tax foreclosures. In all, the Indians lost 90 million acres. Of the lands that remained, 20 million acres were desert or semidesert lands unfit for most profitable uses.

The Indian Reorganization Act sought to restore and protect the diminished land bases of Native-American tribes. The act extended indefinitely the trust period for existing Indian allotments. The government restored "surplus" lands that had not already been sold to homesteaders. The act also authorized the government to acquire other lands for the tribes. Today, tribal landholdings in the continental U.S. total over 54 million acres, the vast majority of which is communally owned by tribes, not individual Natives.

Although ownership of most Indian lands is now consolidated in tribal governments, allotment has had a lasting impact. Many reservations are checkerboards of Indian and non-Native lands. John Collier, former commissioner of Indian affairs, testified before Congress in 1934 that "on many reservations the Indian-owned parcels are mere islands within a sea of white-owned property" (73d Cong., 2d Sess., 1618, 1934). This remains true today. Another legacy of allotment is the division of allotments among the many heirs of original allottees. Inherited shares are often less than one-hundredth of a single allotment, making it difficult for heirs to agree how to use allotments.

The lasting effects of the Dawes Act contribute to the difficulties many modern tribes face in managing their tribal lands, developing their economies, and maintaining their communities and cultures.

See also: Indian Civil Rights Act; Indian Gaming Regulatory Act; Indian Removal Act; Indian Reorganization act of 1934.


Carlson, Leonard A. Indians, Bureaucrats, and Land: The Dawes Act and the Decline of Indian Farming. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Deloria, Vine, Jr., and Clifford M. Lytle. American Indians, American Justice. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Hoxie, Frederick E. A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 18801920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

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

Prucha, Francis Paul, ed. Americanizing the American Indian: Writings by the "Friends of the Indian" 18801900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

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

Reclamation of Tribal Lands

During the 1960s and 1970s, Native American activists began making efforts to reclaim native lands ceded as the result of the Dawes Act and individual treaties. The Cayuga Indians, for example, had ceded 64,000 acres of land to the State of New York in 1795 under the Cayuga Ferry Treaty. Because the treaty was not ratified by Congress, it was illegal, and in 1980 the tribe sued the State of New York for the return of the property. After a court battle that lasted a full twenty years, New York was finally ordered to pay the Cayuga tribe $248 million, which is the largest award ever in a case involving tribal land claims.

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Indian General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) (1887)

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