U.S. Congress: Excerpt from the Dawes Severalty Act; Passed into Law on February 8, 1887

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U.S. Congress
Excerpt from the Dawes Severalty Act; Passed into Law on February 8, 1887

Available at University of Denver: Sturm College of Law (Web site)

"The Indian may now become a free man; free from the thralldom of the tribe; freed from the domination of the reservation system; free to enter into the body of our citizens. This bill may therefore be considered as the Magna Carta of the Indians of our country."
—Alice Fletcher, leader of the "Friends of the Indian"

Conflict between various Native American tribes and white settlers had been ongoing since the 1600s. The American Revolution (1775–83) gave America a new government after the colonies battled to achieve independence from Great Britain. That federal government had to address how to convince tribes in the Northwest to leave their homeland so white settlers could move in.

Several years and many battles later, the Treaty of Greenville (1795) was signed. This treaty established a boundary dividing Native American land from white settlement land. According to the agreement, in exchange for necessities such as blankets, cooking utensils, and animals used for food, Native Americans gave up their land in eastern and southern Ohio as well as portions in Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. Almost immediately, settlers ignored the boundary and began settling on Native American land, and the U.S. government did nothing about the situation. In 1800, William Henry Harrison (1773–1841) became governor of Indiana and began aggressively pursuing claim to Native American land. In 1809, he secured more than 2.5 million acres (10,000 square kilometers) of Native American land in that territory, the particulars of which were outlined in the Treaty of Fort Wayne. Harrison managed to strike this deal between the Native Americans by agreeing to pay them two cents per acre.

The Treaty of Fort Wayne was in direct conflict with the Treaty of Greenville. Angered by this breach of contract, the Native Americans formed a confederacy (a group made of members from various tribes). Its leader was Shawnee chief Tecumseh (c. 1768–1813), who later was killed in the War of 1812 (1812–14). Tecumseh called upon Harrison to void the new treaty, but Harrison stood firm. While Tecumseh was in the south scouting for more tribes to join and support the confederacy in 1811, Harrison marched against the confederacy and beat them in the Battle of Tippecanoe. Among those defeated was Tecumseh's brother, Tenskwatawa (c. 1768–1837).

Tecumseh sought revenge by joining the side of the British in the War of 1812. Unfortunately for him and his tribes, the great warrior's death in battle allowed the government to develop a policy for removing Native Americans from what little land they had left. By 1860, most had been relocated across the Mississippi River. They were forced onto reservations, land set aside by the federal government for Native Americans to inhabit.

Few of the tribes went willingly or peacefully, and the Great Plains region was the location of hundreds of skirmishes and battles that together became known as the Plains Indian Wars (1866–90). Never before had American troops faced such persistent and skilled opponents. The government underestimated the strength and determination of the Native Americans, and the process of assimilating them (integrating them into a foreign or different culture) proved more challenging than had been imagined.

The 1880s were years of Native American reform. Whereas the government was content to force tribes onto reservations and let them figure out a new way of life on their own, many American citizens were not. These citizens organized into associations and rights groups and worked together toward two goals. The first was to persuade the government to pass legislation that would protect and help Native Americans assimilate. The second was to pick up where the government's efforts left off.

By 1871, it had become clear to everyone that sending tribes to live on reservations was not a successful solution to the government's dilemma. Some Native Americans realized immediately that their traditional way of life was no longer an option. They did what they could to make the most of their situation by learning to farm. Some found work on the reservations as police or judges; others worked beyond the reservations in logging camps, railroads, and mines. These families converted to Christianity and sent their children to school. They did their best to assimilate.

Many Native Americans, however, refused to accept what the government was handing them. They would not give up their spiritual beliefs. They refused to learn to farm, and they had no desire to become "civilized." To most members of white society, Native Americans were considered primitive, or uncivilized, because they did not share society's values and norms. For example, settlers were Christian; Native Americans were not. Settlers walked around fully clothed in public; Native Americans sometimes did, but not always. Settlers lived in log homes; Native Americans lived in teepees that could be easily disassembled to move on when weather and food required it of them. Eating habits, spiritual rituals, customs and celebrations—all of these were very different between the two cultures. Among those who held onto their traditions were the older warriors who had fought the government and lost. Bitter and resentful, these once-honored fighters and chiefs found reservation life lonely and miserable. Clearly, the government understood that reservations were not the path to Native American independence.

Most rights activists had good intentions; they truly wanted to help "Americanize" these primitive "savages." In addition to being considered uncivilized, Native Americans were portrayed in white society as savages. This stereotype was upheld by the leading adventure writers of the day, such as James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), who wrote the novel The Last of the Mohicans. In that novel, he called Native Americans "savages," as well as "murderers" who drank the blood of their "victims." Add to that eyewitness accounts from soldiers who had battled the Native Americans, and it is clear why activists believed someone needed to save the souls of this culture. The best way to achieve their goals, they believed, was to convert the Native Americans to Christianity, give them U.S. citizenship, and allow them to own their own land rather than to live on reservations as a group.

Despite their intentions, these activists failed to take into consideration that tribes had never known anything but communal (group) living. Everything they did—every ritual, ceremony, routine—was done as a group. To separate families from their support system would surely serve only to undermine their cultural values. It would remove from them any sense of independence they had as a race.

The activists may have overlooked this aspect of their plan, but government officials did not. They were completely aware that the separation of tribes would mean a decrease in the amount of power they held. Less power for the Native Americans meant more power for the federal government in its efforts to encourage assimilation. When it became clear that the reservation system was not working as planned, officials knew they had to come up with another program.

The answer came to them via U.S. senator Henry L. Dawes (1816–1903), a Republican from Massachusetts, who sponsored a bill called the Dawes Severalty Act. (Severalty means individual ownership.) Also known as the General Allotment Act (allotment refers to land set aside for a specific purpose), this law would guarantee each Native American a plot of land and full U.S. citizenship. But in order to get the land, tribe members would be required to give up their legal standing as a tribe. Citizenship would not be granted for twenty-five years, so for that quarter of a decade, they would have no individual legal protection, nor would they have protection through tribal ties.

The Dawes Severalty Act was passed on February 8, 1887.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from the Dawes Severalty Act:

  • The land the government "gave" to the Native Americans was not the government's to give. It is the same land it took from the tribes.
  • Reformers supported the act, but so did railroads and other businesses. Any surplus (leftover) reservation lands would be sold if the bill was passed into law. The lands could be bought for little money and turned into immediate profit for businesses.
  • Many people genuinely believed they were doing the Native Americans a favor by forcing them to abandon the only way of life they had ever known. It never occurred to them that their new way of life was not best for everyone.
  • One of the advantages for Native Americans under the Dawes Act was full citizenship. But Native Americans had lived in America longer than any of the settlers who were forcing them off the land.

Excerpt from the Dawes Severalty Act

An Act to provide for the allotment of lands in severalty to Indians on the various reservations, and to extend the protection of the laws of the United States and the Territories over the Indians, and for other purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That in all cases where any tribe or band of Indians has been, or shall hereafter be, located upon any reservation created for their use, either by treaty stipulation or by virtue of an act of Congress or executive order setting apart the same for their use, the President of the United States be, and he hereby is, authorized, whenever in his opinion any reservation or any part thereof of such Indians is advantageous for agricultural and grazing purposes, to cause said reservation, or any part thereof, to be surveyed, or resurveyed if necessary, and to allot the lands in said reservation in severalty to any Indian located thereon in quantities as follows:

To each head of a family, one-quarter of a section;

To each single person over eighteen years of age, one-eighth of a section;

To each orphan child under eighteen years of age, one-eighth of a section; and

To each other single person under eighteen years now living, or who may be born prior to the date of the order of the President directing an allotment of the lands embraced in any reservation, one-sixteenth of a section…

Sec. 5. That upon the approval of the allotments provided for in this act by the Secretary of the Interior, he shall cause patents to issue therefore in the name of the allottees, which patents shall be of the legal effect, and declare that the United States does and will hold the land thus allotted, for the period of twenty-five years, in trust for the sole use and benefit of the Indian to whom such allotment shall have been made, or, in case of his decease, of his heirs according to the laws of the State or Territory where such land is located, and that at the expiration of said period the United States will convey the same by patent to said Indian, or his heirs as aforesaid, in fee, discharged of said trust and free of all charge or incumbrance whatsoever:

Sec. 6. That upon the completion of said allotments and the patenting of the lands to said allottees, each and every member of the respective bands or tribes of Indians to whom allotments have been made shall have the benefit of and be subject to the laws, both civil and criminal, of the State or Territory in which they may reside; and no Territory shall pass or enforce any law denying any such Indian within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law. And every Indian born within the territorial limits of the United States to whom allotments shall have been made under the provisions of this act, or under any law or treaty, and every Indian born within the territorial limits of the United States who has voluntarily taken up, within said limits, his residence separate and apart from any tribe of Indians therein, and has adopted the habits of civilized life is hereby declared to be a citizen of the United States, and is entitled to all the rights, privileges, and immunities of such citizens, whether said Indian has been or not, by birth or otherwise, a member of any tribe of Indians within the territorial limits of the United States without in any manner affecting the right of any such Indian to tribal or other property. …

Sec. 8. That the provisions of this act shall not extend to the territory occupied by the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles, and Osage, Miamies and Peorias, and Sacs and Foxes, in the Indian Territory, nor to any of the reservations of the Seneca Nation of New York Indians in the State of New York, nor to that strip of territory in the State of Nebraska adjoining the Sioux Nation on the south added by executive order. …

What happened next …

The Dawes Act was enforced gradually; reservations did not disappear completely. And although some specific tribes were excluded from the law, the provisions under the Dawes Act eventually included them as well beginning in 1893.

The Dawes Act was a disaster. Native Americans were not equipped to live life in individual family groups. From the beginning of time, they lived as a community and depended upon the various strengths and abilities of each tribe member to survive and grow. White settlers would have been thrilled to be given 160 acres of land, but the allotment meant nothing but heartache and difficulty for most Native Americans. Many of them, unable to farm, sold their allotment to white neighbors.

Those who did make an effort to learn to farm often failed because they had no formal training and no money or credit to buy the machinery necessary to run a farm. They were not allowed to use their land as collateral (something of value pledged to assure payment of debt), and the government had set aside only $30,000 for machinery, livestock, seed, and other farming necessities. The Dawes Act had neither the financial backing nor the personnel available to train the Native Americans, so success would have been surprising.

In addition to the increased obstacles to assimilation, Native Americans lost much of their land under the Dawes Act. When it was passed in 1886, tribes owned about 138 million acres of land. By 1900, they owned just 78 million acres; the total would dwindle to 48 million by 1934. The surplus land was sold to the highest bidder at astoundingly low prices. Despite its obvious problems, the Dawes Act remained in effect until 1934, when it was repealed by the government.

In an effort to repair the damages done by the Dawes Act, the Indian Reorganization Act (also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act or the Indian New Deal) was passed in 1934. Under the new law, the allotment program was discontinued, and Native Americans were encouraged to re-form their tribes. They were given the right to form their own governments and rule themselves, and they were allowed to form tribal corporations. In addition, the federal government set aside money to be used as loans for college or career-training expenses for qualifying Native Americans.

The Reorganization Act helped Native Americans become more self-sufficient. Although they would never be able to return completely to their traditional way of life, with assistance from the government, social programs, and concerned citizens, they were able to make the new law work for them.

The Merriam Report

In 1926, the federal government requested that the Institute for Government Research conduct a thorough investigation into the economic and social conditions of the Native Americans. Director Lewis Merriam and his staff presented officials with a detailed report on their findings. The Merriam Report found that, overall, Native Americans lived in poverty. They were disease ridden and lived in unsanitary conditions. Because they had no understanding of money management, they had no concept of the value of money or land. Their lack of knowledge bred in them an attitude of apathy (not caring one way or the other), and there was no evidence that they were adjusting to their new economic or social conditions. Finally, the report stated that the Native Americans were suffering in their new lifestyles and were very dissatisfied.

Although the Dawes Act was not wholly responsible for the conditions and circumstances reported, it was given as one of the main causes. The Merriam Report indicated that giving the Native Americans land without instruction or training on how to use it did nothing to decrease their economic independence on the federal government. It did, in fact, increase it.

The report recommended improved living and working conditions, better recordkeeping, bicultural and bilingual (multilanguage) education. The general message was that the root of the problem lay in imposing white cultural values on the Native American race.

Did you know …

  • Under the initial proposal for the Indian Reorganization Act, Native Americans would have had the opportunity to buy back some of the surplus land that had been taken from them in the Dawes Act. That clause was deleted from the bill before it was passed, and severe restrictions were placed on tribes' ability to buy back their land. This was just one more way the U.S. government could maintain control of Native Americans.
  • Under the Dawes Act, surplus land in Colorado sold for $7.27 per acre in 1910, the least expensive price of any land available in the United States. The most expensive land sold that year was in the state of Washington, where it sold for $41.87 an acre.
  • Some tribes became landless as individual Native Americans sold their allotted land to white settlers. By 1954, sixty-one tribes had been dismantled by the federal government.

Consider the following …

  • On whom do you think the Dawes Act was hardest in Native American tribes: men, women, or children? Why?
  • Predict what might have happened to the Native Americans had the Merriam Report never been published.
  • What provisions could have been added to the Dawes Act to make it more effective?

For More Information


Andrist, Ralph K. The Long Death: The Last Days of the Plains Indians. New York: Macmillan, 1964. Reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. Philadelphia: H. C. Carey & I. Lea, 1826. Multiple reprints.

Hansen, Emma I. Memory and Vision: Arts, Culture, and Lives of the Plains Peoples. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.

O'Neill, Terry, ed. The Indian Reservation System. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2002.


"The Dawes Act." NebraskaStudies.org.http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0600/frameset_reset.html?http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0600/stories/0601_0200.html (accessed on July 20, 2006).

"Dawes Severalty Act." University of Denver: Sturm College of Lawhttp://www.law.du.edu/russell/lh/alh/docs/dawesact.html (accessed on August 11, 2006).

Harmon, Alexandra. "American Indians and Land Monopolies in the Gilded Age." The Journal of American History.http://www.historycooperative.org/cgi-bin/justtop.cgi?act=justtop&url=http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jah/90.1/harmon.html (accessed on July 20, 2006).

"History of Allotment, Part 2." Indian Land Tenure Foundation.http://www.indianlandtenure.org/ILTFallotment/introduction/introII.htm (accessed on July 20, 2006).

Library of Congress. "Immigration: Native Americans." American Memory.http://memory.loc.gov/learn/features/immig/native_american.html (accessed on July 20, 2006).

Individual ownership.
Examined and measured.
One-quarter of a section:
160 acres.
One-eighth of a section:
80 acres.
One-sixteenth of a section:
40 acres.
Ownership rights.
Native Americans.
Property held by one party for another party.
People who inherit the belongings of another.
Mentioned before.
Mortgage against a property, which prevents owner from legally owning it.
Legal authority.
Civilized life:
A life that includes the values and accepted behaviors of white society.
Legal protections.

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U.S. Congress: Excerpt from the Dawes Severalty Act; Passed into Law on February 8, 1887

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U.S. Congress: Excerpt from the Dawes Severalty Act; Passed into Law on February 8, 1887