Dawes Severalty Act 1887

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Dawes Severalty Act 1887


By: Henry Dawes

Date: February 8, 1887

Source: United States Congress. "Dawes Severalty Act of 1887." United States Statutes at Large 24 (1887): 388-391.

About the Author: As a Congressman from Massachusetts, Henry Dawes sponsored the General Allotment Act, also named the Dawes Severalty Act. Dawes was a proponent of property ownership as a means toward the assimilation of Native Americans into U.S. society.


Prior to 1870, the United States government negotiated treaties with the Native American tribes as sovereign nations. Many of these treaties resulted in a reservation system managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. However, as the century came to a close, the handling of Indian affairs began to change. In 1881, Helen Hunt Jackson's book, "A Century of Dishonor" alleged the unfair treatment of Native Americans by the American government. As a result, groups supporting the rights of Native Americans emerged and a movement to help make Native Americans become U.S. citizens began to gain momentum. Other factors created the political climate needed to pass the Dawes Severalty Act. Many tribes, including the Choctaw and Chickasaw, allied with the Confederacy during the American Civil War. As a result, many politicians sought retribution against these tribes. In addition, westward expansion brought on by railroad development, timber companies, and homesteaders pressured the government to reassess its relationship with Native Americans.

The Dawes Severalty Act passed on February 8, 1887 and was billed as a humanitarian reform with the intent to help Native Americans achieve U.S. citizenship. The Act divided tribal property into 160-acre (65-hectare) and 180-acre (73-hectare) land grants that were distributed to members of the tribe. After twenty-five years of cultivating the land as responsible farmers and a certification of competence, the Native Americans would receive full ownership of the land.


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:

Provided, That in case there is not sufficient land in any of said reservations to allot lands to each individual of the classes above named in quantities as above provided, the lands embraced in such reservation or reservations shall be allotted to each individual of each of said classes pro rata in accordance with the provisions of this act: And provided further, That where the treaty or act of Congress setting apart such reservation provides the allotment of lands in severalty in quantities in excess of those herein provided, the President, in making allotments upon such reservation, shall allot the lands to each individual Indian belonging thereon in quantity as specified in such treaty or act: And provided further, That when the lands allotted are only valuable for grazing purposes, an additional allotment of such grazng lands, in quantities as above provided, shall be made to each individual.

SEC. 2. That all allotments set apart under the provisions of this act shall be selected by the Indians, heads of families selecting for their minor children, and the agents shall select for each orphan child, and in such manner as to embrace the improvements of the Indians making the selection. Where the improvements of two or more Indians have been made on the same legal subdivision of land, unless they shall otherwise agree, a provisional line may be run dividing said lands between them, and the amount to which each is entitled shall be equalized in the assignment of the remainder of the land to which they are entitled under his act: Provided, That if any one entitled to an allotment shall fail to make a selection within four years after the President shall direct that allotments may be made on a particular reservation, the Secretary of the Interior may direct the agent of such tribe or band, if such there be, and if there be no agent, then a special agent appointed for that purpose, to make a selection for such Indian, which selection shall be allotted as in cases where selections are made by the Indians, and patents shall issue in like manner.

SEC. 3. That the allotments provided for in this act shall be made by special agents appointed by the President for such purpose, and the agents in charge of the respective reservations on which the allotments are directed to be made, under such rules and regulations as the Secretary of the Interior may from time to time prescribe, and shall be certified by such agents to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, in duplicate, one copy to be retained in the Indian Office and the other to be transmitted to the Secretary of the Interior for his action, and to be deposited in the General Land Office.

SEC. 4. That where any Indian not residing upon a reservation, or for whose tribe no reservation has been provided by treaty, act of Congress, or executive order, shall make settlement upon any surveyed or unsurveyed lands of the United States not otherwise appropriated, he or she shall be entitled, upon application to the local land-office for the district in which the lands are located, to have the same allotted to him or her, and to his or her children, in quantities and manner as provided in this act for Indians residing upon reservations; and when such settlement is made upon unsurveyed lands, the grant to such Indians shall be adjusted upon the survey of the lands so as to conform thereto; and patents shall be issued to them for such lands in the manner and with the restrictions as herein provided. And the fees to which the officers of such local land-office would have been entitled had such lands been entered under the general laws for the disposition of the public lands shall be paid to them, from any moneys in the Treasury of the United States not otherwise appropriated, upon a statement of an account in their behalf for such fees by the Commissioner of the General Land Office, and a certification of such account to the Secretary of the Treasury by the Secretary of the Interior.

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: Provided, That the President of the United States may in any case in his discretion extend the period. And if any conveyance shall be made of the lands set apart and allotted as herein provided, or any contract made touching the same, before the expiration of the time above mentioned, such conveyance or contract shall be absolutely null and void: Provided, That the law of descent and partition in force in the State or Territory where such lands are situate shall apply thereto after patents therefore have been executed and delivered, except as herein otherwise provided; and the laws of the State of Kansas regulating the descent and partition of real estate shall, so far as practicable, apply to all lands in the Indian Territory which may be allotted in severalty under the provisions of this act: And provided further, That at any time after lands have been allotted to all the Indians of any tribe as herein provided, or sooner if in the opinion of the President it shall be for the best interests of said tribe, it shall be lawful for the Secretary of the Interior to negotiate with such Indian tribe for the purchase and release by said tribe, in conformity with the treaty or statute under which such reservation is held, of such portions of its reservation not allotted as such tribe shall, from time to time, consent to sell, on such terms and conditions as shall be considered just and equitable between the United States and said tribe of Indians, which purchase shall not be complete until ratified by Congress, and the form and manner of executing such release prescribed by Congress: Provided however, That all lands adapted to agriculture, with or without irrigation so sold or released to the United States by any Indian tribe shall be held by the United States for the sole purpose of securing homes to actual settlers and shall be disposed of by the United States to actual and bona fide settlers only tracts not exceeding one hundred and sixty acres to any one person, on such terms as Congress shall prescribe, subject to grants which Congress may make in aid of education: And provided further, That no patents shall issue therefor except to the person so taking the same as and homestead, or his heirs, and after the expiration of five years occupancy thereof as such homestead; and any conveyance of said lands taken as a homestead, or any contract touching the same, or lieu thereon, created prior to the date of such patent, shall be null and void. And the sums agreed to be paid by the United States as purchase money for any portion of any such reservation shall be held in the Treasury of the United States for the sole use of the tribe or tribes Indians; to whom such reservations belonged; and the same, with interest thereon at three per cent per annum, shall be at all times subject to appropriation by Congress for the education and civilization of such tribe or tribes of Indians or the members thereof. The patents aforesaid shall be recorded in the General Land Office, and afterward delivered, free of charge, to the allottee entitled thereto. And if any religious society or other organization is now occupying any of the public lands to which this act is applicable, for religious or educational work among the Indians, the Secretary of the Interior is hereby authorized to confirm such occupation to such society or organization, in quantity not exceeding one hundred and sixty acres in any one tract, so long as the same shall be so occupied, on such terms as he shall deem just; but nothing herein contained shall change or alter any claim of such society for religious or educational purposes heretofore granted by law. And hereafter in the employment of Indian police, or any other employees in the public service among any of the Indian tribes or bands affected by this act, and where Indians can perform the duties required, those Indians who have availed themselves of the provisions of this act and become citizens of the United States shall be preferred.

SEC. 6. That upon the completion of said allotments and the patenting of the lands to said allottees, each and every number 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. 7. That in cases where the use of water for irrigation is necessary to render the lands within any Indian reservation available for agricultural purposes, the Secretary of the Interior be, and he is hereby, authorized to prescribe such rules and regulations as he may deem necessary to secure a just and equal distribution thereof among the Indians residing upon any such reservation; and no other appropriation or grant of water by any riparian proprietor shall permitted to the damage of any other riparian proprietor.

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.

SEC. 9. That for the purpose of making the surveys and resurveys mentioned in section two of this act, there be, and hereby is, appropriated, out of any moneys in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated, the sum of one hundred thousand dollars, to be repaid proportionately out of the proceeds of the sales of such land as may be acquired from the Indians under the provisions of this act.

SEC. 10. That nothing in this act contained shall be so construed to affect the right and power of Congress to grant the right of way through any lands granted to an Indian, or a tribe of Indians, for railroads or other highways, or telegraph lines, for the public use, or condemn such lands to public uses, upon making just compensation.

SEC. 11. That nothing in this act shall be so construed as to prevent the removal of the Southern Ute Indians from their present reservation in Southwestern Colorado to a new reservation by and with consent of a majority of the adult male members of said tribe.


Proponents of the Dawes Severalty Act asserted that property ownership was the first step in assimilating Native Americans into U.S. society. The Act, however, failed to provide such assimilation, took land out of tribal control, and marked the shift in policy of treating Native Americans as sovereign peoples to wards of the government. Prior to the Act, lands within reservations were owned by tribes as set out in treaties or executive orders. These reservations continued the cultural view of collective ownership of the land. Reformers asserted that in order to integrate tribe members into society, the collectivism should be replaced with private land ownership. As a result, the Act provided for the loss of legal standings of tribes in exchange for the land being divided among its members. Native Americans were taught English and discouraged from speaking their tribal languages. They were expected to cut their hair and also adopt Christianity. This treatment of Native Americans as wards of the states failed to bring about the desired assimilation into U.S. society.

The Dawes Severalty Act also removed land from control of Native Americans. By 1934, when the Act was superseded by the Indian Reorganization Act, two-thirds of reservation lands had been removed from tribal control. In 1887, tribes owned 138 million acres (56 million hectares) of land. By 1900 that amount had been reduced to 78 million acres (31.5 million hectares). Lands not allocated to tribe members were sold to homesteaders and other western expansionists. This resulted in a "checkerboard" of land ownership, meaning that the title to land is held by an assortment of entities, such as an individual Native American, the tribe, the state, the county, the federal government, or even a non-native group.

The Act disregarded previous treaties established between the U.S. government and the various tribes. This marked a shift in handling relations with Native Americans as sovereign people to ward of the U.S. government. The Act was intended to help assimilate the tribes into U.S. society through a renunciation of traditional nomadic culture and the adoption of private land ownership and successful farming. These provisions were intended to "civilize" Native Americans, making them more likely candidates for citizenship.

The Act was terminated on June 18, 1934, when congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act. This act restored ownership to tribes of any land not allocated or sold under the Dawes Severalty Act. The Indian Reorganization Act was intended to conserve and develop tribal lands, create private enterprise and credit systems, and to grant home rule to tribes.

The Dawes Severalty Act continues to affect the Native American community. In 1996, Eloise Cobell filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 280,000 Native Americans. The suit, against the Bureau of Indian Affairs, claims that billions of dollars that were held in trust were either lost due to inaccurate or missing records or were pilfered by the U.S. government. In addition, the Act has created generational fractionation of the allotments, particularly in cases of deaths without a will.



Kilpinen, Jon T. "The Supreme Court's Role in Choctaw and Chickasaw Dispossession." The Geographical Review (October 1, 2004).

Web sites

Indian Land Working Group. "Taking a Stand on Indian Land." 〈http://www.ilwg.net/impact.htm〉 (accessed May 14, 2006).

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Dawes Severalty Act 1887

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