The Dawes Act

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The Dawes Act


The Indian Problem. Richard Henry Pratt, an army officer on the southern Plains, made an interesting observation in the late nineteenth century. He noted that between 1880 and 1890 five million people had immigrated to the United States, where they found

work, raised their children, and abandoned their language, their Arabia, their Turkey, their Italy, their Russia, their Spain, with all their former habits, and have become American citizens in ten years. Yet at the same time, it proved to be nearly impossible for 250,000 Indians to become incorporated into American society. In his first annual message to Congress, President Chester A. Arthur noted the same vexing problem We have to deal with the appalling fact that though thousands of lives have been sacrificed and hundreds of millions of dollars expended in the attempt to solve the Indian problem, it has until within the past few years seemed scarcely nearer a solution than it was half a century ago.

Solutions. President Arthur and most sympathetic whites viewed the Indian problem in the same way. They maintained that the Indians could overcome the disease and poverty afflicting them by embracing the idea of private property. Many Americans accepted the idea that private property stimulated social progress; that an individuala desire to improve his property and his urge to compete with his neighbors had driven America since the colonial era. In order to help Indians compete with white Americans, reformers believed Indians needed to adopt these ideas of property and progress. Indian commissioner Merrill Gates stated: We must make the Indian more intelligently selfish before we can make him unselfishly intelligent. We need to awaken in him wants. In his dull savagery he must be touched by the wings of the divine angel of discontent. Then he begins to look forward, to reach out. The desire for property of his own may become an intense educating force. The wish for a home of his own awakens him to new efforts. Discontent with the teepee and the starving rations of the Indian camp in winter is needed to get the Indian out of the blanket and into trousers and trousers with a pocket in them, and with a pocket that aches to be filled with dollars! President Arthur called on Congress to educate the Indians and to find ways to divide land held by tribes into small plots owned by individuals. The fact that Native Americans had no sense of individual ownership of land and were unwilling to accept that concept was not important; it was essential that Indians learn the ways of whites in order to survive.

Indian Citizenship. In 1884 the Supreme Court checked advocates of Indian citizenship with its decision in Elk v. Wilkins. Four years beforehand the registrar in Omaha, Nebraska, refused to allow John Elk to vote because he was an Indian. Elk insisted that he could vote because he no longer lived on an Indian reservation and had fully assimilated into white American society. He was, he claimed, no longer an Indian. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that Elk was indeed an Indian and did not have citizenship because that required specific recognition by the federal government. In dissent Justice John M. Harlan noted that the U.S. Constitution referred to Indians not taxed, which suggested that when the document was written in 1787 some Indians had been taxed and therefore were citizens. This complicated issue would not be fully resolved until 1924 when American citizenship was extended to all Indians.

The Dawes Act. Partly in response to this legal ambiguity and in order to speed up the process of Indian citizenship, Sen. Henry Dawes of Massachusetts proposed the General Allotment or Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. Under the Dawes Act, the federal government would survey all Indian reservations. Each head of an Indian family would choose 160 acres, while single people and orphans would receive eighty acres each. If the Indians failed to choose plots within four years, an Indian agent would designate land for them. In 1888 Congress appropriated $30,000 for seeds and agricultural equipment for the new landowning individuals. The allotted land could not be sold or leased for twenty-five years and was held in trust by the federal government. The object was for Native Americans to learn to be farmers and at the same time to protect them from land speculators. Once an Indian successfully completed the twenty-five-year apprenticeship, he would be given title to his land and be recognized as an American citizen.

The New Law at Work. Despite the best of intentions, the Dawes Act had a negative impact upon Native Americans. It created an opportunity for unscrupulous individuals to hoard the best plots of land, and it disrupted what remained of traditional cultures. More important, it dramatically reduced the amount of land Indians owned. The acreage not distributed to Indian families was sold to white settlers, while land speculators flocked to the reservations and took advantage of the Indianss inexperience with private ownership. In 1887 Indian tribes in the United States owned approximately 138 million acres of land. On the first reservation to be allotted, the Sisseton and Wahpeton Sioux Reservation on the Red River in the Dakota Territory, two thousand Indians had their holdings reduced from one million acres to 340,000 acres; the rest was declared surplus and opened to white settlement. Within four years of the acts passage, fifteen million acres nationwide were turned over to whites. By 1900 Indian holdings fell to about 80 million acres, and when the federal government ended the policy in 1934, Indians held only 48 million acres of land.

Reaction. While some tribes willingly had their land divided, others resisted allotment. In 1887 a delegation from nineteen tribes gathered to oppose allotment. The Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma (forcibly moved there in the 1830s) were the most opposed to allotment but also suffered the most pressure to turn their land over to whites. Senator Dawes was appointed to head a commission to investigate conditions in Oklahoma and was appalled at what he discovered. The Dawes commission found that traditional chiefs had been bribed by cattlemen to oppose allotment. The cattlemen were benefiting from open-range land and did not want this territory to be fenced in by small farms. In 1896 the Dawes commission criticized the Indians of Oklahoma for the mismanagement of their own affairs: The U.S. granted to these tribes the power of self-government. . . . They have demonstrated their incapacity to so govern themselves, and no higher duty can rest upon the government that granted this authority than to revoke it when it has so lamentably failed. The Dawes commission then set about allotting the lands of Oklahoma.

Faith of Believers. Senator Dawes told the Lake Mohonk Conference, an annual gathering of white Indian supporters in New York, in 1897: Remember that your work is not for the regeneration of a locality, but for a race. And until in every Indian home, wherever situated, the wife shall sit by her hearthstone clothed in the habiliments of true womanhood, and the husband shall stand sentinel at the threshold panoplied in the armor of a self-supporting citizen of the United States, then, and not till then, will your work be done. Dawes and his allies called the General Allotment Act the Indian Magna Carta, firmly believing that private property would save the Indians. By forcing the Indians to live on individual plots of land, sponsors of the Dawes Act believed the Indians would become property-owning citizens. They were wrong, partly because Indians would not accept the notion of private ownership, but also because the lands allotted were almost completely unsuited to small farms.


Janet A. McDonnell, The Dispossession of the American Indian, 1887-1934 (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991);

Francis Paul Prucha, ed., Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the Friends of the Indian, 1880-1900 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973).

Dawes Commission

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DAWES COMMISSION. The commission helped pave the way for the creation of the state of Oklahoma from what had been Indian Territory. Commonly called the Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes, it was appointed by President Grover Cleveland in 1893 to negotiate with the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles. The object was to induce these Indians, to whom the Dawes General Allotment Act did not apply, to take their lands "in severalty" (that is, to convert lands to individual ownership), abolish their tribal governments, and come under state and federal laws. The original commission consisted of Henry L. Dawes, Archibald S. McKennon, and Meredith H. Kidd. Despite some resistance, including that led by the Creek Chitto Harjo, or Crazy Snake, the commission secured the necessary agreements with the tribes, made up tribal rolls, classified the tribal lands, and allotted to all citizens their rightful share of the common property. Its work being finished, the commission was abolished by law on 1 July 1905.


Debo, Angie. And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes. 1940. Reprint, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Perdue, Theda. Nations Remembered: An Oral History of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1865–1907. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Wickett, Murray R. Contested Territory: Whites, Native Americans, and African Americans in Oklahoma, 1865–1907. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.


See alsoDawes General Allotment Act .