In Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Congress has plenary power over Native American property and may dispose of such property at its discretion.

Summary of Event

In 1887, after years of agitation and controversy, Congress passed the General Allotment Act General Allotment Act (1887) (also known as the Dawes Act or Dawes Severalty Act). Dawes Severalty Act (1887) Under the terms of this legislation, the president was authorized to allot all tribal land in the United States to individual Native Americans. The standard share was 160 acres to each head of a family, with smaller amounts to unmarried men and children. Negotiations were to be carried on with Native American tribes for the sale to the federal government of the land remaining after the allotments were made and for the opening of the land to Euro-American settlement. Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903)
Supreme Court, U.S.;Native American rights
Native Americans;property rights
[kw]Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (Jan. 5, 1903)
[kw]Hitchcock, Lone Wolf v. (Jan. 5, 1903)
Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903)
Supreme Court, U.S.;Native American rights
Native Americans;property rights
[g]United States;Jan. 5, 1903: Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock[00670]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 5, 1903: Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock[00670]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Jan. 5, 1903: Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock[00670]
White, Edward D.
Lone Wolf
Hitchcock, Ethan Allen
Springer, William McKendree
Carson, Hampton L.
Van Devanter, Willis

The allotment policy, which dominated relations between the U.S. government and Native Americans for more than fifty years, proved to be disastrous for Native Americans. It transformed Native American landownership from collective to individual holdings, thus severing the Indians’ connections with communal tribal organizations, exposed Indians to wholesale exploitation by land speculators, pushed them onto land that was often arid and unproductive, and led ultimately to their loss of control over two-thirds of their lands. Deceit, duplicity, and coercion undermined the honest, but naïve, objectives of the U.S. reformers who espoused allotment prior to its enactment.

Tribal sovereignty, the allotment policy, and Native American treaty rights came before the U.S. Supreme Court in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock in 1902. In 1867, the U.S. government had signed the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty (1867) with the Kiowas and Comanches, whereby the two tribes relinquished claims to 90 million acres in exchange for 2.9-million-acre reservations in western Oklahoma. A separate treaty placed the plains Apaches on the same reservation. Article XII of the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty provided that no further cession of any part of the new reservation could be made without the written consent of three-quarters of the adult male members of the three tribes. The commitment to Article XII of the treaty lasted twenty-five years. In 1892, the Jerome Commission, Jerome Commission composed of a former governor of Michigan and two judges, was able—through fraud and counterfeit signatures—to secure the necessary three-quarters consent to an agreement for the allotment of land to individual tribesmen and for the purchase of 2.15 million acres of what was denominated as surplus land at a price of approximately ninety-three cents per acre.

Almost immediately after the signing of the new agreement, representatives of the Kiowas, Comanches, and plains Apaches claimed that assent had been obtained through fraudulent misrepresentation of the agreement’s terms by the interpreters and that three-quarters of the adult males had not consented to the cession. The U.S. House of Representatives ignored their arguments and voted to execute the agreement, but the Senate viewed their claims more sympathetically and defeated the bill in January, 1899.

In July, 1900, however, Congress passed an act that allowed the United States to take title to 2,991,933 acres of the Kiowa, Comanche, and plains Apache reservation. After 480,000 acres were set aside as common grazing lands, 445,000 acres were allotted to individual members of the three tribes, and 10,000 acres were committed to agency, schools, and religious purposes, 2 million acres were left to be purchased by the federal government and opened to white settlement.

Although some Native Americans approved of the act, Lone Wolf, a Kiowa chief, and others were intent on challenging the act’s constitutionality. They retained William McKendree Springer, formerly chief justice of the Court of Appeals for the Indian Territory, to litigate their case before the federal courts. Springer argued that the congressional act violated the property rights of the three tribes and was, therefore, repugnant to the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. After losing in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia and in the Court of Appeals for the district, Springer appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock was argued in the Supreme Court in October, 1901, and reargued the following year. The decision was handed down on January 5, 1903. In the Court, attorney Hampton L. Carson, a prominent member of the Indian Rights Association, Indian Rights Association joined Springer as cocounsel; the Department of the Interior was represented by Willis Van Devanter of Wyoming, who later became a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

The unanimous decision of the Supreme Court, written by Associate Justice Edward D. White of Louisiana, was characterized by a later commentator as the “Indian’s Dred Scott decision,” and January 5, 1903, as “one of the blackest days in the history of the American Indians.” Justice White spoke of Native Americans in condescending terms, as an “ignorant and dependent race,” “weak and diminishing in number,” and “wards of the nation.” These contemptuous phrases were not original to White; they were epithets that had long been used in the opinions of Supreme Court justices in relation to Native Americans. More important, White ruled that Congress possessed a paramount authority over the property of Native Americans “by reason of its exercise of guardianship over their interests.” In exercising such power, Congress could abrogate provisions of a treaty with a Native American tribe.

Justice White then went on to argue that the congressional act of 1900 represented only “a mere change in the form of investment of Indian tribal property from land to money” even though the price paid was below the market value. White held that Congress had made a good-faith effort to compensate the Kiowas for their lands; therefore, there was no violation of the Fifth Amendment. “If injury was occasioned,” White concluded, “which we do not wish to be understood to imply by the use made by Congress of its power, relief must be sought by an appeal to that body for redress and not to the courts.”

Even before the Supreme Court had ruled in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, President William McKinley issued a proclamation opening the Kiowa lands to white settlement on August 6, 1901. Lone Wolf watched with chagrin as thousands of potential settlers camped on Kiowa lands near Fort Sill, waiting to register for a lottery; during a two-month period, 11,638 homestead entries were made at the land office.


The importance of the Supreme Court decision in Lone Wolf should not be underestimated. Justice White’s opinion legitimated the long history of broken promises, of treaties made and treaties ignored, as well as the assertion of plenary authority of Congress over Indian lands. The opinion justified the alienation, between 1887 and 1934, of 86 million acres of Native American property; it also denied Native Americans recourse to the courts to seek redress for the coerced separation from their land and its purchase at bargain prices.

In Lone Wolf, Justice White told the Kiowas and associated tribes that they would have to seek relief for their alleged injuries in Congress, and the Kiowas had no alternative but to go to the federal legislature to secure redress. It was not until 1955 that the Indian Claims Commission awarded the Kiowas, Comanches, and plains Apaches $2,067,166 in compensation for the lands taken under the congressional act of 1900. It was not until 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians (1980) that Justice Harry Blackmun, in a majority opinion, held that the Lone Wolf doctrine was “discredited” and “had little to commend it as an enduring principle.” Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903)
Supreme Court, U.S.;Native American rights
Native Americans;property rights

Further Reading

  • Clark, Blue.“Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock”: Treaty Rights and Indian Law at the End of the Nineteenth Century. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. A short but comprehensive study of the background and implications of the most significant Native American court case of the early twentieth century.
  • Hagan, William T. The Indian Rights Association: The Herbert Welsh Years, 1882-1904. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985. An account of the organization that participated in the litigation of the Lone Wolf case.
  • Highsaw, Robert B. Edward Douglass White: Defender of the Conservative Faith. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. An analysis of the judicial record of the writer of the Supreme Court opinion in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock.
  • Johansen, Bruce E., ed. Enduring Legacies: Native American Treaties and Contemporary Controversies. New York: Praeger, 2004. Represents an attempt to maintain a “national conversation” on Native American treaties through discussion of related contemporary laws and issues.
  • Legters, Lyman, and Fremont J. Lyden, eds. American Indian Policy: Self-Governance and Economic Development. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. A collection of articles detailing trends in Native American life and law in the late twentieth century.
  • Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. An exhaustive examination of the legal relationship between Native American tribes and the U.S. government since the time of the American Revolution.
  • Wilkins, David E., and K. Tsianina Lomawaima. Uneven Ground: American Indian Sovereignty and Federal Law. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. Reviews the often inconsistent federal legal precedents related to issues concerning Native Americans. Chapter 5, “’Justices Who Bent the Law’: The Doctrine of Implied Repeals,” addresses the Supreme Court’s political policy-making role in Indian affairs, as particularly illustrated in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock.

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