General Allotment Act Erodes Indian Tribal Unity

The General Allotment Act instituted a federal policy of alloting land to individual Native Americans. The act weakened the allegiance of American Indians to their tribes and ultimately resulted in the dissolution of some tribal nations and the assimilation of some Indians into mainstream American society.

Summary of Event

When the General Allotment Act became law on February 8, 1887, proponents hailed it as the Indian Emancipation Act and Secretary of the Interior L. Q. C. Lamar called it “the most important measure of legislation ever enacted in this country affecting our Indian affairs.” The law dealt primarily with Native American ownership of land. It authorized the president of the United States, through the Office of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior, to allot the lands on reservations to individual Native Americans, so that they would hold the land in severalty instead of the tribe’s owning the land communally. Each head of a household would receive a quarter-section of land (160 acres), single persons over eighteen years of age and orphans would receive eighty acres, and other persons would receive forty acres. In 1891, an amendment to the law equalized the allotments to provide eighty acres for each individual, regardless of age or family status. General Allotment Act of 1887
Native Americans;and General Allotment Act[General Allotment Act]
Native Americans;reservation system
[kw]General Allotment Act Erodes Indian Tribal Unity (Feb. 8, 1887)
[kw]Allotment Act Erodes Indian Tribal Unity, General (Feb. 8, 1887)
[kw]Act Erodes Indian Tribal Unity, General Allotment (Feb. 8, 1887)
[kw]Erodes Indian Tribal Unity, General Allotment Act (Feb. 8, 1887)
[kw]Indian Tribal Unity, General Allotment Act Erodes (Feb. 8, 1887)
[kw]Tribal Unity, General Allotment Act Erodes Indian (Feb. 8, 1887)
[kw]Unity, General Allotment Act Erodes Indian Tribal (Feb. 8, 1887)
General Allotment Act of 1887
Native Americans;and General Allotment Act[General Allotment Act]
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[g]United States;Feb. 8, 1887: General Allotment Act Erodes Indian Tribal Unity[5530]
[c]Indigenous people’s rights;Feb. 8, 1887: General Allotment Act Erodes Indian Tribal Unity[5530]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Feb. 8, 1887: General Allotment Act Erodes Indian Tribal Unity[5530]
[c]Government and politics;Feb. 8, 1887: General Allotment Act Erodes Indian Tribal Unity[5530]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Feb. 8, 1887: General Allotment Act Erodes Indian Tribal Unity[5530]
Dawes, Henry Laurens
Lamar, L. Q. C.
Abbott, Lyman
Welsh, Herbert
Teller, Henry Moore
Morgan, Lewis Henry

Under the law, the U.S. government would hold these land allotments in trust for twenty-five years, during which time a Native American could not sell or otherwise dispose of his or her land. At the end of that period, he or she would receive full title to it. After dividing reservation land into allotments, the federal government could sell the surplus land (often a considerable portion of the reservation) to willing purchasers, most of whom would be Euro-Americans. The money from such sales would go to a fund to benefit Native American education.

The General Allotment Act also provided for Native American citizenship Citizenship, U.S.;and Native Americans[Native Americans] . Native Americans who received allotments in severalty or who took up residence apart from their tribe and adopted what Euro-Americans considered “civilized ways” became citizens of the United States and subject to the laws of the state or territory in which they lived. In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, granting full citizenship to nearly all Native Americans who were not already citizens, and measures during the late 1940’s extended such status to Arizona and New Mexico Native Americans that the 1924 law had missed.

American Indian Reservations in 1883

Two groups of Euro-Americans especially welcomed the General Allotment Act. Land-hungry settlers who had long cast covetous eyes on the reservation lands—which, to Euro-American thinking, were going to waste because of the lack of productive agricultural practices by Native Americans, whom they considered to be hunters and gatherers—were now able to acquire the lands left over from the allotment process. No doubt, the less scrupulous among the settlers also looked forward to the day when individual Native Americans would receive full title to their land and be able to sell, lease, or otherwise dispose of it. Then pressure, legitimate or not, would likely induce the new owners to part with the acreage.

A second group of Euro-Americans, however, was more influential in securing passage of the General Allotment Act. These were the humanitarian reformers of the day, who considered private ownership of land in severalty, U.S. citizenship Citizenship, U.S.;and Native Americans[Native Americans] , education, and consistent codification of laws to be indispensable means for the acculturation of the Native Americans and their eventual assimilation into the mainstream of U.S. society. As ministers from the several Christian denominations, educators, civil servants, politicians, and even a few military personnel, these philanthropists exerted a clout beyond their numbers. Calling themselves the Friends of the Indian, these reformers had been meeting annually since 1869 at the Catskills resort of Lake Mohonk to discuss ways to bring the tribal peoples to what the conveners deemed to be civilization.

Federal politicians had long considered private ownership of land essential to the civilizing process. Thomas Jefferson and the like-minded policymakers of his time had strongly advocated it, and in 1838 the commissioner of Indian Affairs gave voice to a widespread view when he said, “Unless some system is marked out by which there shall be a separate allotment of land to each individual . . . you will look in vain for any general casting off of savagism. Common property and civilization cannot co-exist.”

It was not until the post-Civil War years, when increasing Euro-American pressures on the Native Americans created crisis after crisis, that humanitarians and philanthropists began a concerted drive for “Indian reform.” Land in severalty would be the most important factor in breaking up tribalism. The reform groups that were organized—the Board of Indian Commissioners Board of Indian Commissioners (1869), the Women’s National Indian Association Women’s National Indian Association[Womens National Indian Association] (1879), the Indian Rights Association Indian Rights Association (1882), the Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian (1883), and the National Indian Defense Association National Indian Defense Association (1885), to name the most important—all strongly espoused allotment in severalty. Nor were they satisfied with the piecemeal legislation that affected one tribe at a time; the panacea they sought was a general allotment law. Although supporters argued over the speed of implementing allotment, such proponents as Carl Schurz Schurz, Carl
[p]Schurz, Carl;and General Allotment Act[General Allotment Act] , Herbert Welsh Welsh, Herbert , and the Reverend Lyman Abbott Abbott, Lyman fought energetically for such legislation. They finally won to their cause Senator Henry Laurens Dawes, Dawes, Henry Laurens chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, who successfully shepherded through Congress the measure that bears his name.

Only a few Euro-American voices cried out against the proposal. Congressman Russell Errett Errett, Russell of Pennsylvania and a few others protested that the bill was a thinly disguised means of getting at the valuable tribal lands. Senator Henry Moore Teller Teller, Henry Moore of Colorado argued that the Native Americans did not want to own land in severalty and were not prepared to assume the responsibilities that went with private property and citizenship. He denied the contention of the reformers that private ownership of land would lead to civilization. Albert Meacham Meacham, Albert , editor of The Council Fire, maintained that there was little enthusiasm for severalty among traditionalist Native Americans, and anthropologist Anthropology;and Native Americans[Native Americans] Lewis Henry Morgan Morgan, Lewis Henry thought that allotment would result in massive poverty. Presbyterian missionaries Presbyterians;missionaries
Missionaries;and Native Americans[Native Americans] apparently were disunited on the subject of allotment, and their views fell by the wayside as the juggernaut of reform plunged ahead.


“February 8, 1887,” one optimistic spokesman of the Board of Indian Commissioners commented, “may be called the Indian emancipation day.” Although much sincere Christian goodwill motivated passage of the General Allotment Act, it turned out to be a disaster for Native Americans. The sponsors of the General Allotment Act had assumed an unrealistically romantic view of the Native American. People who had had firsthand experience with tribal peoples attempted to prove to the reformers that the “noble savage” had never existed. In 1891, Congress allowed Native Americans to lease their allotments if they were not able to farm for themselves.

Native American response to allotment has largely gone unrecorded. The Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, Sac, Fox, and a few other tribes in Indian Territory, as well as the Seneca in New York, contended that they already mostly owned land individually and won exclusion from the act’s operation. By 1906, however, Congress extended allotment to them as well. Most of the complaints came after the act’s passage, when Native Americans lost land and found farming difficult under its provisions.

The allotments and the leasing moved faster and with less careful discrimination than Dawes and other promoters had intended. Instead of being a measure that turned Native Americans into self-supporting farmers, the act, through the rapid alienation of the Native Americans’ lands, meant the loss of the land base on which the tribal peoples’ hope for future prosperity depended. Tribal peoples held claim to about 150 million acres of land in 1887. The General Allotment Act eventually diverted two-thirds of that acreage out of Native American ownership, down to about forty-eight million acres by 1934. Not until that year, with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (the Wheeler-Howard Act, also known as the “Indian New Deal”), did the federal government repeal the General Allotment Act and encourage communal forms of ownership again, but by that time much of the former reservation land was gone as surplus sales, leases, or sales by the individual allottees.

Further Reading

  • Coleman, Michael C. “Problematic Panacea: Presbyterian Missionaries and the Allotment of Indian Lands in the Late Nineteenth Century.” Pacific Historical Review 54, no. 2 (1985): 143-159. Shows that the Presbyterians were not united about allotment of tribal lands.
  • Gibson, Arrell Morgan. “The Centennial Legacy of the General Allotment Act.” Chronicles of Oklahoma 65, no. 3 (1987): 228-251. Examines the long-range effects of the General Allotment Act on Native Americans.
  • Greenwald, Emily. Reconfiguring the Reservation: The Nez Perces, Jicarilla Apaches, and the Dawes Act. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002. Detailed study of the passage of the General Allotment Act and of its influence on two specific Native American tribes.
  • Hoxie, Frederick E. A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. Examines the story of the General Allotment Act in the context of larger assimilationist programs toward Native Americans.
  • Mintz, Steven, ed. Native American Voices. St. James, N.Y.: Brandywine Press, 1995. Contains part of the General Allotment Act and a complaint by a Cherokee farmer in 1906.
  • Prucha, Francis Paul, ed. Americanizing the American Indians: Writings of the “Friends of the Indian,” 1880-1900. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973. Section 2 provides a representative sampling of primary source writings about the General Allotment Act.
  • Washburn, Wilcomb E. The Assault on Indian Tribalism: The General Allotment Law (Dawes Act) of 1887. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1975. A concise summary of the attitudes that produced the act and its repercussions for Native Americans; contains the full text of the original law.

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