The Dawes Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Dawes Act, officially the General Allotment Act, and sometimes referred to the as the Dawes Severalty Act, instituted the policy of “allotment in severalty.” Under this policy, reservation lands that had been owned collectively by Native American tribes would be broken up into individual allotments or homesteads, with differing amounts of land being given to individuals based on their life situation—such as head of household, single adult, child, or orphan. The reformers who backed the allotment program hoped that individual land ownership would hasten the assimilation of Native peoples. While tribes as a whole generally opposed allotment, some highly-assimilated individual Indians did favor the policy, believing it would allow them to better manage their own affairs. On many reservations, some land would be declared surplus after all tribal citizens had received allotments, so land-hungry settlers and developers near the reservations favored the program.

Summary Overview

The Dawes Act, officially the General Allotment Act, and sometimes referred to the as the Dawes Severalty Act, instituted the policy of “allotment in severalty.” Under this policy, reservation lands that had been owned collectively by Native American tribes would be broken up into individual allotments or homesteads, with differing amounts of land being given to individuals based on their life situation—such as head of household, single adult, child, or orphan. The reformers who backed the allotment program hoped that individual land ownership would hasten the assimilation of Native peoples. While tribes as a whole generally opposed allotment, some highly-assimilated individual Indians did favor the policy, believing it would allow them to better manage their own affairs. On many reservations, some land would be declared surplus after all tribal citizens had received allotments, so land-hungry settlers and developers near the reservations favored the program.

Defining Moment

In the late 1800s, a group of reformers, mostly white Americans, but including a few highly-assimilated Native Americans, became known as the “Friends of the Indians.” This was not an organized group, but simply a loose collection of men and women with similar interests and goals. Many of the Friends of the Indians did belong to groups promoting reform of government Indian policy, such as the Indian Protective Committee (founded in 1879), the Indian Rights Association (founded 1882), or the National Indian Defense Association (founded 1885). Likewise, many also attended the annual Lake Mohonk Conferences, held from 1883 to 1916 at a resort in upstate New York, where like-minded individuals met to discuss Indian affairs. The Friends of the Indians sought three major goals, all of which aimed at the eventual assimilation of the American Indians and their total absorption into the general American society.

Among the goals sought were the allotment of reservation lands as individually owned parcels, US citizenship for all Native Americans, and education for all Indian children. Passage of the Dawes Act in 1889 was considered one of their most important accomplishments, and Dawes was a prominent part of the Friends of the Indians movement. Allotment was considered a key idea because the reformers thought that individual land ownership would lead Native peoples to embrace the American values of thrift, hard work, and self-reliance. Under the original Dawes Act, an Indian who accepted an allotment became a US citizen, so the goal of citizenship was also obtained. The reformers also promoted the idea of schools where Indian children would learn the basic skills necessary to function in American society.

While the Friends of the Indians had a genuine concern for the Native Americans, they generally held condescending attitudes toward Indian culture and sought to erase the cultural traits of the Native people to facilitate assimilation. Because of the paternalistic, ethnocentric attitudes of the reformers, they promoted ideas that the Indians themselves cared little about, or in some cases—such as allotment—strenuously opposed. Indians generally cared little about the US citizenship issue, although in the long run, citizenship brought the Native Americans the constitutional protections of their civil and political rights. Many Indian families initially had some interest in education for their children, but when they saw that the schools aimed at breaking down their children's attachment to their own culture, this interest often turned to opposition. The allotment program proved to be a disastrous failure: promoted as a way to protect the individual Indian's right to his own land, it created a large class of landless Indians and caused a significant decrease in the total landholdings of the Native tribes.

Author Biography

Henry L. Dawes (1816–1903) was a Republican politician from western Massachusetts. He was born in Cummington, MA and graduated from Yale College in 1839. Before entering politics, he had been a school teacher and newspaper editor. He was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1852 and to the US Senate in 1875. Although he is best known for his sponsorship of the General Allotment Act, he was not extensively involved in Indian affairs until the late 1870s. In 1881, he became chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. He became a leading figure in the loose coalition of reformers known as the “Friends of the Indians,” who promoted highly ethnocentric, assimilationist reforms in government Indian policy. After retiring from the Senate in 1893, he led the Dawes Commission, which dealt with applying the Allotment Act among the Five Civilized Tribes in the Indian Territory. He died in Pittsfield, MA in 1903.

Historical Document

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, 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 reservations 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 , 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… 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,… 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 such trust and free of all charge or encumbrance 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 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 impairing or otherwise affecting the right of any such Indian to tribal or other property.…

Document Analysis

The Dawes Act provided for distributing Indian reservation lands “in severalty” and to “extend the protection of the laws of the United States and the Territories over the Indians.” The word severalty means the quality of being separate or individual, and the idea behind allotting reservation lands was to give each Indian family or individual their own privately held land. Those who accepted allotments, or those who had moved off of reservations and had “adopted the habits of civilized life,” became US citizens. The bill also specified that US citizenship did not limit or impair the Indian's right to share in tribal property or other tribal benefits.

The act called for a survey of reservation lands, so that the precise acreage would be known before allotment was carried out. A head of a family would receive a quarter section of land—160 acres. This was also the amount of land that settlers could claim under the Homestead Act of 1862. However, a problem with both homesteading and the allotment policy is that while 160 acres was a good-sized farm in the eastern parts of the United States, in the arid West, much more land would be needed. Single people over eighteen years old or orphans under eighteen would receive a one-eighth section (eighty acres). Children living with a family would receive 40 acres. After all eligible tribal members had received their allotments, excess land could be sold to anyone, with the funds from these sales going into a trust fund for the tribe. For twenty-five years, the secretary of the interior would hold the title to each allottee's land in trust, so that the land could not be lost through mismanagement or failure to pay local property taxes (the land would not be taxable during this trust period). Initially, land could not be leased during the trust period, but later changes did allow the leasing of trust land. The Burke Act in 1906 also provided that an individual Indian allottee could petition to have their trust status ended earlier, if they were deemed competent to handle their own affairs. The Burke Act also amended the citizenship provisions, so that Indians would not become citizens until the end of the trust period. This change was made because many believed that citizenship was not consistent with an individual being held in a trustee or wardship status.

Allotment was intended to hasten the assimilation of the Native Americans by making them competent US citizens who farmed their own lands. Because of the sale of excess reservation lands and widespread fraud by whites gaining control of Indian lands, the policy proved a failure and led to many Indians living on greatly reduced reservations with no individual lands to call their own.

Essential Themes

A vast reduction in Native American landholdings was one of the long-term legacies of the Dawes Act. Those who promoted Allotment in Severalty hoped that the Indians would develop a strong attachment to owning their own land. However, for a variety of reasons, allotment resulted in much Indian land being transferred to non-Indian ownership. Many non-Indians fraudulently claimed Indian ethnicity in order to obtain an allotment. When the Dawes Act was later amended to allow leasing of land while it was still in the trust period, much land was ruined by mining operations, over-grazing, or clear-cutting of timber. When they received title to their land, many Indians sold it, having no interest in becoming farmers. Overall, the lands controlled by tribal peoples declined from roughly 150 million acres when the Dawes Act was passed in 1887 to approximately 48 million acres when allotment was formally ended in the legislation of the so-called Indian New Deal in 1934.

The debates over allotment also illustrate how mixed motives often drive major policy decisions. On many reservations, there would be excess land left over after allotments had been made, and this land would be sold to anyone who wished to purchase it. The reformers who promoted allotment appeared to be genuine in their belief that allotment would ultimately be beneficial to the Indians; the reformers saw owning private property as the gateway to becoming assimilated into American society. But many people with little sympathy for the Indians supported allotment because it would open up more land for white settlement. Senator Henry Teller from Colorado, who was not always supportive of Indian interests, condemned allotment and predicted that it would lead to much Indian land being lost and that the Indians then would be angered at those who had professed to help them. James Mooney and Lewis Henry Morgan, two pioneers in the field of anthropology, also condemned allotment as an attempt to force assimilation on the Native peoples too rapidly. Even President Grover Cleveland, who signed the Dawes Act, expressed little faith in the supposed benefits the law would have for the Indians.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Genetin-Pilawa, C. Joseph. Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight over Federal Indian Policy After the Civil War. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2014. Print.
  • Hoxie, Frederick E. A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920.
  • Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984. Print.
  • Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indian. 2 vols. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995. Print.
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