The 1887 General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, authorized the president to select reservations to undergo allotment in severalty, the process of dividing collectively held lands into individually owned parcels.
The practice of awarding or assigning individual tracts of land to Indians was not new. The U.S. government had granted parcels of land to Indians who helped secure land cessions, and it had provided individual lands for Indians who resisted removal. Treaties beginning in the 1850s often contained provisions allowing the survey of lands and assignment of individual allotments. Not until the 1880s, though, did the idea of universal allotment of Indian lands gain widespread support.
Some tribes lobbied for allotment, seeing it as a means to forestall removal and secure their title to reservation lands. The Omaha tribe in Nebraska and the Umatilla bands in Oregon both succeeded in obtaining allotment legislation for their reservations in 1882 and 1885, respectively. Other tribes, such as the Seneca Nation of New York, fought against allotment legislation. The Seneca argued that they were adequately “Americanized” under their system of common land tenure.
The Senate passed general allotment legislation at nearly every session between 1879 and 1886, but the House deferred debate on the issue until late 1886. By this time, seemingly dissimilar interest groups—humanitarian reformers and western developers—had agreed that allotment in severalty was the solution to the so-called Indian Problem. Self-described “Friends of the Indian” believed that owning private property would transform Indians into self-sufficient farmers and help them assimilate into the American mainstream. At the same time, advocates of economic growth saw Indian reservations as a barrier to American progress and wanted to open up those lands and resources to development. Allotment legislation offered them the promise that land not needed for allotments would be opened to non-Indians for purchase.
Senator Richard Coke of Texas introduced the first general allotment legislation in 1879 and introduced bills at each session until 1884, when Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts joined Coke in proposing the legislation. Dawes soon assumed control over the allotment campaign, and Coke’s role has been largely forgotten. Dawes, a member of the Boston Indian Citizenship Association and chair of the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs, was a vocal proponent of Indian assimilation and allotment in severalty. Senator Henry Teller of Colorado opposed the Coke bill, arguing that many tribes were not prepared for individual land ownership. Teller became secretary of the interior in 1882, but even from that position he was unable to stop the legislation.
President Grover Cleveland signed the General Allotment Act on February 8, 1887. The legislation authorized the president, at his discretion, to select a reservation to be surveyed and allotted in severalty. The allotments would be held in trust for the individual Indians for a period of twenty-five years. Upon receiving a parcel, the allottee became a citizen of the United States. Once the allotment process on a reservation was complete, the president could negotiate with the tribe for purchase of unallotted—or “surplus”—lands and open those lands to settlement. The Dawes Act also provided that Indians not residing on reservations could take allotments on the public domain. The five major tribes from the Southeast in the Indian Territory (Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles) were among those exempted from the original legislation, but the Curtis Act extended allotment to them in 1898.
Some tribes successfully resisted allotment in severalty, while others asked the government to allot their reservations, seeing it as a way to gain firmer control of their lands. When Indians selected allotments, they did so with their own cultural and economic needs in mind, which did not always align with the government’s agrarian, assimilationist agenda.
By 1934, when the Dawes Act was overturned, 118 of 213 reservations had undergone allotment, resulting in over forty million acres of allotments and over twenty million acres of surplus lands opened to non-Indians. Amendments to the Dawes Act made it possible for Indians to lease and ultimately to sell their allotments. These included the 1906 Burke Act, which authorized the secretary of the interior to issue a fee patent to “any Indian allottee [who] is competent and capable of managing his or her affairs,” before the normal twenty-five year trust period on an allotment expired. According to a 1934 report on Indian land tenure, economic status, and population trends, the Indian land base shrank from about 140 million acres (which included the acreage of reservations at their creation plus any acquisitions) to about 52 million acres in 1934. That reduced figure included 22.7 million acres opened to settlement and 23.2 million acres of allotments.
Ultimately, the Dawes Act failed in its goal of assimilating Indians, in part because of these amendments and in part because Indians found other ways to adapt to the expansion of the American marketplace economy into their homelands. However, the act’s undermining of tribal land bases, particularly through opened surplus lands and allotments, damaged Indians’ economic well-being and, in some cases, disrupted cultural practices.
See also Burke Act; Curtis Act; Dawes, Henry L.; Teller, Henry M.; U.S. Indian Policy: Congress and the Executive, 1871–1934.
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