Dawes Act


Annotation: In 1871 Congress declared that tribes were no longer separate, independent governments. It placed tribes under the guardianship of the federal government. The 1887 Dawes Act allotted reservation lands to individual Indians in units of 40 to 160 acres. Land that remained after allotment was to be sold to whites to pay for Indian education.

The Dawes Act was supposed to encourage Indians to become farmers. But most of the allotted lands proved unsuitable for farming, owing to a lack of sufficient rainfall. The plots were also too small to support livestock.

Much Indian land quickly fell into the hands of whites. There was to be a 25 year trust period to keep Indians from selling their land allotments, but an 1891 amendment did allow Indians to lease them, and a 1907 law let them sell portions of their property. A policy of “forced patents” took additional lands out of Indian hands. Under this policy, begun in 1909, government agents determined which Indians were “competent” to assume full responsibility for their allotments. Many of these Indians quickly sold their lands to white purchasers. Altogether, the severalty policy reduced Indian-owned lands from 155 million acres in 1881 to 77 million in 1900 and just 48 million acres in 1934. The most dramatic loss of Indian land and natural resources took place in Oklahoma. At the end of the 19th century, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek nations held half the territory’s land. But by 1907, when Oklahoma became a state, much of this land, as well as its valuable asphalt, coal, natural gas, and oil resources, had passed into the possession of whites.

Document: The Dawes Act February 8, 1887

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 reservation, 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.