Dawes Act of 1887: The Breakup of Indigenous Tribal Lands

A 1911 ad offering "allotted Indian land" for sale
A 1911 ad offering "allotted Indian land" for sale.

Wikimedia Commons Adapted from United States Department of the Interior by Braden208 CC BY-SA 3.0,  

The Dawes Act of 1887 was a United States post-Indian Wars law that illegally dissolved 90 million acres of Native lands from 1887 to 1934. Signed into law by President Grover Cleveland on February 8, 1887, the Dawes Act expedited the cultural genocide of Native Americans. The negative effects of the Dawes Act on Indigenous tribes would result in the enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the so-called “Indian New Deal.”

Key Takeaways: The Dawes Act

  • The Dawes Act was a U.S. law enacted in 1887 for the stated purpose of racistly assimilating Indigenous peoples into White society.
  • The act offered all Indigenous peoples ownership of “allotments” of non-reservation land for farming.
  • Indigenous peoples who agreed to leave the reservations and farm their allotment land were granted full U.S. citizenship.
  • Though well-intentioned, the Dawes Act had a decidedly negative effect on Indigenous tribes, on and off the reservations.

US Government-Indigenous Relations in the 1800s

During the 1800s, European immigrants began settling areas of U.S. territories adjacent to Indigenous-held tribal territories. As competition for resources along with cultural differences between groups increasingly led to conflict, the U.S. government expanded its efforts to control Indigenous tribes.

Believing the two cultures could never coexist, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) ordered the forced relocation of Indigenous peoples from their tribal lands to “reservations” west of the Mississippi River, far from the white settlers. Indigenous tribes' resistance to the forced relocation resulted in the Indian Wars against the U.S. Army which raged in the West for decades. Finally defeated by the U.S. military, the tribes agreed to resettle on the reservations. As a result, Indigenous peoples found themselves the “owners” of over 155 million acres of land ranging from sparse desert to valuable agricultural land.

Under the reservation system, the tribes were granted ownership of their new lands along with the right to govern themselves. Adjusting to their new way of life, Indigenous peoples preserved their cultures and traditions on the reservations. Indigenous peoples' resistance to becoming “Americanized” was viewed as "uncivilized" and "threatening" to white Americans. Under the racist and imperialist ideology of "manifest destiny," white Americans saw tribal lands as rightfully theirs and believed that Indigenous peoples either had to assimilate into white culture or be forceably removed - or wiped out entirely.

As the 1900s began, the assimilation of Indigenous peoples into American culture became a national priority. Responding to public opinion, influential members of Congress felt it was time for the tribes to give up their tribal lands, traditions, and even their identities as Indigenous people. The Dawes Act was, at the time, considered the solution.

Dawes Act Allotment of Indigenous Lands

Named for its sponsor, Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, the Dawes Act of 1887—also called the General Allotment Act—authorized the U.S. Department of the Interior to divide Indigenous tribal land into parcels or “allotments” of land to be owned, lived on, and farmed by individual Indigenous people. Each head of the household was offered an allotment 160 acres of land, while unmarried adults were offered 80 acres. The law stipulated that grantees could not sell their allotment for 25 years. Those Indigenous peoples who accepted their allotment and agreed to live separately from their tribe were granted the advantages of full United States citizenship.

The Dawes Act was illegal because the lands in question were protected by treaties. Further, it shortchanged Native Americans by selling them small plots, knowing there would be excess. The "surplus land" was then sold to white people by the government.

The main objectives of the Dawes Act were to:

  • abolish tribal and communal land ownership
  • assimilate Indigenous peoples into mainstream American society
  • bring Indigenous peoples into a capitalist framework of private property (from which white Americans could profit) and distance them from their existing relationships with land

Individual ownership of land by Indigenous peoples for European-American style subsistence farming was seen as the key to achieving the Dawes Act’s objectives. Supporters of the act believed that by becoming citizens, Indigenous people would be encouraged to exchange their “uncivilized” rebellious ideologies for those that would help them become economically self-supporting citizens, no longer in need of costly government supervision. These beliefs, paternalistic at best, utterly disregarded the rich history, culture, and achievements of Indigenous peoples, while also completely violating their sovereignty.

Impact of the Dawes Act

Since it was a self-serving law, the Dawes Act did not help Native Americans, as its creators intended. In fact, the Dawes Act had catastrophic effects on Indigenous peoples. It ended their tradition of farming communally held land which had for centuries ensured them a home and individual identity in the tribal community. As historian Clara Sue Kidwell wrote in her book “Allotment,” the act “was the culmination of American attempts to destroy tribes and their governments and to open Indian lands to settlement by non-Native Americans and to development by railroads.” As a result of the act, land owned by Indigenous peoples decreased from 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million acres in 1934. Senator Henry M. Teller of Colorado, an outspoken critic of the act, said the intent of the allotment plan was “to despoil the Native Americans of their lands and to make them vagabonds on the face of the earth.”

Indeed, the Dawes Act harmed Indigenous peoples in ways its supporters never considered meaningful. The close social bonds of life in tribal communities were broken, and displaced people struggled to adapt to their now nomadic agricultural existence. Many Indigenous peoples who had accepted their allotments lost their land to swindlers. Indigenous Americans were not told that their land was subject to American state, local, and property taxes that they could not afford. As a result, the individual allotments were seized by the government and resold at auction for white people. They also introduced additional laws to seize Native lands more quickly. For those who chose to stay on the reservations, life became a daily battle with poverty, disease, filth, and depression.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Dawes Act (1887).” OurDocuments.gov. US National Archives and Records Administration
  • Kidwell, Clara Sue. Allotment.” Oklahoma Historical Society: Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture
  • Carlson, Leonard A. Indians, Bureaucrats, and Land.” Greenwood Press (1981). ISBN-13: 978-0313225338.
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Longley, Robert. "Dawes Act of 1887: The Breakup of Indigenous Tribal Lands." ThoughtCo, Sep. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/dawes-act-4690679. Longley, Robert. (2021, September 6). Dawes Act of 1887: The Breakup of Indigenous Tribal Lands. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/dawes-act-4690679 Longley, Robert. "Dawes Act of 1887: The Breakup of Indigenous Tribal Lands." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/dawes-act-4690679 (accessed June 7, 2023).