The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887

The Dawes Severalty Act of 18872018-12-05T17:05:37+00:00

Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 for APUSH

About the Author: Johnny Roy has been an Advanced Placement US History teacher for the past 8 years at Cuyahoga Heights High School just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He has been actively involved with the AP Reading as a grader for the past 3 years having scored the DBQ, LEQ, and SAQ sections of the exam.

The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887

Following the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the American Government and its people turned their attention from the uncomfortable aftermath of the Civil War and ending of slavery to focus on economic aspirations.  The United States government was eager to encourage expansion into the central and western parts of the country and ease the mounting pressures of the population booms that were occurring in the major urban centers along the east coast due to the 2ndIndustrial Revolution and increased immigration. On the surface, the Dawes Act of 1887 (aka General Allotment Act) promoted the concept of westward expansion by promising land in return for settlement. However, the act was primarily an attempt to handle increasing conflicts and to separate American Indians from tribal lands while trying to force cultural conformity against an Indian population that had widely resisted it.

The act was primarily an attempt to handle increasing conflicts and to separate American Indians from tribal lands while trying to force cultural conformity against an Indian population that had widely resisted it.

Dating back to the French and Indian War (1754-1763), Americans had eagerly and frequently pushed west in an attempt to expand land holdings and oftentimes came into conflict with Native Americans. At the center of this conflict was the European (and later American) model of land ownership. A model that conflicted with the traditional and cultural understandings of land usage and communal property utilized by American Indians. Moving with the seasons, following the food sources that were the migrating animals had always been the cultural norm for American Indians. The European model of land ownership, subsistence farming, and commercialization of natural resources was as foreign to native populations as these white outsiders were. This conflict over land ownership and cultural norms frequently led to conflicts and what the US Government had dubbed the “Indian problem”.

Conflict over land ownership and cultural norms frequently led to conflicts and what the US Government had dubbed the “Indian problem”.

The Indian Problem

After the discovery of gold in California in the late 1840’s, millions of people from around the country and world began to move west in an attempt to strike it rich. This created a situation where Indian lands were becoming increasingly sought after by prospectors and corporations, such as railroad companies. As American Indians struggled to hold on to their native culture and traditions, many within the US government sought a breakup of the reservation system in an effort to abolish tribal lands, along with cultural assimilation of the Indians. One such tradition was the practice of a nomadic lifestyle (moving around), which often resulted in conflicts with settlers who were encroaching on Indian lands. A series of conflicts that later became known as the Indian Wars took place throughout the 1850’s-1880’s, including well-known conflicts such as the Black Hawk War (1865-1872), Battle of Little Bighorn (1876), and Wounded Knee (1890). These and other conflicts led many within the US Government to believe that the time had come for Native Americans to assimilate into American culture and the passage of the Dawes Act was the way to accomplish that goal.

These and other conflicts led many within the US Government to believe that the time had come for Native Americans to assimilate into American culture and the passage of the Dawes Act was the way to accomplish that goal.

The Dawes Act

Signed into law in 1887 by President Grover Cleveland, the Dawes Act contained several provisions:

  1. A head of family would receive a grant of 160 acres, a single person or orphan over 18 years of age would receive a grant of 80 acres, and persons under the age of 18 would receive 40 acres each.
  2. The land allotments would be held in trust by the US Government for 25 years.
  3. Eligible Indians had four years to select their land; afterward the selection would be made for them by the Secretary of the Interior.

Goals of the Dawes Act

While attempting to paint the Dawes Act as a noble purpose of Indian empowerment and western settlement for all, the primary purpose of the Dawes Act was to break up tribal lands, assimilate Indians to American culture, and transfer Indian lands to white settlers. These goals were supported by the passage of future legislation including the Curtis Act in 1898, which did away with tribal governments and courts. The Burke Act of 1906, which forced Indians to accept citizenship upon receiving the land, thus making that land subject to taxation and could be sold by the person taking control of the land. Many did sell, as the land was unfit to sustain any consistent farming crops, yielded little natural resources of value, and had increasing property tax bills. This economic reality forced these new landowners to sell their lands to land speculators and large corporations such as railroad and oil companies or lose it for nothing due to bankruptcy.

Effects of the Dawes Act

The overall effect of the Dawes Act on American Indians was a negative one. One of the most significant impacts on American Indians was the destruction of the communal holding of property where tribes worked as a collective to ensure the collectives survival. Due to the individual ownership of large sections of land and the corresponding costs of maintaining that land, many American Indians were forced into selling tribal lands to railroad companies looking to acquire territory for the growing desire for more railroad tracks throughout the central and western United States. Oftentimes these purchases were made under duress and below fair market value. American Indian land ownership of traditionally tribal lands decreased by nearly 50% by 1900. Furthering the transfer of Indian territory to those outside native tribes, surplus lands that were not claimed by allottee’s (American Indians receiving lands) were often sold to white settlers or large corporations looking to acquire as much territory as possible.

The overall effect of the Dawes Act on American Indians was a negative one. One of the most significant impacts on American Indians was the destruction of the communal holding of property where tribes worked as a collective to ensure the collectives survival.

After decades of the destructive policies of the Dawes Act, the allotment procedures of native lands was finally terminated by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. While land was no longer being taken, sold, or parceled out to individuals, tens of millions of acres had already been sold off to corporations and individuals, divided up among descendants, or seized by the US Government. Traditional communal cultures of reservations and tribes had been systematically targeted and destroyed and would be virtually impossible to re-build.

The promised benefits of those seeking the Americanization of the native populations never came true. Racism, corruption, and bureaucratic power grabs allowed for the destruction of traditional tribal cultures and eroded the strengths of tribal ownership of land. These actions, along with the events at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, only further perpetuated the resentment and divide between the American Government, its citizens, and those of American Indian heritage.

The promised benefits of those seeking the Americanization of the native populations never came true. Racism, corruption, and bureaucratic power grabs allowed for the destruction of traditional tribal cultures and eroded the strengths of tribal ownership of land.

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