In 1887 Congress passed the General Allotment Act also known as the ‘Dawes Act’. “Friends” of American Indians believed that this act and other assimilationist practices were an alternative to the extinction of Indian people. The Cherokee and the other Five Civilized Tribes which included the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole resisted the act.
The act stated that the head of each family would receive 160 acres of tribal land and each single person would receive 80 acres. Title to the land would be held in trust by the government for 25 years. After 25 years each individual would receive United States citizenship and fee simple title to their land.
Tribal lands not allotted to Native Americans on the reservation were to be sold to the United States and the land would be opened for homesteading. Proceeds from the land sales were to be placed in trust and used by the government as an account for supplies provided to Indian people. The Cherokees western land extension was sold to the United States in 1891 and in 1893 opened, mostly to non-Indian setters, in a famous land run.
When the allotment process began in 1887, the total land held by American Indian tribes on reservations equaled 138,000,000 acres. By the end of the allotment period landholdings had been reduced to 48,000,000 acres. Since 1934 the landholdings have slowly increased to 56,000,000 acres.
Federal Indian policy during the period from 1870 to 1900 marked a departure from earlier policies that were dominated by removal, treaties, reservations, and even war. The new policy focused specifically on breaking up reservations by granting land allotments to individual Native Americans. Very sincere individuals reasoned that if a person adopted white clothing and ways, and was responsible for his own farm, he would gradually drop his Indian-ness and be assimilated into the population. It would then no longer be necessary for the government to oversee Indian welfare in the paternalistic way it had been obligated to do, or provide meager annuities that seemed to keep the Indian in a subservient and poverty-stricken position.
On February 8, 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, named for its author, Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts. Also known as the General Allotment Act, the law allowed for the President to break up reservation land, which was held in common by the members of a tribe, into small allotments to be parceled out to individuals. Thus, Native Americans registering on a tribal “roll” were granted allotments of reservation land. “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…”
Section 8 of the act specified groups that were to be exempt from the law. It stated that “the provisions of this act shall not extend to the territory occupied by the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles, and Osage, Miamies and Peorias, and Sacs and Foxes, in the Indian Territory, nor to any of the reservations of the Seneca Nation of New York Indians in the State of New York, nor to that strip of territory in the State of Nebraska adjoining the Sioux Nation on the south.”
Subsequent events, however, extended the act’s provisions to these groups as well. In 1893 President Grover Cleveland appointed the Dawes Commission to negotiate with the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles, who were known as the Five Civilized Tribes. As a result of these negotiations, several acts were passed that allotted a share of common property to members of the Five Civilized Tribes in exchange for abolishing their tribal governments and recognizing state and Federal laws. In order to receive the allotted land, members were to enroll with the Office of Indian Affairs (later renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)). Once enrolled, the individual’s name went on the “Dawes rolls.” This process assisted the BIA and the Secretary of the Interior in determining the eligibility of individual members for land distribution.
The purpose of the Dawes Act and the subsequent acts that extended its initial provisions was purportedly to protect Indian property rights, particularly during the land rushes of the 1890s, but in many instances the results were vastly different. The land allotted to the Indians included desert or near-desert lands unsuitable for farming. In addition, the techniques of self-sufficient farming were much different from their tribal way of life. Many Indians did not want to take up agriculture, and those who did want to farm could not afford the tools, animals, seed, and other supplies necessary to get started. There were also problems with inheritance. Often young children inherited allotments that they could not farm because they had been sent away to boarding schools. Multiple heirs also caused a problem; when several people inherited an allotment, the size of the holdings became too small for efficient farming.