Dawes Act

From Academic Kids

The Dawes Act of 1887 authorized the President of the United States to survey Indian tribal land and divide the arable area into allotments for the individual Indian. It was enacted February 8, 1887 and named for its sponsor, Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts. The Dawes Act was amended in 1891 and again in 1906, by the Burke Act.

The Dawes Commission, set up under an Indian Office appropriation bill in 1893, was created, not to administer the Dawes Act, but to attempt to get the tribes excluded under the Dawes Act to agree to the allotment plan. It was this commission that registered the member of the Five Civilized Tribes and many Indian names appear on the rolls.

The Curtis Act of 1908 abolished tribal jurisdiction of Indian land.



From the Civil War until 1885, the population of the United States nearly doubled; from thirty million people to nearly sixty million. In an agrarian economy, that, along with four million slaves freed by the war, created a tremendous need for more land. The only large areas of arable land still unsettled were the government lands in Indian Territory and the sparsely populated Indian reservations. These forces, funded by railroad money, continually pressured the government for action, particularly on opening the government land.

Allied with them, but more supporting the dissolution of the Indian reservations, were the various humanitarian organizations (Indian Rights Association, Indian Protection Committee, Friends of the Indians, etc.) and several well-know Indian speakers; Sarah Winnemucca and Zitkala Sa among them. They felt the reservation system was wrong and that Indians interred under it would never be self-sufficient.

Against them were the meat-packing industry, the huge ranching associations leasing the Indian land, and the Five Civilized Tribes —all well-funded and having great influence in Washington.

Finally, U.S. Congress, after years of trying to satisfy pro-settlement forces and protect Indian interests, wrote and passed the Dawes Act.

Summary of the Sections

A brief summary of the Dawes Act mentioning the most pertinent portions.

  • Section One authorizes the President to survey Indian tribal land and divide the arable area into allotments for the individual Indian. It says that the head of any household will receive 160 acres (647,000 m²), and each single individual above the age of eighteen and each orphan will receive 80 acres (324,000 m²), and each minor will receive 40 acres (162,000 m²).
  • Section Two states that each Indian will choose his or her own allotment and the family will choose for each minor child. The Indian agent will choose for orphan children.
  • Section Four provides that Indians not residing on their reservation and Indians without reservations will receive the equal allotment.
  • Section Five provides that the Secretary of the Interior will hold the allotments in trust for twenty-five years. At that time the title will belong to the allotment holder or heirs. It also allows the Secretary to negotiate under existing treaties for the land not allotted to be purchased on "terms and conditions as shall be considered just and equitable between the United States and said tribe of Indians."
  • Section Six states that upon completion of the Land Patent process, the allotment holder will become a United States citizen and "be entitled to all the rights, privileges, and immunities of such citizens".
  • Section Eight exempts the Five Civilized Tribes and several others from the act.
  • Section Nine appropriates the funds to carry out the act.
  • Section Eleven contains a provision for the Southern Ute Indians.


The practical results of the Dawes act were that some sixty million acres (240,000 km²) of treaty land (almost half) were opened to settlement by non-Indians. The plan proved disastrous for the Indians, however. Few attained the self-sufficiency envisioned by the humanitarian groups.

The congressionally commissioned Miriam Report of 1928 documented fraud and misappropriation by government agents. In particular, the act was used to illegally deprive Indians of their land rights. After considerable debate, the congress terminated the allotment process by enacting the Wheeler-Howard Act (Indian Reorganization Act) of 1934.


"...the real aim of [the Dawes Act] is to get at the Indians land and open it up for resettlement." - Senator Henry M. Teller, 1881

"We must throw some protection" [over the Indian]. "We must hold up his, hand." - Senator Henry L. Dawes, 1887.

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