How the Dawes Act Stole 90 Million Acres of Native American Land

By: Dave Roos
blackfoot chief
A Blackfoot chief regards the invasion of his hunting ground by the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1884. Ilustration from the magazine The Graphic/De Agostini/Getty Images

In the long, dark history of the United States government's mistreatment of Native Americans, most people are familiar with the Trail of Tears, in which approximately 15,000 Native American men, women and children died during forced relocation from their tribal homelands in the American Southeast to Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma.

But the theft of Native American tribal land didn't stop with the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that authorized the Trail of Tears. Over the next century, Congress passed a series of laws that systematically stripped tribes of their lands, selling them to white settlers and corporations.


The Dawes Act, while not a household name, was perhaps the single most devastating government policy of them all. Also known as the General Allotment Act of 1887, the Dawes Act resulted in the loss of 90 million acres (36 million hectares) of Native lands from 1887 to 1934 — the equivalent of two-thirds of all tribal landholdings at the time.

Solving the 'Indian Problem'

Nineteenth-century Americans, driven by Manifest Destiny and rapid industrialization, were hungry for more and more land upon which to farm, ranch, harvest timber, mine minerals and build railroads. Because of earlier relocation policies that resettled Native Americans in Western reservations, many large tracts of attractive Western land were in the hands of Indians by the 1880s.

Politicians and businessmen who saw tribal land ownership as an obstacle to American progress were constantly searching for a solution to the so-called "Indian Problem," and they found it in an unlikely source: progressive social reformers.


Mark Hirsch is a historian at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. He explains that many well-intentioned Americans were appalled at the desperate conditions on Western reservations, where hunting was forbidden and starvation was rampant. Backed by early anthropologists, these social reformers believed that private land ownership and cultural assimilation as farmers and ranchers were key to saving the Indians from their own "savage" status.

Congressman Henry Dawes
Sen. Henry Dawes, the author of the Dawes Act, once said that to be civilized meant to "wear civilized clothes ... cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey [and] own property."
Bettman/Getty Images

"These people really believed that they were doing a good thing for Native Americans," says Hirsch, "that they were true 'friends of the Indian.'"

As a result, two very different groups — land-hungry capitalists and social progressives — threw their support behind the General Allotment Act of 1887 (called the Dawes Act for Sen. Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, the bill's lead proponent in Congress). This law gave the U.S. president unprecedented power to break up tribal lands into small parcels or "allotments," some of which would be offered to Native American families as private farmland, and the rest sold to white settlers and business interests.

The idea was that the American Indian landowners would emulate the success of their new white neighbors and leave behind their tribal ways to become profitable farmers and ranchers themselves.

"Congress thought that the best way of curing the 'Indian problem' forever would be for Indian people to assimilate into white culture and society," says Stephen Pevar, senior staff counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union Racial Justice Program. "Congress came up with the General Allotment Act as the vehicle to accomplish that."


How the Dawes Act Worked

Before the Dawes Act, Native American land (including reservations) was communally owned by the tribe and the fruits of labor were shared collectively by all tribal members. For most 19th-century Americans, that traditional Native way of life was antithetical to American ideals of personal responsibility and capitalism.

Teddy Roosevelt favorably described the Dawes Act as "a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass," adding that "the effort should be to steadily make the Indian work like any other man on his own ground."


Under the Dawes Act, tribal lands would be divided into allotments between 40 and 160 acres in size (16 and 65 hectares) and legally changed from community property to privately owned parcels of land. In some cases, Native American families were given the option of choosing their allotment, but in most cases it was assigned to them by officers of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Once all of the Native American families received their small allotments, there was plenty of tribal land left over. This "surplus land" the Dawes Act said, could be sold to non-Native settlers and corporations with the proceeds held in a government account to be used exclusively "for the education and civilization of the Indians."

That surplus land amounted to 60 million acres (24 million hectares) — nearly half of all existing tribal territory — that was immediately ceded to the U.S. government, according to the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.

In an insidious twist, the framers of the Dawes Act added a stipulation that Native Americans weren't "competent" to own their allotments outright. Instead, the deeds to the land would be held in a government trust for 25 years, after which they would be transferred to the Native individual. No such waiting period existed for white settlers and corporations.


The Devastating Aftermath of the Dawes Act

Hirsch says that U.S. politicians largely saw the Dawes Act as "a win-win situation" in which Native Americans became "civilized landowners" and assimilated into the broader culture and economy with the help of friendly white neighbors.

"Plus, if you had enough white people moving into Indian territory, that area could become an American territory," says Hirsch. "If the population kept growing, you could apply for statehood, which is exactly what happened."


But while the Dawes Act was a clear "win" for white America, it was absolutely devastating for Native people.

First, says Pevar, "the majority of Indians didn't want to become farmers and ranchers. Plus, you needed money to buy equipment, cattle and seeds, money that they didn't have. Here they were with hundreds of acres of land that they couldn't even use."

In most cases, the parcels that were allotted to Native families sat vacant until the 25-year trust period was over and the land could be sold. But here again was another hidden stipulation. After the 25-year trust period expired, the land was suddenly subject to state and local property taxes, which most Native landowners couldn't pay. So, the land would be seized by the tax court and sold at auction.

"There were white people literally waiting in line for the land to go into forfeiture for failure to pay taxes," says Pevar. "They would bid on it and purchase it."

white settlers rush to claim cherokee land
April 22, 1889: White settlers rushed to claim Cherokee land in the Oklahoma Territory, after the Dawes Act of 1887, which had robbed the Cherokee of their rights to the land.
MPI/Getty Images

Later laws passed by Congress made it even easier to sell off Native American-owned allotments before the 25-year waiting period. The Burke Act of 1906 authorized the Secretary of the Interior to deem a Native landowner "competent" to receive the deed to his own land, at which point taxes were due. This often happened without the Native landowner's knowledge or consent, and before he knew it his land was in forfeiture and sold to the highest bidder.

An additional 27 million acres of Native land were lost through these additional laws and amendments to the Dawes Act, including the so-called "Dead Indian Act" of 1902 that allowed Native heirs to sell their family land before the 25-year trust period was up.


The End of the Dawes Act

So much land was lost that even the federal government was concerned. In 1928, a damning report written by the Department of the Interior titled "The Problem of Indian Administration" described the state of abject poverty and disease in which most Native Americans were living. The authors of the report criticized the faulty logic that handing private land to Native families would automatically turn them into successful farmers.

"It almost seems as if the government assumed that some magic in individual ownership of property would in itself prove an educational civilizing factor," said the report, "but unfortunately this policy has for the most part operated in the opposite direction." The report noted that many of the Indians were living on lands that even "a trained and experienced white man could scarcely wrest a reasonable living."


Congress repealed the Dawes Act in 1934 as part of the larger Indian Reorganization Act, but the systematic theft of 90 million acres (36 million hectares) of Native lands was already accomplished.

"The Dawes Act is one of the most fundamental and important pieces of legislation that affected Native American people," says Hirsch. "Tragically, it was fundamental in mostly very negative ways."

Court cases related to allotment and American Indian land tenure are still going on.