Monday, April 16, 2018

The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887

The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 opened a tragic new chapter in the history of Native America. This federal legislation sought to end tribal land ownership and allot parcels of land to individuals. In the words of historian Wilcomb E. Washburn, the law was nothing short of "an assault on Indian tribalism."[1] It was named for U.S. Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, pictured at left, the champion of severalty for Indians. For this reason, the Dawes Act was sometimes called the General Allotment Act. Writers often use the two terms interchangeably.

The law was a central component of the federal government's plan to "detribalize" Indians, to "individualize" them. Ideally, each allotment of land would become a family farm or ranch. In essence, the Dawes Act sought to turn Native Americans into American homesteaders. As historian Robert M. Utley explains, many federal officials believed that "once the individual had broken free of the tribal heritage," he would then be free to "leap into the mainstream of American life." Eventually, "all Indians could be submerged in the body politic of America."[2] But a minority of leaders claimed that all such rhetoric was overly-optimistic at best, and cynical at worst. During congressional debates, Senator Henry M. Teller of Colorado noted that, according to the proposed legislation, all unassigned Indian lands would then be deemed surplus. "The real aim of this bill," he concluded, "is to get at the Indian lands and open them up for settlement."[3]

Meanwhile, Native Americans did not simply resist the allotment scheme. They found it difficult to understand the very concept of private ownership of land, or of land as capital. Much less did they appreciate these novel ideas. This had been the case, for example, in the struggles between English colonists and indigenous peoples of what became New England during the seventeenth century.[4]


[1] Wilcomb E. Washburn, The Assault on Indian Tribalism: The General Allotment Law (Dawes Act) of 1887 (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1975).

[2] Robert M. Utley, The Indian Frontier 1846-1890, rev. ed. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003), 204-05.

[3] Roger L. Nichols, American Indians in U.S. History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), 164-67.

[4] William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, rev. ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), ch. 4.

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