1887 - Dawes Act passed

Homesteaders flooded onto the Great Plains to claim Indian lands unlawfully opened to settlement by the Dawes Act of 1887.

          The Dawes Act, or the General Allotment Act, took the name of its sponsor, Senator Dawes of Massachusetts, and its passage was a watershed moment in the evolution of federal Indian policy.

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         With the passage of Dawes, tribal land holdings were now up for grabs by white settlers in the West.  This was the official dissolution of tribal landholdings and "the systematic destruction of tribal leadership."  Congress no longer bothered to rationalize its side stepping of Indian separatism and independence, and it effectively swept John Marshall's trust doctrine under the carpet of history.  Earlier policies inspired by Knox and Washington - policies which embraced Indian self-government and sovereignty, were now thoroughly discounted and legally diminished.  The early policies that sought to preserve traditional Indian cultures and economies and to protect their land base and resources from encroachment by non-Indian settlers had been dismantled or discredited.  Now, the Allotment Era programs codified that which had been going on informally for years - the breaking-up of Indian reservations into tiny 160 acre parcels.

         Under the Allotment plan, each Indian family and every individual tribal member would receive a federal trust patent to a parcel of land.  All of the land remaining after tribal members received their trust patent would be opened up to settlement.  Surplus lands were to be put up for sale to whites settlers or development companies, and the proceeds would be held in trust by the government for the benefit of the tribes (never happened).  Only one senator, Henry Teller, of Colorado, challenged allotment as a thinly veiled land-grab and a wholesale abrogation of treaty rights.  He predicted that the Allotment Era would only impoverish the Indian people even further.

         The program ran into difficulties thanks to a petard of the government's own making.  Treaties signed with tribes of the Great Plains often required that future land cessions be approved by a majority of the adult male members of the affected tribes.  This hurdle became a serious obstacle/challenge, particularly at a time when the U.S. Army was engaged in an all out war with so many of the tribes that Congress wanted to 'remove.'  The Kiowas and Comanches challenged the allotment program based on provisions of their 1867 treaty at Medicine Lodge Creek.  The new Indian commissioner, David Jerome, had the odious task of meeting with the tribes at Fort Sill in 1892 and convincing them that they should give up all of their surplus lands.  Jerome made the pitch based on the limited leverage at his disposal -- either give it up and receive generous annuities from the Great White Fathers (a time-honored ploy), or face starvation.

         It is estimated that Indians lost more than 86 million acres of their land base during the Allotment Era - roughly 60% of their land - between 1887 and 1934, at which time the Roosevelt administration, calling allotment a national disgrace, terminated the program.