What Was the Dawes Act?

Indigenous tribe members were allocated land by federal law.

The Dawes Act of 1887, also referred to the Dawes Severalty Act, was a federal law that involved the conversion of communally owned tribal land of Indigenous Americans into privately owned land, as well as to assimilate the indigenous population into the European-American lifestyle. The act allowed the government of the United States to remove tribal land and redistribute it to individual indigenous families. Those families that accepted were given allotments of land to be used for farming. Once allotments had been distributed, any "excess" tribal land could be sold on the open market. The Dawes Act came into law under US President Grover Cleveland in 1887. 

What Was the Purpose of the Bill?

This bill was designed to break up indigenous tribes, transfer communal land ownership rights to individual land ownership, transform traditional communities into independent farmers and ranchers, and integrate their populations into mainstream European American society. However, the act was promoted as a means to boost the indigenous population out of poverty by providing farming opportunities and to support and protect their rights to own property.

Impact of the Dawes Act

The impact of the Dawes Act was significant and had negative effects on the indigenous population. For example, it reduced or eliminated communally held tribal lands, limiting the ability of the indigenous population to live a traditional lifestyle, and enabled excess land to be sold for profit and development. The act was sponsored in the United States Congress by Senator Henry L. Dawes. Indigenous families could choose to accept 160 acres land for growing crops or 320 acres for grazing, and those that accepted were automatically given United States citizenship, which subjected them to federal, state, and local laws.

Land Allocation and Farming

Although the act claimed to promote farming, much of the allotted land was arid desert and unsuitable for agriculture. Due to the nature of the lands allocated, the objective of boosting farming was not achieved. Farming machinery was also costly, and often too expensive for many of the families that received the plots of land. 


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