Did the Dawes Act of 1887 succeed or fail?

1 Answer
Feb 17, 2018


It depends who you ask.


The purpose of the Dawes Act of 1887 was to remove land from the control of American Indian tribes and make it available to other Americans - primarily white immigrants. The Dawes Act divided Indian reservation lands into 80-acre and 160-acre parcels and assigned them to Indian families. This process was called "allotment." The families were required to move onto their parcels and farm the land. "Leftover" or "surplus" land that remained after each Indian family had been allotted a parcel was then offered for sale to other Americans.

Sometimes the surplus land was made available to non-Indians through the process of "claiming". A person established a "claim" to a parcel of land by putting up stakes marking the border of the claimed land, building a simple home, and then registering the claim with a land office operated by the territorial or state government where the land was located.

The U.S. government had tried many times to take Indian land and sell it to whites before the Dawes Act. For example, the Homestead Act of 1862, signed by Abraham Lincoln, opened an enormous amount of land to white settlement after the land was taken from Oklahoma tribes and others. Thousands of people raced into Oklahoma Territory to stake claims to land. In Minnesota, hundreds of thousands of acres of land in established Dakota tribal treaty areas were offered to whites after Minnesota evicted all the Dakota people following the Dakota Uprising in 1862. North and South Dakota lands were taken from the Lakota and sold to white settlers after the Indian Wars ended with the surrender of several Lakota leaders and the destruction of the Great Sioux Reservation that had been established in 1868. Other tribes also lost lands in Montana, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, and New Mexico.

So if you ask a white person whether the Dawes Act was successful, he or she would probably say yes. If you asked an Indian tribal member whether the Dawes Act was a success, he or she might say that the Act succeeded in destroying the tribes because the Act dispersed tribal members into wide areas and prevented them from living together in extended family groups.

The Dawes Act was one of many federal laws designed to destroy Indian culture and traditions, and it did so.