Study Guide

The Dawes Act of 1887 Historical Context

By Henry Laurens Dawes / The Forty-Ninth Congress of the United States of America

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Historical Context

Shmoop, as usual, has already been all over it here, but here's a recap of the Native Americans' story so you know how we got to the Dawes Act of 1887.

Let's set the stage with a little log entry by a certain Christopher Columbus, who was met in 1492 by the Arawak people of the Bahamas:

They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned... . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane... . They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want (source).

Can you say "foreshadowing"?

Home, But Not Alone

Ever since the first English settlers set foot in North America in the 16th century, they were confronted with the reality that the area was already home to indigenous people who'd been living there for thousands of years, organized communities and nations with their own governments and courts.


In 1585, the very first settlers established a colony at Roanoke Island (now in North Carolina) that disappeared under very mysterious circumstances. A local Powhatan chieftain (Pocahontas's pop) later claimed to Captain John Smith that he'd killed the colonists for palling around with a rival tribe.

Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. There's some archaeological evidence that the settlers actually just moved with another tribe and assimilated and married into it. Nobody really knows what happened to the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke, but the stories were only the preface to familiar conflicts that characterized the contentious relationships between white settlers and the original inhabitants of the New World.

The settlers in Jamestown, Virginia (1607), the next shot at establishing a colony, had to rely on local tribes for their very survival until they figured out for themselves what crops worked and what didn't. (The Jamestown settlement probably wouldn't have lasted a decade if the local Native Americans hadn't taught them how to cultivate tobacco.) And the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth in 1620 probably staved off starvation for a while (half of them still died) by stealing corn and beans from Wampanoag burial mounds (source).

The colonial governments knew that their success depended on maintaining good relationships with the powerful tribal leaders. And some white settlers who were paying attention challenged the traditional view of the Native Americans as barbarous and uncivilized. We have lots of records from colonists who wrote things like this:

They strive after a sincere honesty, hold strictly to their promises, cheat and injure no one. They willingly give shelter to others and are both useful and loyal to their guests […]. (Francis Daniel Pastorius, Pennsylvania, 1702)


They are really better to us than we are to them. They always give us Victuals at their Quarters, and take care we are arm'd against Hunger and Thirst. We do not so by them (generally speaking) but let them walk by our Doors Hungry, and do not often relieve them. We look upon them with Scorn and Disdain, and think them little better than Beasts in Human Shape; though, if well examined, we shall find that for all our Religion and Education we possess more Moral Deformities and Evils than these Savages do, or are acquainted withal. (John Lawson, North Carolina, 1709)

Many woke colonists were able to acknowledge that much of the "savagery" of the tribes was a result of their nasty treatment by whites, and that the Native American culture was as legitimate as their own, even if they weren't (gasp) Christians.

Regardless of whether they viewed the Native Americans as savages or nobles, as thousands more settlers arrived and wanted land to farm and build, the situation became, well, tense. Still, both the Dutch and English colonial governments treated the various Native American tribes as sovereign foreign governments despite the battles over land (source).

The large and powerful Iroquois nation, a confederation of six tribes across New York, had managed to strike deals and treaties during the late 1600s and early 1700s with France and Britain—the two powers duking it out for control of the North American continent at the time. By the mid-1700s, the Iroquois controlled lands stretching from Canada to the Carolinas, and controlled many other smaller tribes. During what was called in America the French and Indian War, most Native Americans initially fought on the side of the French because they thought that was their best bet to keep their ancestral lands; the French seemed to have the upper hand.

But when future prez George Washington defeated French troops trying to establish a foothold in the Ohio Valley, the Iroquois decided to side with the British. The British promised to give back land lost in an earlier land swindle with Pennsylvania and to set up forts so that no white settlers would venture past the Appalachian Mountains.

So when the British defeated the French in war, the Native American allies who'd fought alongside them figured they'd cemented their sovereignty and land rights to the interior parts of the continent.


A quarter of a century later, the continent was home to three million colonists, most along the Atlantic seaboard, plus about 600,000 Native Americans (source). Suddenly, in 1783, there was a new political reality. Having rebelled against British taxation and bullying, those English colonists were now citizens of their very own country: The United States of America. The tribes were dealing with a new nation with its own set of rules. What would that relationship look like?

A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Start

It wasn't a very auspicious beginning.

After that little skirmish that began in 1776 and ended with the Treaty of Paris, Britain handed over its North American land (except Canada and what they owned west of the Mississippi) to the new United States. In the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War, the Native Americans who'd fought with the British were suddenly considered as conquered people by the new sheriffs in town.

The tribes had treaties and agreements about their right to the land that were now null and void because they'd been made with the British, and the British weren't in charge any more. Even the tribes that had been neutral during the war, or were sympathetic to the colonists, were informed that they were now expected to sign treaties acknowledging their new status as a "subdued people" (source).

Representatives of the government visited the tribes and forced them to sell some of their land. So it wasn't surprising that, when white settlers moved into land they assumed was theirs, they weren't exactly met with open arms. They were attacked.

Treaties, Take 2

The president of this brand-new republic, George Washington, decided this approach wasn't working for anyone. He wanted—in theory at least—to show some sympathy for the people who'd been living here way pre-Mayflower. In fact, the Constitution mentioned the tribes in Article I, when it gave Congress the power:

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes

Sure sounds like we considered them separate, independent entities. In fact, some argue that the democratic government formed by the Constitution was heavily influenced by the governing structures of the tribes, with their emphasis on consensus-building and giving voice to all members of the tribe (source).

So in 1790, Creek Chief Alexander McGillivray and Washington's Secretary of War Henry Knox hammered out an agreement that was a 180 from the Treaty of Paris. What's the point of the American Revolution, thought Knox, if its principles of dignity and sovereignty were thrown out the window when it came to the original inhabitants of the land?

This strategy worked until it didn't, i.e., until the push for westward expansion made the U.S. less willing to share space with the indigenous peoples. Anyone who played "Oregon Trail" back in the early days of computers knows the story. Treaty after treaty was made and broken, and the tribes were forced into smaller and smaller spaces on land "reserved" for them. War and slaughter ensued.

In 1830, the Indian Removal Act forcibly removed the tribes living in the southeast U.S. to areas west of the Mississippi. According to President Andrew Jackson, who earned the nickname "Indian Killer" for his trouble, it was for their own good, so they wouldn't be bothered any more by white settlers. And maybe they'd see the wisdom of adopting European customs and culture.

Here's how the Hero of New Orleans put it:

That those tribes can not exist surrounded by our settlements and in continual contact with our citizens is certain. They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear (Source).

Well, why don't you just tell us what you think, Mr. President?

The Great "White" Way

By the time of the Civil War, most tribes had been moved out of the existing states to reservations on Indian Territory west of the Mississippi (created by the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851) so that farms and plantations could be given to whites. Many Native Americans had fought for the Confederacy because of the way they'd been treated by the government, and after the war, the new Union nullified all the agreements it had with tribes who'd been on the Rebel side.

Decades later, even Abraham Lincoln, the progressive Great Emancipator, said in his annual message to Congress in 1863:
Sound policy and our imperative duty to these wards of the government demand our anxious and constant attention to their material well-being, to their progress in the arts of civilization, and, above all, to that moral training which under the blessing of Divine Providence will confer upon them the elevated and sanctifying influences, the hopes and consolations, of the Christian faith (source).

Not quite as harsh as Andrew Jackson, but still…
Even while taking native land, dissing Native American culture, and giving the federal government considerable power over the tribes, the government still officially considered the tribes sovereign nations, free from any interference from the states. As late as 1832, the Supreme Court held that:

The Indian nations had always been considered as distinct, independent political communities, retaining their original natural rights, as the undisputed possessors of the soil, from time immemorial […]The very term "nation," so generally applied to them, means "a people distinct from others." The Constitution, by declaring treaties already made, as well as those to be made, to be the supreme law of the land, has adopted and sanctioned the previous treaties with the Indian nations, and consequently admits their rank among those powers who are capable of making treaties. The words "treaty" and "nation" are words of our own language, selected in our diplomatic and legislative proceedings, by ourselves, having each a definite and well understood meaning. We have applied them to Indians, as we have applied them to the other nations of the earth. They are applied to all in the same sense (source).

That position came to a screeching halt in 1871 with the passage of the Indian Appropriations Act v.2, which declared the tribes to be no longer independent nations. Instead, Native Americans were considered to be dependent wards of the state. They'd be subject to legislation; no more treaties, because treaties were made between nations.

Westward Ho

American expansion just couldn't be contained, and by 1887, the American people had had just about enough of these folks who were getting in the way of their Manifest Destiny to own the continent from sea to shining sea. Even the Indian Removal Act and Indian Appropriation Acts weren't working.

Part of the reason they weren't working was because the Native Americans did what anyone else would do: what they'd been doing all along, just somewhere else. They weren't going to give up their traditional way of life, which included communal farming and tribal justice systems. This just wouldn't do if they were to be subjugated completely and subsumed into the "American" way of life. And believe us, the government tried.

American Indian kids were shipped off to boarding schools starting in the 1860s, where they were taught English and American customs in the hopes of getting them to abandon their traditional culture. One of the first of these schools was founded by Richard Pratt in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Here's how he described the reasons behind this approach:

A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man" (source)

Guess that's what passed for progressive thinking about Native Americans back then.

But what about the Native Americans who remained on the reservations? You couldn't just break up the reservations and tell people not to live communally.

Oh wait.

You could.

Do the Dawes

The Dawes Act was an effort to put the last nail in the coffin of Native American culture by turning the tribe members into Americans. Well, they were already Americans—the original ones, in fact—but you know what we mean.

The Act found two ways to accomplish this: 1: It made sure that Native Americans were forced to adapt to the American/European style of farming and the idea of private property. As in: I farm my land for my family and profit. 2: It took away most of the Native Americans' tribal sovereignty by declaring that upon accepting the land allotted to them, they were also becoming citizens of the United States, and therefore subject to our laws.

A convenient byproduct for the government was that any land left over after allotments could be taken by the government and sold off to white settlers. The Act was one in a long line of laws ostensibly for the benefit and advancement of the tribes, acts which had the coincidental effect of annexing Native lands and expanding the Union.

Now, this came far short of getting rid of the whole "Indian Problem." The Indian Wars—conflicts between settlers and Native Americans, and Native Americans and the government— lasted another 50 years or so after this legislation was passed. Amendments like the Curtis Act and the Burke Act were necessary to adjust the methods that were proving ineffective as laid out in the Dawes Act. They were even harsher than Dawes. The Curtis Act extended the Dawes Act to the formerly exempt "Five Civilized Tribes," and the Burke Act allowed the U.S. government to decide who was or was not worthy of getting the allotments in the first place.

In language that seemed as benevolent and altruistic as possible, the Dawes Act paved the way for more policies that effectively wiped out the Native American way of life.

Rocky Road Ahead

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1932 brought the Dawes allotment system to an end. The federal government began giving back tribal land, offering economic assistance, and restoring tribal governing structures, but they still tried to impose American values while they were doing that.

In 1945, there began a 20-year period of a federal "Indian Termination" policy, which was exactly what it sounds like. The idea was to end the existence of the tribes and move people into cities. With the end of federal financial aid, many tribes couldn't pay the taxes on their lands and lost them to forfeiture. It was a pretty dismal time for Native Americans.

Starting around 1968—everything happened in1968—there was a revival of Native Americans' pride in their identity and culture (not that they ever lost it), and a shift in federal policy back towards self-governance and recognition of tribal sovereignty. But if there's one thing we've learned, it's that it's never been an easy path in the relationship between the United States and the original inhabitants of our great country. The tribes have had to fight to protect their lands and sacred sites from strip mining, oil drilling, and unwanted development.

The Standing Rock protest (see our "Why Should I Care" section) is the just the latest of the standoffs. It sure won't be the last.

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