Dawes Commission’s main goal was taking Indian lands
Sen. Henry Dawes of Pittsfield, Mass., was chairman of the Dawes Commission that was formed in 1893 to convince the Five Civilized Tribes to give up their communal land holdings. COURTESY
Jackson Christie (brother to Ned Christie), seated left, refused to be interviewed by the Dawes Commission. Seated with him is his wife Jennie (Tucker) Christie holding son Thomas “Tom” Christie. Standing is Rachel Christie Sanders, daughter of Jackson and Jennie. CHEROKEE HERITAGE CENTER
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – As the 1800s came to an end, it became obvious to the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole nations that the federal government was determined to take their lands in Indian Territory after being forced from their traditional homelands earlier in the century.
To accomplish this, the Dawes Commission was formed on March 3, 1893. Its purpose was to convince the five tribes to cede title of their communal land holdings and adopt the policy of dividing those lands into individual allotments.
In a recent presentation to the Oklahoma Trail of Tears Association, historian Dr. Daniel Littlefield of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock said the 1887 General Allotment Act passed by Congress began the process of allotting tribal lands. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole nations, commonly called the Five Civilized Tribes, were exempt from the act because they held fee simple titles to their lands, meaning they were the ultimate owners and the government could not simply take it.
Littlefield said the commission formed because the government had to find another way to take the land. In the end, the five nations lost most of their land holdings as the government declared any remaining lands after allotment to individual households as “surplus.” The government sold the surplus to settlers.
Littlefield said usually when the Dawes Commission is discussed the focus is on genealogy and the citizenship rolls it compiled in the 1890s and early 1900s.
“There’s not anything wrong with that, but it doesn’t get us any closer to what the Dawes Commission actually was and what it did,” he said. “For the most part, the Dawes Commission was a failure.”
Because the commission is often seen as a failure and corrupt in its dealings, Oklahoma historians mostly skirt the topic, Littlefield said.
He emphasized his presentation was about how the commission’s policy was carried out and not how it was written and what it did. Littlefield said his focus is on the years 1893-98 when the Curtis Act was implemented. The act abolished tribal governments and courts and removed the five tribes’ exemption from the General Allotment Act.
In November 1893, President Grover Cleveland appointed Sen. Henry Dawes of Massachusetts as commission chairman and Meridith Kidd and Archibald McKennon as members. Littlefield classified the commissioners as “nincompoops” who had no idea how to approach the job.
To understand the commission and its job, one has to look at the era its work took place in, Littlefield said.
“You have to, if you’re going to understand how the federal government could just, without any moral twitches whatsoever, abrogate the treaties with these five tribes,” he said. “The tribes insisted all the way through this that the treaties were still in place, and they had faith the federal government was going to honor those treaties. Why they thought that I do not know. The signs were all there that Congress was not going to honor those treaties.”
It was a period of exploitation of natural resources, urbanization, cheap labor, greed and robber barons, as well as rich men who thought they were above the law and controlled most of the country’s major industries, Littlefield said.
Racial laws passed in the 1880s and 1890s also clouded the atmosphere. Two Chinese exclusion acts were passed; states were given control of civil rights, which led to Jim Crow laws in the south; and in 1896 the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that state laws requiring racial segregation were constitutional and “separate but equal” was legal. These actions gave American people the thinking that they were graded by the race they belonged to, Littlefield said.
He said the racial hierarchy placed whites on top, Indians second, Asians third and blacks on the bottom.
“Now this society has taken the power out of the hands of Asians. They’ve taken the power out of the hands of blacks. That basically leaves Indians and whites to contest for economic dominance,” he said. “The Indians had been corralled. The question was ‘how do we put them out of the way so that we can get control of their resources?’ This is what the Dawes Commission was about.”
He said politicians of the time thought that Indians owning and controlling so much land was “un-American.” They coveted Indian Territory and its vast natural resources.
“They knew they were there. Don’t kid yourself,” Littlefield said. “Standard Oil was drilling wells at Muskogee in the early (18)‘90s and capping them.”
So how did the politicians, robber barons and other interested parties work together to take Indian lands? The answer, he said, is Arkansans and its seething hate for Indian Territory, which stemmed in part with the state’s previous dealings with tribes, including the Choctaws and Cherokees. One Arkansas politician called the Cherokees “smart alecks” and welcomed the chance to do them harm.
“This hatred was based on avarice and envy and a ton of aggressive ignorance,” Littlefield said.
Arkansas’ Congressional delegation had much influence in Congress when the Dawes Commission was created and used its influence to help take apart the governments of their tribal neighbors to the west. Other anti-Indian congressmen from other states also backed the commission’s efforts.
These congressmen influenced the makeup of the three-member (later five-member) commission.
Littlefield said because the commissioners had little knowledge of Indian Territory and how tribal governments operated, their first attempt at dealing with the five tribes in 1894 failed.
As the commission continued failing to negotiate with the tribes, it launched a smear campaign against them to influence Congress to abrogate treaties between tribes and the United States and to influence the American public to go along with the land grab. It was reported to Congress that Indian Territory was lawless, that tribes held a monopoly over commerce and were dishonest in their dealings.
“Every subsequent report filed was just that report, rewritten,” Littlefield said. “They singled out the Cherokee Nation, particularly, as examples of graft, of inefficient government, monopolies...crime. All the things they had railed against, they now make it look like most of that is in the Cherokee Nation.”
Another report to Congress in 1895 claimed if something was not done about the Cherokee Nation and other tribes “an armed rebellion” was imminent in the territory. The Cherokee Nation responded by saying the commission offered no proof of their allegations.
“The Dawes Commission really didn’t do much in terms of actual work until they began to enroll the tribes in 1896. They started with the Cherokees because they wanted to show...the ‘smart alecks’ they could do it,” Littlefield said.
After tribal citizens were enrolled, the commission began allotting tribal lands. Using a premeditated plan, Littlefield said the commission removed restrictions for Freedmen, inter-married whites, minors, people who were half Indian or less when they allotted the land, which later made it easier to for the government and others to swindle the land holdings of those citizens.
Littlefield said he read an account of a member of the Cherokee Commission, which formed in 1898 to deal with the Dawes Commission, who asked a fellow commissioner why the federal government was doing what it was doing to the Cherokee Nation. The second commissioner answered, “Because they can.”