|Henry Laurens Dawes|
Presented to the Club by Martin C. Langeveld on Tuesday evening, May 26, 2015 (that Monday being a holiday)
One of the founding members of this club in 1869 was Henry Laurens Dawes, born in Cummington in 1816. He graduated from Yale University in 1839 and became a teacher in Greenfield, where he also edited the Greenfield Recorder.
In 1842 he was admitted to the bar and opened a law practice in North Adams, maintaining his interest in journalism by editing the North Adams Transcript.
From journalism he moved into politics, being elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1848, 1849 and 1852, to the state Senate in 1850, and to the Massachusetts Constitutional convention in 1853.
He then served as U.S. district attorney for Western Massachusetts from 1853 to 1857, when he was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives and served there for 23 years until 1875.
That year, Dawes was elected by the Massachusetts General Court as United States Senator from Massachusetts, to succeed Charles Sumner, who died in office. He served in the Senate until 1893, and died in Pittsfield in 1903 at the age of 86.
A friend of Abraham Lincoln, he served as a pall bearer at Lincoln’s funeral.
In the House, Dawes figured prominently in the passage of anti-slavery and Reconstruction measures during and after the Civil War, as well as in tariff legislation, the establishment of a fish commission, and the establishment of a system of daily weather reports, which was a forerunner to the United States Weather Service.
He took a great interest in the development of the American West, supporting the creation of Yellowstone National Park and funding for geological surveys of that area. His son Chester Dawes served on the survey team, and the first boat to appear on Yellowstone Lake was named the Annie, purportedly after Dawes’s daughter Anna.
He was also an ardent supporter of the Transcontinental Railroad, influenced, perhaps, by a gift from Congressman Oakes Ames of 2,000 shares of stocks in the Credit Mobilier of America railroad construction company. Ames was subsequently censured for his vote-buying largesse.
Among the two Monday Evening Club papers that have survived among the Dawes papers housed in the Library of Congress, one reflects his interest in Western and frontier matters — it is about the fur seals of Alaska. The other, an 1889 presentation entitled “The Winter Before the War” covers the period immediately before the Civil War, including Dawes’s personal recollections of Charles Sumner, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Francis Adams, General Winfield Scott and others.
But if Dawes were here presenting his own biography, he would write at the top his list of accomplishments and interests that he was a friend of the Indian. In the Senate he served as chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, and his signature achievement was the passage, in 1887, of the General Allotment Act of 1887, generally known as the Dawes Act.
While Dawes, until his death, believed that the Allotment Act was the right course for U.S. Indian policy, it is clear today that the allotment had disastrous consequences, still being felt today, for the economic, social and cultural well-being of the Indians.
To understand the environment that brought about the Dawes Act, we need to look at the roots of American Indian policy in the early years of the American republic. A long series of Indian Wars that began in colonial days and continued until 1890 was instrumental in pushing Indian populations westward to the Great Plains, confined to reservations. The presence of this aboriginal population remained a thorny problem, especially as mining resources were discovered in the West, railroad companies began plotting routes through Indian reservations, and white settlers began eyeing Indian territory as potentially valuable agricultural land. At the same time, social reformers and missionaries sought to come up with a solution for “civilizing” the Indians — improving their educational attainment and motivating them to become productive citizens. The goal was assimilation. And collective ownership of reservation lands by the tribes was seen as an obstacle to that goal. Individual land ownership would motivate the Indians to better their situation, it was thought.
As early as 1792, George Washington’s secretary of war, Henry Knox, suggested that individual, rather than collective ownership of land would benefit the Indians. The United States, he said in a speech sent to an Indian group, “would be greatly gratified with the opportunity of imparting to you all the blessings of civilized life, of teaching you to cultivate the earth, to raise corn; to raise oxen, sheep and other domestic animals; to build comfortable houses, and to educate your children, so as ever to dwell upon the land.”
Thomas Jefferson, as president, told a delegation of Indian chiefs in 1808: “Let me entreat you . . . on the land now given you, to begin to give every man a farm; let him enclose it, cultivate it, build a warm house on it, and when he dies, let it belong to his wife and children after him.”
Throughout the first half of the century, the adoption of severalty, or individual land holdings, was discussed as the goal. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote in 1838: “Unless some system is marked out by which there shall be a separate allotment of land to each individual . . . you will look in vain for any general casting off of savagism. Common property and civilization cannot co-exist.”
Treaties made with some of the Indian tribes during this period did provide for individual allotments of land on a small scale, and in 1875, Congress extended homesteading privileges to Indians.
The movement toward allotment was accelerated by a group known as the Friends of Indians, which counted Senator Dawes as a member and leader. From 1883 to 1913, they met annually at the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, as guests of the proprietor, Albert K. Smiley, a member of the Board of Indian Commissioners. These gatherings became known as the Lake Mohonk Conferences, and they included wealthy and influential men and women who had access to Congress and to the President. They were driven by philanthropy and by strong desires to spread the blessings of Christianity to underdeveloped peoples.
In pursuing this goal, we can now see, they were relentlessly ethnocentric. Most aspects of the Indian cultures, they believed — languages, religious beliefs, common ownership of land, and aboriginal lifestyles — were incompatible with modern civilization and had to be changed.
The 1884 Lake Mohonk Conference called for providing Indians with an education that would be in English, to the exclusion of native tongues, that would teach them industrial skills, and that, above all, would be a Christian education.
By 1886, the conference was advocating strongly for a system to permit individual ownership of land. One speaker, Prof. C. C. Painter, put it this way:
I would at once break down the reservation walls and let civilization go in; I would secure the Indians for the present inalienable possession of sufficient land, by personal title, for the use of each one; I would sell the remainder for their benefit, and in place of the agent's irresponsible will make them subject to the laws and give them their protection; I would give them without delay citizenship with all its privileges and duties.
Dawes himself gave the 1886 conference a legislative update, in which he expressed the realistic expectation that granting private ownership of tracts of land would not solve the problem by itself, and that the government should also invest in education for the Indians. But he seems to have been driven by the idea that without allotment, the Indians would soon have nothing at all, saying:
Our work must be done now and without delay, for the greed for the Indian's land is growing every day, and it is as impossible to resist it under the forms of our Government as to stop the flow of the river. We may guide and direct it, but we cannot stop it. We are blind, we are deaf, we are insane if we do not take cognizance of the fact that there are forces in this land driving on these people with a determination to possess every acre of their land, and they will lose it unless we work on and declare that the original owner of this land shall, before every acre disappears from under him forever, have 160 acres of it where he shall be fitted to become a citizen of the United States and prepared to bear the burdens as well as share the rights of our Government.
Not everyone agreed with the civilizing aims espoused by the conference and built into the Dawes Act. Many pointed to the Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole) who lived in what was then called the Indian Territory, which later became Oklahoma. The Act exempted those tribes from allotment because they had already established a variety of the elements of civilization, including centralized governments, a rule of law, commerce, and education. But they worked their lands in common, and hunted in groups for buffalo. The exemption for the Five Tribes may also have been influenced by white cattlemen who had secured extensive grazing privileges from those tribes.
The most realistic criticism within Washington came from the minority report of the House Committee on Indian Affairs, which stated:
However much we may differ with the humanitarians who are riding this hobby, we are certain that they will agree with us in the proposition that it does not make a farmer out of an Indian to give him a quarter-section of land. There are hundreds of thousands of white men, rich with the experience of centuries of Anglo-Saxon civilization, who cannot be transformed into cultivators of the land by any such gift.
Colorado Senator Henry M. Teller vigorously opposed allotment, calling an earlier allotment effort “a bill to despoil the Indians of their lands and to make them vagabonds on the face of the earth.” Teller and other critics also pointed out that in reservations where small-scale allotments that had taken place under treaties since 1845, the land had gradually been dissipated, removed from Indian ownership, in all but a few cases. Opponents in the minority of the House Committee in 1880 also pointed out that the passage of legislation and the issuance of deeds was not likely to change the fact that:
. . . from the time of the discovery of America, and for centuries probably before that, the North American Indian has been a communist. Not in the offensive sense of modern communism, but in the sense of holding property in common. . . . This communistic idea has grown into their very being, and is an integral part of the Indian character. From our point of view, this is all wrong; but it is folly to think of uprooting it . . . through the agency of a mere act of Congress or by the establishment of a theoretical policy.
What about the Indians themselves? Some favored allotment, and petitioned for it. Federal Indian agents working among the tribes typically reported that their charges favored allotment as a way to prevent their removal from their lands. But the notion that after allotment they were expected to settle down into an agricultural lifestyle was not well understood. Some tribes were explicit in their opposition, sending memorials to Congress outlining their concerns. The Creeks, Choctaws and Cherokees wrote that “the change to individual title would throw the whole of our domain into the hands of a few persons.” The Senecas, in a resolution, pointed out that under their communal system, “No Indian, however improvident and thriftless, can be deprived of a resort to the soil for his support and that of his family. There is always land for him to cultivate free of tax, rent or purchase price.”
But Dawes and his supporters believed that allotment was precisely the solution that would prevent the Indians from losing their all their land, and to prevent abuses, Dawes proposed a 25-year restriction during which the recipients of allotments would not be permitted to sell or encumber their land.
The options were stark, Dawes told the Mohonk Conference.
That he will pass away as an Indian I don't doubt, and that very rapidly. It will be into citizenship, and into a place among the citizens of this land, or it will be into a vagabond and a tramp. He is to disappear as an Indian of the past; there is no longer any room for such an Indian in this country; he cannot find a place. The Indian of the past has no place to live in this country. . . . Something stronger than the Mohonk Conference has dissolved the reservation system. The greed of these people for the land has made it utterly impossible to preserve it for the Indian. He must take his place where you have undertaken to put him, or he must go a vagabond throughout this country, and it is for you and me to say which it shall be. He cannot choose for himself, and he does not know where the ways are.
Even ethnologists, who today would be the first to defend tribal rights and autonomy, largely toed the allotment line. John Wesley Powell, director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, wrote: “No measure could be devised more efficient for the ultimate civilization of the Indians than one by which they could successfully and rapidly obtain lands in severalty.”
And so, in what became essentially an act of faith by the “friends of the Indian,” land and citizenship were the tenets that became embodied in the Dawes Act the following year. As signed by President Cleveland, the act provided:
- A grant of 160 acres to each family head, 80 acres to each single person over 18 and to each orphan under 18, and 40 acres to each other person under 18.
- The deeds to these properties were to be held in trust by the government for 25 years, during which time the owners could not sell or encumber their property.
- Indians were to choose their land within 4 years, or thereafter the government would select it for them.
- Every Indian accepting an allotment would be granted citizenship, along with any Indian who had left their tribes and adopted “the habits of civilized life.”
The Lake Mohonk conferees applauded the bill, but urged greater attention to the educational goals they espoused. Later in 1887, their report urged: “The work of education, which has been heretofore desultory, individual, fragmentary, denominational, must be made systematic, harmonious, organic, Christian."
It urged the various educational and missionary entities working among the Indians to “act as one body representing one great constituency, and combining their various energies to one great end, the Americanizing, civilizing and Christianizing of the aborigines of the soil.”
A federal Indian educational program, funded through the Bureau of Indian affairs, instituted a system of boarding schools, many of them in the East, to which Indian children were brought. Typically, the long hair of the boys was cut, all the students were made to wear uniforms, education was in English and Anglo-centric, and discipline was strict. They also received English names, were forbidden to speak their native languages even among themselves, and were required to attend Christian services and encouraged to convert. Graduation rates were abysmal: during a 24-year period at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania beginning in 1879, out of 10,000 students who enrolled, only 158 graduated.
By 1902, there were 6,000 students in about 25 boarding schools in 15 states and territories. In fact, the Indian boarding school system continued to grow until attendance peaked at about 60,000 in the 1970s. Since that time, more enlightened Indian self-determination policies have resulted in decentralization of education back to tribal areas, and the reintroduction of education in aspects of Native culture.
In the grammar schools Indian children attended on reservations before going to boarding schools, Americanization was the goal. In one of his reports the Commissioner of Indian Affairs urged:
Schoolrooms should be supplied with pictures of civilized life, so that all their associations will be agreeable and attractive. The games and sports should be such as white children are engaged in, and the pupils should be rendered familiar with the songs and music that make our home life so dear. . . . If they persist in remaining savages the world will treat them as such, and justly so . . . . The school itself should be an illustration of the superiority of the Christian civilization.
But the system for educating young Indians did not extend to any form of adult education, such as instruction in how to farm their land, which gave Dawes cause to worry, in 1890, that the allotment policy was moving forward too quickly. He asked the Mohonk Conference:
What have we done to prepare these people for their new home and for their new state? Hardly anything can any of you call to mind, —anything that the Government, that the friend of the Indian, that anybody, has done to prepare an allottee for life on his allotment. . . . I sometimes think you had better abandon the allotment altogether and keep him where he is, unless this is done.
By 1897, 60,000 Indians had been allotted land, but there were only 272 farming instructors on the payroll of the Indian Service to teach them how. As a consequence, only about 5 acres per allotment, on average, were actually being cultivated by Indians, and the typically allottee could count on only a few hours of coaching per year.
The Indians were caught between two competing forces: that of the idealist friends of the Indian, who promulgated allotment in the belief that this policy would naturally drive the Indian to adopt the American culture of individualism and competition, and on the other side, the land-seeking settlers and business enterprises who saw allotment as a way to break down the reservation system and take land away from the Indians.
There is no evidence that the railroads or other western land seekers directly sought to influence the passage of the Dawes Act. Presumably those interests were happy enough to let the philanthropic and Christianizing arguments carry the day. But, the railroads did get into the Dawes Act a provision that the Act could not be
. . . so construed as to affect the right and power of Congress to grant the right-of-way through any lands granted to an Indian, or to a tribe of Indians, for railroads or other highways, or telegraph lines, or the public use, or to condemn such lands to public uses, upon making just compensation.
It did not take long for Congress to begin granting such rights of way through Indian Lands, with multiple railroad grants sailing though Congress annually throughout the rest of the 1880s and 1890s. And railroads were not the only ones interested in western lands.
Generally, the reservations had significantly more land than was necessary to provide allotments to all who qualified for them. So Congress passed enabling legislation to permit agreements with tribes providing for the sale of surplus land. Under these agreements, by 1891, 20 million acres had already been sold out of Indian hands. The Commissioner estimated that of the 116 million acres of Indian land covered by the Dawes Act, only 30 million acres were actually required to provide allotments to all the Indians who qualified for them, and that rest could be sold off for $66 million — the interest on which, he calculated, at 5 percent, would be sufficient to pay for all the costs of Indian education, and the principal could gradually be used to help develop the allotments.
The process of selling “surplus” lands progressed rapidly. Of the 155 million acres of Indian reservation lands in 1881, by 1900 only 78 million acres remained. Of that, 5.4 million acres had been issued in allotments, the rest was still held in common by the tribes. With this rapid shift, some began to anticipate that before long, the government’s oversight over the Indians could end, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs could close up shop.
It was the job of the Indian agents on the reservations to gently persuade and educate Indians into accepting allotments. But in some cases, this was done with considerable pressure, and sometimes there was strong pushback. For example the Osages were reported in 1890 to be nearly unanimously opposed to allotment, on the basis that they were simply not ready for it and that in any case their land was most suitable for use as common grazing land. The common thread among tribes expressing opposition was that allotment would break up their tribal solidarity and destroy their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
Some of the reformers recognized this problem. For example, Rev. Thomas Riggs, a missionary to the Dakotas, told the 1890 Mohonk Conference:
We have tried to turn hunters into farmers. We have tried this not only in a good country where it would be difficult enough to teach agriculture to an Indian, but on the plains, in regions where out of five years, we may possibly have a good crop one year.
Besides the lack of coaching in agricultural skills, the government allocated virtually no funds to assist allottees in the purchase of seed and farming implements. The appropriation for this purpose in 1888 was $30,000 to cover 3,568 allotments. This was cut in half after a few years and between 1893 and 1900 no funds were provided at all for this purpose. Private philanthropy was applied, but was wholly insufficient to meet the need.
Defects in the Dawes Act itself become apparent, as well. The twenty-five year period restricting allotments from being sold or encumbered became problematic, because it meant that no state could levy taxes on allotments. Consequently, states refused to provide funding for roads and education in the Indian lands.
To address these various problems, by 1889 Congress was at work to amend the Act to permit Indians to lease out their allotments, for example to white ranchers. Dawes himself was of two minds about this. He wanted to see the allotment experiment through, and told the conference that a leasing provision
. . . would speedily overthrow the whole allotment system. The Indian would at once seek to let his land, and relieve himself from work; and there would be whites so ready to take possession that all barriers would soon be broken down … The Indian would abandon his own work, his own land, and his own home, which we have talked about as the central pivot in our attempting to civilize the Indian.
But before expressing those concerns to the Conference, Dawes had already introduced leasing legislation, which was endorsed by both the Mohonk Conference and the Indian Rights Association. As passed, the new law permitted leases of allotted lands for periods of up to five years for farming and grazing, and up to ten years for mining. The bill also increased the size of allotments for Indians who were not heads of households, with the idea that a family of five Indians, receiving five allotments, could live and farm on one and lease out the other four.
The leasing of allotment proceeded slowly, at first, but gradually picked up. By the year 1900, out of 58,594 allotments granted, 7,574 had been leased, and the pace was accelerating. Only 10,835 families were actually living on, and cultivating their allotments. By 1916, 2.3 million out of the 6.4 million acres granted in allotments were in the hands of lessees.
There was rampant abuse in the leasing system. For example, one shrewd operator rented 47,000 acres from the Winnebagoes for eight to 25 cents per acre, and then sublet them to farmers for up to two dollars per acre. Among some tribes, nearly all of the allotted land went into leasing: for example, the Pawnees in 1898 were cultivating 1,443 acres and leasing 36,784; the Tonkawas were cultivating 75 and leasing 11,200. While there were opposite, more positive results elsewhere, clearly this outcome is not what Dawes and all the reformers had in mind when the general allotment policy was originally conceived just a dozen years earlier.
Indian agents who were on the ground in reservations began to understand the Indian cultural pressures that were at odds with the allotment concept, although they continued to advocate for the policy. A report by the agent to the Cheyennes and Arapahoes in 1895 illustrates the cultural clash inherent in the efforts to change the culture of the Indians:
The most common and pernicious custom among them is the habit of visiting their relatives and friends and eating their substance . . . . Their lavish hospitality militates against the accumulation of wealth by individuals. Tribal visiting keeps alive old customs and should be abolished.
Another agent to the Shoshones wrote, “Like all barbarians, they are communists, and are loath to take up individually any untried pursuit.”
Another unforeseen consequence of the allotment policy is referred to as fractionation. As the original 25-year holding period expired, Congress passed a variety of measures extending the period in instances where the government deemed the holders incapable of managing their holdings, and passed special Indian probate laws that divided ownership collectively among the heirs of the original allottee, with the title held in trust by the federal government. So if the holder of a 160-acre allotment died with four heirs, each heir would receive a one-fourth interest in the full property, rather than 40 acres apiece. This served to protect the integrity of whatever farm enterprises might have been on the land, but ultimately got very complex, with instances of parcels that had hundreds of fractional owners, each receiving a pittance from the leasing income. In 1986, one tract bringing in $1,080 in annual lease income and valued at $8,000 had 439 owners receiving a variety of tiny shares of the income. The cost of handling the accounting for this tract by the Bureau of Indian Affairs was about $17,000 per year. By 2003, the ownership of this tract had grown to 550 persons, and the cost of accounting was $42,000.
Currently  there are still about 250,000 individual owners of some 3 million fractionated interests in allotted lands. The Bureau of Indian Affairs maintains an Indian Lands Consolidation program that is gradually unraveling the ownership of fractionated parcels by buying them and turning them over to tribal ownership.
The allotment policy itself officially ended in 1934 with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (although it continued in Alaska until 1993). This law, sometimes referred to as the Indian New Deal, sought to reverse the goal of assimilation, and to permit tribes to continue their traditions and culture. It also provided for self-governance of reservations, including the right to manage land and mineral assets.
It is beyond the scope of this history of the allotment policy to go into the further consequences of American Indian policies, but it should be noted that the general economic situation of Native Americans living both on and off reservations still lags significantly behind the rest of the country. Unemployment rates and alcoholism on reservations are high. In 2012, the median income of Native American households was $35,310, compared to a median $51,371 for the entire nation. The Native American poverty rate is 29.1 percent, versus 15.1 percent for the country as a whole. At 82 percent, the Native American high school graduation rate lags behind the national average which is 90 percent. On the other hand, today cultural traditions are being rebuilt, with a significant percentage of Native American students learning their tribal languages, history and culture.
Dawes himself is memorialized in Pittsfield in the name of Dawes Avenue, and the former Dawes School. Dawes, the Dawes Act and the influence of the friends of the Indians are not well-regarded by historians. No biography of Dawes has every been published, but the Dawes papers at the Library of Congress amount to 64 boxes of correspondence, speeches and other records, including an unfinished biography by his daughter — potentially a trove that could shed much new light on the origins of the allotment policy.
In any case, had our esteemed member, Senator Dawes, espoused a more enlightened approach to solving “the Indian problem,” how might things be different today?