Digital History

Tragedy of the Plains Indians

Native Americans at the Turn of the Century Previous
Digital History ID 3506



As the 19th century ended, Native Americans seemed to be a disappearing people. The 1890 census recorded an Indian population of less than 225,000, and falling. The prevailing view among whites was that Indians should be absorbed as rapidly as possible into the dominant society: their reservations broken up, tribal authority abolished, traditional religions and languages eradicated. Late 19th century federal policy embodied this attitude. In 1871 Congress declared that tribes were no longer separate, independent governments. It placed tribes under the guardianship of the federal government. The 1887 Dawes Act allotted reservation lands to individual Indians in units of 40 to 160 acres. Land that remained after allotment was to be sold to whites to pay for Indian education.

The Dawes Act was supposed to encourage Indians to become farmers. But most of the allotted lands proved unsuitable for farming, owing to a lack of sufficient rainfall. The plots were also too small to support livestock.

Much Indian land quickly fell into the hands of whites. There was to be a 25 year trust period to keep Indians from selling their land allotments, but an 1891 amendment did allow Indians to lease them, and a 1907 law let them sell portions of their property. A policy of "forced patents" took additional lands out of Indian hands. Under this policy, begun in 1909, government agents determined which Indians were "competent" to assume full responsibility for their allotments. Many of these Indians quickly sold their lands to white purchasers. Altogether, the severalty policy reduced Indian-owned lands from 155 million acres in 1881 to 77 million in 1900 and just 48 million acres in 1934. The most dramatic loss of Indian land and natural resources took place in Oklahoma. At the end of the 19th century, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek nations held half the territory's land. But by 1907, when Oklahoma became a state, much of this land, as well as its valuable asphalt, coal, natural gas, and oil resources, had passed into the possession of whites.

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