Dawn of the Dawes Rolls
The United States Congress passed the Dawes Act on 8 February 1887. The act was named for its author, Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts. Also known as the “General Allotment Act” and the “Dawes Severalty Act,” this legislation was enacted as a “well-intentioned” means to assist impoverished tribes by encouraging them to assimilate into a farming and ranching lifestyle by granting each eligible individual a parcel of land. However, the issues that arose from this act, and subsequent acts, accomplished quite the opposite. From the “five dollar Indian” to the compounded fractionation of allotments, the Dawes Act created far more harm than the good intentions it was presented as having.
As the westward expansion of American settlement succeeded in spanning the continent from coast to coast, and after the indigenous tribes were removed to assigned reservations (after the Indian Removal Act of 1830), most of the military battles with tribes were over by 1880, with the exception of some Apache holdouts, the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, and a handful of skirmishes. The indigenous people continued to face problems that persisted in various regions, most of them being a result of removal and resettlement. Various tribes were sent to locations that were largely non-arable or which did not support their traditional tribal existence. Tribes that had once lived in cool regions were sent to live in hotter areas; nomadic hunters were hemmed in by too small of an area to support their communities. Many of us are familiar with the Trail of Tears, but even as late as 1877, tribes like the Ponca were forcibly removed from their homeland and relocated to Indian Territory, being forced to walk hundreds of miles, and given no chance to take belongings or supplies with them. The 1869 Peace Policy also enacted the boarding school policy for almost all indigenous children with the intent of “kill the Indian, save the child.”
As the “civilized” people of the country watched tribal communities suffer with poverty, starvation, and illness, a movement of support began growing across the nation. Various groups who characterized themselves as “friends of the Indian” began to organize and petition for some better means of assistance being extended to the Native American population. Unfortunately, the means to improve the indigenous existence was often promoted with and by religious organizations that believed pushing the indigenous peoples into assimilation would be best for them. One such group, the Women’s National Indian Association (WNIA), expanded into a nearly national organization. One of its organizers, Amelia S. Quinton, collected petitions for improved treatment of Indians, some of which condemned white settlers moving into Indian Territory, others presented the idea of voluntary citizenship, individual land ownership, and universal education. It seems as if the WNIA and other organizations like the Indian Rights Association (IRA) or the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee truly desired improving the lives and living conditions of indigenous people as a whole, expressing concerns of fairness and rights being extended to all.
Senator Henry Dawes was one legislator who took up the request presented by the WNIA and IRA in the development of the Dawes Act of 1887. The intent of the act was to grant individual land ownership as a means to detribalize their communities, centering the concept of success as one belonging to an individual. Allotments were to be granted to those indigenous people who applied, if the government determined that they met the qualifications to be considered an “Indian.” Heads of households would be granted 160 acres, single indigenous persons or those who were orphaned and over the age of 18 would be given 80 acres, and people under 18 would receive 40 acres. This act was not intended to be applied to the “Five Civilized Tribes” which were the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole as their land rights had been granted by several treaties. Unfortunately, the Dawes Act couldn’t be passed unless there was a provision to “take back” the non-allotted land from tribes.
The Dawes Rolls were a tool to identify who would be eligible for allotments. Those who wanted an allotment would show up, ask to be put on the rolls, and the plan was for those people to be vetted by the government to determine if they were eligible. Some tribes were asked for something like a tribal roster, but those sorts of records were incomplete if they existed. Many eligible people may have avoided the registration out of a general distrust of the federal government or fear of being recorded for some other purpose. The people who did register were not always actually Native American, giving rise to the term “five dollar Indian.” Non-indigenous people would bribe officials to have their name put on the rolls, and for many years this was not questioned by authorities, although tribes surely protested once allotments were assigned.
On 3 March 1893, the Indian Office appropriation bill was passed creating what would come to be known as the Dawes Commission. This bill slated the Five Civilized Tribes to be allotted, as well, with the very clear intention of eliminating them. In a 28 November 1893 letter to Henry Dawes, who was then serving as a commissioner for the Indian Office, the Secretary of the Interior, Hoke Smith, wrote, “The success in your negotiations will mean the total abolition of the tribal autonomy of the Five Civilized Tribes and the wiping out of the quasi-independent governments within our territorial limits. It means also…the admission of another state or states in the Union.”
Before allotment began, the various tribal lands totaled 138 million acres. After allotment, there were only 48 million acres still held by the indigenous population. Almost immediately, the surplus land was made available to non-indigenous settlers. The first of four “land runs” was held in Indian Territory on 22 April 1889, wherein anyone who wanted to stake a claim on the now federal land could do so. The massive interest in “cheap land” led to thousands of new settlers in what had been indigenous land less than three years prior.
A variety of problems arose from allotment. Many of the indigenous people were not farmers or ranchers, meaning they had no experience nor capital to suddenly start farming. Some of the land was not suitable for farming, even if the tribe was agrarian. The Sioux nation was a nomadic tribe that heavily relied on hunting, but their lands were reduced so severely that they could no longer support themselves. Government rations were given to help address this problem, but then the rations were cut to the point of being unsustainable. These issues ultimately led to the massacre at Wounded Knee. The Dawes rolls also recorded various tribe members as Indian or freedmen sometimes based solely on appearances and sometimes without regard for the tribal standard that all tribe members were considered equal members regardless of their genetic heritage. Some freedmen were permitted allotment claims, while others were not.
Another resulting problem from the Dawes Act is the fact that today, there are millions of acres tied up in fractionated land parcels based on allotment and inheritance claims of descendants. One of the main issues dealt with by the Bureau of Indian Affairs is the current state of allotments. A statistic from 2018 indicates that there are 2,496,565 fractional interests for 6,221,453 acres of land. Recently, steps have been made in an attempt to return some of the fractional interests to tribal holdings with a buyback program.
Several follow-on acts were put into place to attempt to correct some of the errors collected by the Dawes Rolls. The Curtis Act of 1898 introduced the distinction of blood quantum for who would be considered a tribe member, essentially creating new tribal rolls. This act clearly disqualified freedmen tribal members from being considered eligible for allotment. The Curtis Act also officially stripped tribes of their sovereignty, meaning any tribal laws were no longer valid unless approved by the President of the United States. Municipal management was allowed, and voting rights were extended to all tribal members. The overarching outcome, however, was far from the original intent.
In the midst of the Great Depression, and in response to the Meriam Report of 1928, a turnabout from the Dawes Act was put into effect. The Wheeler-Howard Act, also known as the Indian Reorganization Act, was enacted by Congress on 18 June 1934. The practice of allotment was largely discontinued, tribes were allowed to repurchase surplus lands, tribes could establish their own constitutions and form councils for self-governing, and public schools were established on most reservations.
Of course, the Dawes Rolls remain for our historical usage, but they should be taken with a grain of salt. The Curtis Rolls are another potential source of information, but also know, they should be considered with the caveat of historical prejudice that was present during their creation.
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How Will the 1950 Census Release Impact Native American Research?
Family historians have been eagerly awaiting the release of the 1950 United States Federal Census in anticipation of the potential for finding an ancestor in a new census, or perhaps seeing themselves recorded in a federal enumeration for the first time. Reasons vary as to why many of us have been counting down the days for the release of the 1950 Census since, well, since April 2012 when the 1940 Census became available to the general public and it left us wanting more! There have been numerous articles and blog posts heralding all of the information that will be revealed to us in a few short weeks with the release of the 1950 Census, but the majority focus on the population schedule, and rightfully so, as this is what most family historians are concerned with and what we can’t wait to dive into come 1 April 2022.
Those with Native American ancestry will eagerly be combing through the pages of the enumeration looking for all of the genealogically or biographically pertinent details simply waiting to be revealed to us, just like those researching any other ancestor who resided in America during that time. The questions posed by the enumerators were similar to those in the prior decennial census, with the biggest change being that fewer questions were asked, but more individuals, per page, were asked the special sample questions.
The most important thing to know if you are research Native American ancestors that were recorded in the 1950 Census is to not stop with reviewing the details revealed in the pages of the population schedule, as there was a special schedule conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs personnel and Native American reservation residents who worked to record the names of the residents and many other details at almost 100 reservations. While all Native American who resided in the United States were recorded in the population schedules, not all were recorded in the Indian Reservation Schedule, as it was not conducted at every reservation.
Some of the more interesting topics of questions posed to those residing on reservations included:
Aliases or nicknames for all of the family members in the home
Tribal affiliation for all family members in the home
Clan affiliation (smaller sub-groups within a tribe)
Blood Quantum (percentage of Native American blood)
Participation level in Native Indian ceremonies in the prior year
The answers to these questions, in addition to those found through more traditional sources, will not only add rich depth to your family narrative, but they may also reveal clues to extending your ancestral lines. Now, if April 1st would just get here already…
Learn more about researching your Native American ancestors with this article from our archives, Is Your Family’s Heritage Native American? Native American Research Resources.
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“Chief’s Eloquence Resounds Today,” Lincoln Journal Star (Lincoln, Nebraska), 15 July 1999, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com : 9 February 2022), citing print edition, p. 8X, col. 2-3.
Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle, ed., The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago, Illinois : Monarch Book Company, 1894), p.71; transcription, University of Pennsylvania Digital Library (https://digital.library.upenn.edu : 8 February 2022).
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Native Voices (https://www.nlm.nih.gov : accessed 8 February 2022), “1934: President Franklin Roosevelt signs the Indian Reorganization Act.”
Celia E. Naylor, African Cherokees in Indian Territory: From Chattel to Citizens (United States: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), p. 179 – 181; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 9 February 2022).
Steven Newcomb, Indian Country Today (https://indiancountrytoday.com : accessed 8 February 2022), “The 1887 Dawes Act: The U.S. Theft of 90 Million Acres of Indian Land.”
Oklahoma Historical Society, (https://www.okhistory.org : accessed 7 February 2022), “Removal of Tribal Nations to Oklahoma.”
Oklahoma Historical Society, (https://www.okhistory.org : accessed 8 February 2022), “Removal of Tribal Nations to Oklahoma,” Curtis Act (1898).”
Our Documents (https://www.ourdocuments.gov : accessed 7 February 2022), “Dawes Act 1887.”
U.S. Department of the Interior (https://www.doi.gov : accessed 8 February 2022), “Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations: Fractionation.”
United States Census Bureau (https://www.census.gov/ : accessed 10 February 2022), “1950 (Population)].”
National Archives, The Texas Message (https://text-message.blogs.archives.gov/ : accessed 10 February 2022), “The Story of the 1950 Census P8 Indian Reservation Schedule.”