What Was the Dawes Act?

Quck answer

The Dawes Act was a law passed in 1887 in the United States. Its main goal was to assimilate Native Americans into American society by dividing their tribal lands into individual plots. These plots were then given to Native American families, with the hope that they would adopt western agricultural practices and become “civilized”. However, the Dawes Act had devastating consequences for Native American communities. It resulted in the loss of millions of acres of tribal land, the destruction of Native American cultures, and the forced assimilation of Native Americans into mainstream society. Overall, the Dawes Act was a failed attempt at cultural assimilation and had lasting negative effects on Native American communities.

Have you ever learned about pioneers heading West in covered wagons? Maybe you’ve read books about settlers. Have you ever wondered if there were people living in the western U.S. before white settlers arrived? How did settlers acquire land in the west?

When settlers arrived in the western U.S., there were already American Indian tribes living there. Starting in 1851, the U.S. government designated certain areas of land as reservations and forced American Indians to live there. European-American, or white, settlers wanted new land for farming and living. The western U.S. seemed like the perfect place. However, American Indians were already occupying that land. By confining American Indians to reservations, more land became available for white settlers.

Living in close proximity often led to conflicts between settlers and American Indians. Living on reservations made it difficult for American Indians to maintain their traditional way of life. White settlers expected American Indians to assimilate to their culture. Assimilation refers to when different groups adopt the dominant culture of a place.

The U.S. government also aimed for assimilation. They believed it was the best way for different groups to coexist. The government’s plan included changing the way American Indians lived. Prior to the Dawes Act, most American Indians lived communally on tribal lands—they collectively owned the land. Many tribes were nomadic, frequently moving around. In contrast, settlers owned land individually. Each family owned their own land and worked on it independently. They had permanent homes and did not migrate.

As more settlers moved westward in the 1800s, conflicts with American Indians escalated. In 1887, the government passed the Dawes Act to pressure American Indians to assimilate. The Act aimed to have American Indians own land individually, just like white settlers. The government would divide the land occupied by American Indians and distribute plots to each person or family. The head of each family would receive either 160 or 320 acres of land. 160 acres were for farming and 320 acres were for raising grazing animals, such as cattle. Only American Indians who agreed to this arrangement would be granted U.S. citizenship.

From the perspective of American Indians, one problem with this approach was that they did not want to live on individual plots of land and engage in farming or cattle raising. They wanted to live according to their own culture and traditions. Another significant issue was that when the government divided their land, the tribes lost a substantial portion of their territory. The excess land was taken by the government and sold to settlers.

In total, American Indians lost over 90 million acres of land through this process. Prior to the Dawes Act, tribes had control over approximately 150 million acres—so they lost the majority of their land. Often, tribes were not compensated for the land taken from them. When compensation was provided, it was significantly less than the actual value of the land.

There were various consequences of the Dawes Act. One consequence was that many American Indians received land that was intended for farming but was not suitable for cultivation. They were unable to grow crops on this land. Additionally, there was not enough land for American Indian families to pass on to future generations. As a result of the Dawes Act, many American Indians experienced poverty. However, one of the most significant effects of the Dawes Act was the transformation of American Indian cultures. Tribes that had previously lived in a nomadic manner and collectively owned land were forced to adopt a different way of life. Their cultures were permanently altered.

The Dawes Act remained in effect until the 1930s. At that time, the U.S. Indian Reorganization Act repealed the provisions of the Dawes Act. However, the government was unable to undo the damage caused by the Dawes Act. What would you have done differently?

Try It Out

Let’s travel back to the 1800s and explore the Dawes Act. Try these activities with a friend or family member!

  • Imagine what it would have been like to be an American Indian during the 1800s. What about being a settler moving west? How would you feel? Let’s use our imagination! Write a narrative from both perspectives. Then, share it with a friend or family member.
  • Visit the Native Land Digital website with a friend or family member. Find your location on the map and discover which American Indian tribes lived or still live in your area. What observations can you make about the map? What questions arise? What conclusions can you draw? Share what you have learned with a friend or family member.
  • Get your art supplies ready! Research different types of homes that a visitor to the West might have encountered in the 1800s with a friend or family member. Then, use paint, pencils, or digital art to draw, or use natural materials to build models. How many different types of homes can you create? Where would you prefer to live? Don’t forget to share your artwork with others.

Wonder Sources

  • https://www.britannica.com/dictionary (accessed 3 Feb. 2023)
  • https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/dawes-act.htm (accessed 27 Oct. 2022)
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/Dawes-General-Allotment-Act (accessed 27 Oct. 2022)
  • https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/the-gilded-age/american-west/a/the-dawes-act (accessed 27 Oct. 2022)


1. What was the Dawes Act?

The Dawes Act, also known as the General Allotment Act, was a law passed by the United States government in 1887. It aimed to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American society by dividing their reservation lands into individual plots for private ownership.

2. Why was the Dawes Act implemented?

The Dawes Act was implemented as a part of the government’s policy to assimilate Native Americans. It was believed that by breaking up tribal lands and promoting individual ownership, Native Americans would adopt a more Western lifestyle and become self-sufficient farmers.

3. How did the Dawes Act affect Native American tribes?

The Dawes Act had a significant impact on Native American tribes. It resulted in the loss of millions of acres of tribal land as it was divided among individual tribal members. This led to the erosion of tribal customs and cultural practices, as well as a decline in the overall well-being of many Native American communities.

4. Did the Dawes Act achieve its intended goals?

The Dawes Act did not achieve its intended goals. Instead of promoting Native American assimilation, it had devastating effects on tribal communities. Many Native Americans lost their land, which had been an essential part of their cultural and economic livelihoods.

5. What were the long-term consequences of the Dawes Act?

The long-term consequences of the Dawes Act were profound. It contributed to the further marginalization and impoverishment of Native American tribes. The loss of land resulted in a loss of self-sufficiency and cultural identity. The legacy of the Dawes Act continues to impact Native American communities today.

6. How is the Dawes Act viewed today?

Today, the Dawes Act is widely criticized for its negative impact on Native American tribes. It is seen as a policy that forcibly assimilated Native Americans and caused significant harm to their communities. Efforts are now being made to address the historical injustices caused by the Dawes Act and promote the rights and sovereignty of Native American tribes.

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