The Reconstruction Politics of the Allotment Era in Indian Territory

The Reconstruction Politics of the Allotment Era in Indian Territory

Read the introduction to the A Prelude to an Unholy Union roundtable here and the first installment here

In the post-Civil War period, Republicans in Congress and the White House were as equally interested in bringing the American West into the nation as they were in the former Confederate South. Even during the war, Republicans had turned their focus westward to write and pass popular legislation. In the 1870s, as White Southerners aggressively worked and ultimately beat back the Federal Reconstruction project, Republicans once again looked to the West to recapture public support and build the free labor, multiracial democracy that had been undermined in the South.

Home of Creek Freedmen, ca. 1900. National Archives, Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior.

Indian Territory—modern-day Oklahoma—was one of these critical western sites of Reconstruction. In 1866, the United States forced the Five Tribes—the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole Nations—to sign new treaty agreements known as the Reconstruction Treaties. The U.S. government’s Reconstruction requirements for Indian Territory included allotment, the dividing up of communally held tribal lands into individually owned private properties. While the allotment era is well known and studied, it remains siloed in Native rather than U.S. history. Examining its political inspiration and implementation, however, reveals that allotment after 1865 was not just Indian policy. It was also Reconstruction policy through which Republicans sought to unite the nation under a homogenous American sovereignty, culture, and citizenry that recognized the rights of freedpeople.

Allotment reflected a core political priority of Reconstruction— private property ownership—and was advanced by Henry L. Dawes and other Republican politicians who explicitly saw allotment as the key to what they called “Indian Emancipation.”[1] Allotment also helped achieve the overarching goal of Reconstruction in Indian Country: the dissolution of tribal governments and the integration of Native people into the American body politic. As Frederick Douglass put it in 1884, “The tendency of the age is unification, not isolation.” Federal officials in Indian Affairs shared that impulse for uniformity.[2] However, many Native nations had proved resilient to assimilation. Thus, in 1885, the Board of Indian Commissioners codified the following recommendations: “No more of the ‘imperium in imperio.’ Treat Indians as families and individuals. Extend the law over them as individuals. Give them land as individuals. Punish them as individuals.”[3] While emancipation and the Reconstruction Amendments brought Black Americans into the American body politic as citizens, allotment promised to do the same for Native Americans by disempowering tribal governments in favor of U.S. control and eventual citizenship.

In 1886, the Supreme Court gave Congress the clearance to make these changes to Indian policy. As the Court determined in United States v. Kagama, Native American land and people fell under the political rule of the U.S. federal government.[4] This was a significant departure from the historical relationship between U.S. and Native sovereignties, and the decision gave birth to the age of Congress’ plenary power in Indian affairs. Passing a year later, the Dawes Act used those new wide-ranging powers to transform Native Americans into private property-holding individual citizens once and for all.

In most histories of Indian Territory, the Allotment era follows the Reconstruction era, and this demarcation has limited historians’ ability to identify linkages between the two sets of reform.[5] The life and work of Senator Henry L. Dawes, the namesake of the 1887 Act, offers one window into the connections between Reconstruction and allotment. A stalwart Republican who served in Congress from 1857 until 1893, Dawes realized the political priorities of Reconstruction in his vision for allotment policy.[6]

Dawes’ interest in allotment was based on his mission to promote the Republican party, through which he also promoted Republican political goals born in the Reconstruction era.[7] He hoped to restore Republican idealism, and Indian reform offered “a comfortable revival of the party’s egalitarian principles… and a living example of the proper role of government in assimilating new groups.”[8] Believing in individualism, national institutions, the principles of racial equality, and the supremacy of federal power, Dawes found a natural fit between his political philosophy and the project of allotment.

Dawes was not the first to try to pass an allotment bill in Congress, but unlike previous versions, Dawes’ act included U.S. citizenship for Native Americans who took up allotments. His version of the policy reflected Republican values and employed the legal and cultural tools of Reconstruction: citizenship, federal law, and single-family homes.Like many late 19th century reformers, Dawes had no doubt Native peoples would “pass away.” But rather than disappear into extinction, allotment offered a better path: political absorption and disappearance into the American population and citizenry.[9] Dawes’ version of allotment “drew heavily on the ideals of civil equality that had informed Reconstruction-era legislation establishing black people’s freedom and citizenship.”[10] Through citizenship, Native Americans, just like southern freedpeople, would join the collective American nation-state. Meanwhile, allotment would destroy tribal citizenship and sovereignty to realize the Reconstruction Republican ideal of a homogenous citizenry.

Despite the federal government’s numerous attempts to enact allotment, the Five Tribes had vigorously and successfully contested the policy in favor of their own governments’ sovereignty.[11]  They escaped the terms of the Dawes Act of 1887 because they did not live on reservations; they owned their land fee simple as a result of their Removal era treaties.[12] Allotment only came with the establishment of the Dawes Commission, initially led by Henry Dawes himself, which operated between 1893 and 1914. And even then, each of the Five Tribes mounted a significant resistance to the Dawes Commission’s attempt to negotiate allotment. Only when Congress passed the Curtis Act of 1898, which set an expiration date for the Five Tribes governments, did the Dawes Commission have the power to allot the Five Tribes without their governments’ consent.

Allotment was not only a Reconstruction policy in its conception but also in its implementation. In Indian Territory, allotment empowered federal officials to continue the Reconstruction effort to provide greater political equality to formerly enslaved people. The Dawes Commission not only set out to allot Native American members of the Five Tribes but their former slaves and descendants as well. Observing freedpeople’s exclusion from land and citizenship within the Five Tribes, the Commission argued that the tribes did not truly hold lands in common.[13]Linking their project to the goals of the 1866 Treaties, the Commissioners wrote, “the United States is bound by solemn treaty to place… freedmen securely in the enjoyment of their rights [and] cannot ignore the obligation.”[14]

The Commission’s attention to political rights and race created new possibilities for freedpeople and their descendants. While some freedpeople in the Seminole and Creek nations had successfully gained access to common tribal lands after 1866, allotment gave many more freedpeople access to land for the first time. However, the Commission’s use of racial categories to enroll tribal members made race more of a defining feature of legal status than it had ever been before. While instituted to achieve homogenous citizenship, allotment ended up reproducing the strict racial divisions present in the post-war South.

As academic and indigenous writing has been well documented, the Commission’s race-based allotment system caused incalculable harm. Still, the scholarly focus on its effects has also obscured the fuller history of the Commission’s relationship with freedpeople in Indian Territory.[15] Allotment had been a requirement of several of the Five Tribes’ Reconstruction Treaties of 1866, but so had recognizing their freedpeople as full citizen members. The Five Tribes’ failure to achieve progress on these issues allowed the Dawes Commission to take up those tasks, initiating a new phase of reconstruction—one that gravitated out of Native control—to realize both policies in the 1890s.

From the beginning, the Commission opposed the tribes’ efforts to limit freedpeople’s access to tribal land. They sought not only to enroll freedpeople but also to give them allotments of equal size. When the Creek Nation tried to negotiate a 40-acre limit for freedpeople, Commissioner Archibald McKennon commented, “This proposition… will not be considered by us for a moment.”[16] The Choctaw and Chickasaw refused to include their freedmen at all. This was a non-starter for the Commission, despite its desire to come to an agreement and begin allotment. As Senator James K. Jones wrote to Dawes in 1897, “I agree with you fully in what you say about the absurdity of making an agreement without taking the Chickasaws Freedmen into account.”[17] As Alaina E. Roberts has argued, the Dawes Commission helped make Indian Territory “a rare place…in which people of African descent formerly enslaved by the Five Tribes—Indian freedpeople—were…legitimized by the U.S. government.”[18]

In Indian Territory, allotment accomplished what the 1866 Reconstruction Treaties could not. It gave political recognition to freedpeople in Indian Territory in the hopes of creating a homogenous American citizenry. At the same time, it made some of the fastest progress toward the destruction of the alternative American sovereignties tribal governments represented and the political absorption of Indian Territory into the United States. Allotment marked the culmination of the Reconstruction era goal to turn Native Americans—like freedpeople in the South—into individual private property-owning citizens. Thus, from its formulation to its implementation among the Five Tribes, the allotment era was closely linked to Reconstruction politics and priorities.


[1] Like the Free Soil Party before it, which believed in “freedom in the West, freedom grounded in land ownership,” the Republican Party promoted individual property ownership and homes in the post-war South & West. Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom (New York: NYU Press, 2006)

[2] Frederick Douglass, The Future of the Negro, July 1884,

[3] “Report of the Board of Indian Commissioners, 1885” in H.R. Exec. Doc. No. 1, 49th Cong., 1st Sess. (1885), pg. 785

[4] United States v. Kagama, 118 U. S. 375 (1886), pg. 379,

[5] This distinction is primarily made based on periodization (1866-1877) and (1889 – 1914). Kent Carter’s The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Tribes, 1893-1914 (Orem, Utah:, 1999) is the most detailed single volume on allotment in Indian Territory. See also David A. Chang The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). For the experience of allotment in Indian Territory see Rose Stremlau, Sustaining the Cherokee Family: Kinship and the Allotment of an Indigenous Nation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Claudio Saunt, Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of an American Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Alaina E. Roberts, I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021).

[6] The secondary literature on Dawes, however, is surprisingly thin and he lacks any kind of sustained biography. Frederick Hoxie’s A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920 is the best and in-depth assessment of Dawes’ Republican politics in relation to Reconstruction and allotment. Richard White also gives Dawes’ motivations several paragraphs in The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), pg. 605-605.

[7] See Hoxie, A Final Promise, Ch. 1 “The Appeal of Assimilation”

[8] Frederick Hoxie, Beyond Savagery: The Campaign to Assimilate the American Indians, 1880-1920 (doctoral dissertation, Brandeis University, 1977), pg. 104

[9] Proceedings Mohonk Lake Conference, 1886, pg. 84

[10] Barbara Krauthamer, Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), pg. 150.

[11] The Tribes’ resistance to allotment contributed significantly to its extended implementation over more than two decades.

[12] The Osage, Miami and Peoria, and Sac and Fox in Indian Territory were also exempt from the 1887 Dawes Act.

[13] “Report of the Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes, 1894” in U.S. Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes: Annual Reports of 1894,1895, and 1896 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1900), pg. 20

[14] Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes, Annual Report (1894), pg. 19

[15] Historians sometimes miss the fact that the Dawes Commission was required by the Curtis Act to enroll freedpeople separately and did not make that classification on their own.

[16] Tams Bixby and A. S. McKennon to the Secretary of the Interior, November 15, 1898, Box 52 (1898, Oct. – Dec.), Folder 7, Henry L. Dawes Papers, Library of Congress

[17] Senator James K. Jones to Henry Dawes, May 3, 1897, Box 52 (1897, May – July) Folder 2, Henry L. Dawes Papers, Library of Congress

[18] Roberts, pg. 43


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