Dawes Commission

The Act of Congress providing for the appointment of a commission to the Five Civilized Tribes was the most important law enacted by Congress, looking toward the abolishment of the tribal governments and the settlement of their vast estates. The law was passed on March 3, 1893, and provided that the President should appoint three commissioners to enter into negotiations with the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muskogee (Creek) and Seminole nations, for the purpose of extinguishment of the tribal . title to the lands of Indian Territory, either by the cession of the same or some part thereof to the United States, or by the allotment and division of the same among the citizens of the tribes.

The first commission appointed consisted of Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, Meredith H. Kidd of Indiana and Archibald S. McKennon of Arkansas.

Upon their arrival in the Indian Territory, the commissioners were not given a very hearty reception by the natives. The Indians had repeatedly expressed themselves as being opposed to any dissolution of their tribal governments or to any division of lands.

On the 26th day of June, 1895, the International Council of the Five Civilized Tribes met at Eufaula to exchange views upon the proposition of the Dawes Commission to allot the lands of the Indians to the individual members of the several tribes.

The Cherokee Nation was represented by L B. Bell, G. W. Benge, W. A. Duncan and C. J. Harris ; the Choctaw delegates were J. C. Fulsom and Jacob Jackson ; the Chickasaw Nation was represented by R. H. McLish ; the Creek delegates were Roley McIntosh, John R. Goat, Esparhechee, Robert Stewart and A. L. Posey; the Seminole representatives were J. F. Brown, Okchan Harjo and J. N. Kinkeekee.

C. J. Harris, chief of the Cherokees, made the principal address and was followed by G. W. Benge, J. R. Goat, Governor J. F. Brown, J. C. Fulsom and R. H. McLish.

At the close of a two-day’s session the council adjourned after adopting resolutions reaffirming the position which they had taken the year before at a council held in Checotah, which was not favorable to the proposed agreement of the Dawes Commission.

Gen. G. M. P. Turner, a prominent Creek, in 1897, voiced the feelings of many of the full-blood Creeks toward the efforts of the Dawes Commission in a speech in which he used the following words:

“Egypt had its locusts, Asiatic countries their cholera, France had its Jacobins, England had the black plague, Memphis had the yellow fever, Texas had her Middle-of-the-road Populists, the world had McKinley and prosperity, Kansas had its grasshoppers, but it was left for the unfortunate Indian Territory to be” afflicted with the worst scourge of the Nineteenth century, the Dawes Commission. When God, in the medieval days of His divine administration, first conceived the grand idea of building worlds, making governments and creating judiciaries, He never contemplated the Dawes Commission. If He had, He would have shrunk with horror, quit His job and left the world in chaos.”

During the month of June, 1897, the Dawes Commission visited Fort Gibson for the purpose of persuading the Cherokees to consent to an agreement providing for the division or allotment of their lands among the members of their tribe, but so much opposition to the proposition was manifested, principally among the full-blood element, that nothing was accomplished at that time.

Muskogee Phoenix Editorial

The Muskogee Phoenix, on June 17, 1897, had this editorial on the situation:

“Affairs are getting in a desperate condition over in the Cherokee Nation. The full-blood element is wrought up to a high pitch over the pending negotiations with the Dawes Commission and grave trouble is apprehended should the Cherokee Commission enter into an agreement with the United States representatives: The full-bloods have united, burying all past differences and have organized themselves almost as a unit in opposition to any kind of a treaty, and rumor has it that they have marked out no less than forty of the progressive citizens who are urging the treaty and given them an intimation that their lives will pay the forfeit for disrupting tribal autonomy. A rumor of so serious a nature as this would be given little credence were it not for the suspicious actions and open threats made by certain of the influential full-bloods to various members of the Cherokee Commission. Those conversant with exact conditions of affairs in the Cherokee Nation do not hesitate in admitting that in the event of an agreement, breaking up tribal autonomy, there will in all probability be assassinations and bloodshed and riots far-reaching and disastrous in their effects.”

A Vinita paper commented upon the situation as follows:

The System Condemns Itself

     “The negotiations with the Dawes Commission have demonstrated beyond- the possibility of doubt the fact that the land in common system is wrong in theory and in practice and cannot stand.
     “The fact that the Cherokees have a patent in fee to their land has been little or no protection against the inevitable tide and pressure from without, and consequently must be terminated. Land owned in common cannot in the very nature of things be properly safeguarded from attack from both the inside and the outside. The system of common property was never intended for any people but the uncivilized and non-progressive and not for a people of intelligence and enterprise, like the Cherokees ; it is utterly and entirely inadequate and unsatisfactory.
     “That the stronger members of the tribe would ultimately absorb and monopolize the common property of the tribe might have been foreseen from the beginning, and the tendency has been in that direction. When the Cherokees were transplanted west of the Mississippi nearly three-quarters of a century ago, the great West was a boundless and trackless waste and the present pressure and scramble for land could not be imagined.
     “It has scarcely dawned upon many of our citizens that the portion of land that will fall to each will be very small, probably not more than forty acres. A few years ago more than an entire section of 640 acres would have been the per capita share and many of our citizens do not realize the true state of Indian affairs.”

The title to the lands was vested in the tribe. Each Indian was allowed to take possession of as much land as he could use, so long as he did not trespass upon the rights of his neighbor. He had the right to sell his improvements at any time, to any other member of his tribe, which sale carried with it the right to occupy and use the land upon which the improvements were located. He was not permitted, however, to sell to any person other than a member of his own tribe. Upon his death, his improvements and his possessory right to the land which he occupied, descended to his heirs. When he sold his claim, he had the right to take possession of any tract of land which was not occupied by any other member of the tribe, and improve it as his own.

While this system was commendable in some respects, especially as it was an incentive to every Indian to build a home, yet it proved objectionable, as the white citizens and those who were partly white, soon had possession of the best tracts of land, while the full-blood, who was slow to appreciate the value of good land, was gradually forced back to the rocky, barren hills.

But the majority of the full-bloods were contented because they were permitted to roam about, changing their habitations at will, and not eager to burden themselves with large amounts of cultivable lands.

Indian councils refused to treat with the commission and numerous public meetings were held to protest against any change in their tribal affairs. Certain white tenants and others of slight degree of Indian blood, who were in possession of some of the best land, lent encouragement to this opposition.

By Act of Congress of March 2, 1895, the Dawes Commission (so called in honor of its first chairman, who, as United States Senator from Massachusetts, had manifested an active interest in Indian legislation) was increased to five members, Thomas B. Cabaniss and Alexander B. Montgomery being the new appointees. Frank C. Armstrong was also appointed to take the place of Commissioner Kidd, who resigned in order to enter another branch of governmental service.

In order to give the commission more authority and better standing with the tribes, Congress enacted a law on June 10. 1896, empowering the commission to determine who were lawful members of the respective tribes entitled to share in tribal property. This act gave the commission a responsible task to perform, instead of merely “parleying” with the Indians as it had been doing up to this time, and it served to create in the minds of the Indians a feeling of more profound respect for the commission, as it was now authorized to pass judgment on the legal standing of every Indian. Opposition to entering into any agreement with the commission continued to manifest itself in numerous meetings and resolutions, but as the commission began its task of determining who were entitled to enrollment as Indian citizens, its members were brought into closer contact with the Indians, and feelings of mutual respect and confidence began to develop.

Tribal councils began to give the matter more serious attention by appointing delegates to confer with the commission, but without authority to bind the tribes.

There are three pages to this section, please read each one to get a better understanding of these negotiations!

See also: 

Source: Benedict, John D. Muskogee and northeastern Oklahoma, including the counties of Muskogee, McIntosh, Wagoner, Cherokee, Sequoyah, Adair, Delaware, Mayes, Rogers, Washington, Nowata, Craig, and Ottawa. 3 v. illus., ports., facsims. 28 cm. Chicago, S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1922.

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