Henry L. Dawes 18161903

Attributed to Samuel M. Fassett (18251910)
Albumen silver print, c. 1876

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

In 1887, when Henry L. Dawes introduced and secured passage of the General Allotment Act (also known as the Dawes Act), the Massachusetts senator believed that he had taken an important step in helping Native Americans toward a better future.

Aimed at promoting their assimilation into American society, the bill dissolved the legal standing of tribal nations and divided communally held lands into individual holdings. Dawes had been raised in a farming family and, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, he believed that Native Americans would be more secure as property-owning farmers.

Ultimately, the General Allotment Act proved an extraordinary failure. Not only did it disregard the great heterogeneity of tribal communities, but it also resulted in the permanent loss of millions of acres of traditional Native lands. The bill was ultimately overturned in 1934 with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act.