Allotment, the federal policy of dividing communally held Indian tribal lands into individually owned private property, was the culmination of American attempts to destroy tribes and their governments and to open Indian lands to settlement by non-Indians and to development by railroads. It was a necessary prelude to statehood for Oklahoma and Indian territories. Tribes were removed from other parts of the country to Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) from the 1830s through the 1870s. They signed treaties with the U.S. government. These generally guaranteed that they would be undisturbed on lands the government granted them from those it had acquired by treaties with other tribes. Following a congressional initiative for a transcontinental railroad in 1849, pressure began to build for the extension of federal jurisdiction over Indian Territory.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole, who owned lands west of the 98th Meridian and who had signed treaties with the Confederacy, were forced to sell or cede those lands to the U.S. government for the settlement of western tribes such as the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache. By 1859 the Wichita and affiliated tribes had been settled on lands leased by the government from the Choctaw and Chickasaw in 1855. Thus Indian Territory was split between the Plains tribes settled in the west and the Five Tribes in the east.
In 1887 Congress passed the General Allotment Act, authored by Sen. Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, providing for the allotment of reservation lands. The act, for various reasons, specifically exempted the Five Tribes and the Osage, Miami and Peoria, and Sac and Fox in Indian Territory. The Five Tribes also strongly resisted allotment, fearing that extensive land grants to railroads, contingent on the clearing of Indian title, would go to the railroads if tribal governments were dissolved and land allotted to individuals.
In 1889 the Boomers, a group of prospective settlers led by David Payne, lobbied for the opening of the Unassigned Lands in central Indian Territory, purchased by the government from the Creek and Seminole but not yet assigned to any other tribes. Although the federal government repeatedly removed Payne and his followers as intruders on Indian land, it finally relented and opened the area in the Land Run of 1889. This settlement opened the way to the allotment of other Indian lands and the sale of surplus acreage to settlers. In order to accommodate the homesteaders it was necessary to establish a territorial government, and in 1890 Congress passed the Organic Act creating Oklahoma Territory.
The allotment process took place in two stages. In 1889 Pres. Benjamin Harrison appointed the Cherokee Commission, also known as the Jerome Commission after David Jerome, its chairman, to negotiate with the Cherokee and other Oklahoma tribes for their agreement to allotment and the sale of their surplus lands to the government. The Jerome Commission began its work in July 1890 with the Cherokee, who were not interested in the commissioners' propositions. The commission moved on to the Iowa tribe, who agreed to accept 80-acre allotments and sold 221,528 acres of land to the government for $254,632.59. The Sac and Fox agreed to 160-acre allotments and ceded 391,189 acres for $485,000. The Potawatomi and Shawnee also received allotments, and the government bought 325,000 surplus acres for $225,000. Further west, the Cheyenne and Arapaho, who had been settled in the Leased District obtained from the Choctaw and Chickasaw, agreed to accept a payment of $2.5 million for approximately three million acres of surplus land. The Wichita and affiliated tribes received 160-acre allotments and were paid $286,000 for their surplus land, approximately fifty cents an acre. In June 1891 the Kickapoo took 80-acre allotments and received $64,650, approximately thirty cents an acre, for their surplus. Despite their signed agreement, almost all Kickapoo refused to accept a per capita payment of their money and refused to select allotments, which a government agent finally picked for them.
The commission finally succeeded, after an early unsuccessful attempt, in signing an agreement with the Cherokee in December 1891 for the sale of the 6,022,754-acre Cherokee Outlet for $8,595,736. The Cherokee gave up the Outlet's lucrative grazing leases, and the government agreed to pay a higher price for the region. The commission then turned its attention to the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache, who in September 1892 agreed to allotments of 320 acres to heads of families and 80 acres to their dependents and a payment of $2 million for approximately 2.5 million acres of land (less than eighty cents an acre.) The final agreement signed by the commission was with the Pawnee, who received allotments of 160 acres of grazing land or 80 acres of farming land and who sold 171,088 acres for $250,000.
By the time the funding for the Jerome Commission expired in August 1893, it had negotiated eleven tribal agreements and had purchased 15,100,538 acres to be opened for settlement. Its failures were with the Ponca, the Otoe and Missouria, and the Osage. It was left to other agents to secure agreements from those tribes as well as the Kaw, Quapaw, and Peoria and Miami.
Allotment negotiations with the Five Tribes were carried out by the Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes, chaired by Henry Dawes. Created by Congress in 1893, the commission set up its operations in Vinita in spring 1894, but ultimately it moved to Muskogee. The commissioners spent a good deal of time trying to elicit responses from tribal leaders and visiting tribal council meetings to persuade the Indians to accept allotment. Dawes was clear that Congress had the ultimate power to enforce allotment, and the task of the commission was to help the tribes decide how best to carry out the process.
Faced with obvious lack of interest on the part of the Five Tribes, the commission received congressional approval in 1896 to compile rolls of tribe members who would be eligible to receive allotments. Although the tribes had various census rolls, the Dawes Commission's authority allowed it to add individuals who maintained that they had not been included on the rolls or other lists constituting records of tribal membership. The commission thus effectively undermined the power of the tribes to determine their own membership and, in the case of the Choctaw and Chickasaw, precipitated extensive court action and legal battles over rights to be enrolled.
It was not until April 23, 1897, that the commission successfully concluded an allotment agreement, and this with the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes. The Atoka Agreement called for an equitable distribution of the tribal land base among the members, except for lands set aside for schools and townsites and land reserved because of coal and asphalt deposits. Homesteads of 160 acres would be inalienable for a period of twenty-one years, and the surplus land could be sold, one-fourth in the first year, one-half in the second year, and the remainder by the fifth year after allotment.
An agreement with the Creek followed on September 27, 1897, providing for 160-acre allotments and the sale of surplus land by the government, the proceeds to be used to equalize the value of allotments. The agreement with the Seminole was signed on December 16, 1897, calling for the equal distribution of all tribal lands, the proceeds from mineral sales to be used to equalize the allotments, and the selection by each individual of a 40-acre homestead to be permanently inalienable.
The Cherokee agreement was not signed until April 9, 1900. Each member received an equal share in the tribal estate in the form of an 80-acre allotment and an equalization payment from the sale of the excess land. Each individual selected forty acres of the allotment as a homestead that would be inalienable for a period of twenty-five years. The Choctaw and Chickasaw agreement and the Creek agreement were ratified by Congress under the Curtis Act of June 28, 1898, and the Seminole agreement was ratified on July 1, 1898.
The survey of tribal lands in preparation for allotment had begun in 1897, and the actual process of enrollment occupied the Dawes Commissioners from 1897 through (in the case of the Choctaw and Chickasaw) 1906. The final tribal rolls compiled by the Dawes Commission became the arbiter of tribal membership and the right to share in equitable distribution of tribal resources. By June 30, 1916, 15,794,238 acres had been allotted to members of the Five Tribes.
The process of allotment raised crucial issues both for tribes and for the development of the state of Oklahoma. For the Five Tribes, membership was determined not by the tribes but by the Dawes Commission. The Choctaw were particularly concerned that large numbers of individuals claiming to be Choctaw from Mississippi came forward to lay claims, thus complicating and delaying the final allotment process.
The process made individual allottees of all tribes U.S. citizens, but it also restricted their rights to sell property. For newly established Oklahoma the existence of large amounts of inalienable and nontaxable land placed a significant financial burden on a government striving to fund services to citizens and on entrepreneurs seeking to exploit the resources of the young state. Allotment marked a massive shift from communal to private property. Ultimately, after restrictions on lands of individuals of less than one-half degree of blood were lifted in 1908, a significant amount of Indian land was lost to taxation and sale.
Kent Carter, The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1893–1914 (Orem, Utah: Ancestry.com, 1999).
William T. Hagan, Taking Indian Lands: The Cherokee (Jerome) Commission 1889–1893 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003).
D. S. Otis, The Dawes Act and the Allotment of Indian Land, ed. Francis Paul Prucha (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973).
Carl Coke Rister, Land Hunger: David Payne and the Oklahoma Boomers (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1942).
Terry P. Wilson, The Underground Reservation: Osage Oil (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Clara Sue Kidwell, “Allotment,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=AL011.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.