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Dawes Allotment Act

   In 1887, the U.S. Government passed the Dawes Allotment Act, also known as the General Allotment Act, which had devastating effects for all reservation systems around the United States, including the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin. Although not expressly written into the wording of the law, the main goal of Allotment was to assimilate the Indians into American culture, stripping them of tribal identity and turning communal lands into individual homesteads. As a result of allotment, the Oneida Nation lost control of all but a few hundred acres of the reservation. After decades of struggling to make their new home lands productive, following Allotment the Oneida spent decades trying to hold onto their land.

   The Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 was also known as the General Allotment Act. Along with several amendments and subsequent acts such as the Burke Act, Allotment facilitated the acquisition of Indian lands by non-Indian people. The Dawes Act of 1887 was a tool by the Federal Government by which Indian reservations, held in trust status by a tribe as a whole, could be divided into separate allotments for individual tribal members. These trust patents were to be unchangeable for twenty five years, and then would be converted into taxable patent fee plots of land. Through subsequent acts or amendments to the Dawes Act, it became more and more feasible for non-Indians to purchase and acquire Indian lands. The most significant revision to the Dawes Act became known as the Burke Act of 1906. This act allowed the conversion of trust patents to fee simple status if the owner could pass a competency test. 

   The Oneida came through allotment with smaller allotments than provided by the Allotment Act, but without the side affects of surplus lands. During the allotment era, any land not allotted to individuals “was declared surplus land and transferred to the public domain where non-Indians could purchase it.”
[1] These “surplus” lands could be sold to the highest bidder and as a result white settlers began to move into reservations across the United States. The Dawes Allotment act was passed in 1887 and allotments were assigned to the Wisconsin Oneidas in 1891 although the patents were not issued until June of 1892.[2] The Allotment Law stated that every head of house was to receive 160 acres; smaller amounts were defined for unmarried and minor individuals.[3] The Oneida Reservation established by the 1838 Treaty with the United States of America covered exactly 65,428.13 acres.[4] Due to the increase in population on the Oneida Reservation, their was not enough land to distribute the required allotment size to each person. As a result, the allotments were prorated to lesser amounts and heads of house received 96 acres instead of 160. The lack of reservation land meant that the entire reservation, with a few exceptions such as church and school properties and the land used by the railroad, was allotted and therefore no surplus lands were left to be sold in Oneida. This limited the influx of non-Indian peoples [for a short time].[5]

   The Oneidas were lured into a false sense of prosperity for a few brief years following Allotment. One Oneida woman, Ida Blackhawk, stated that the hardest time on the reservation around the beginning of the twentieth century was the winter. She notes though, that “if any of [the Oneida] had a hard time in winter at that time it was because the father neglected to support his family.” The factor that made the difference, according to Blackhawk, was “if the man drank or if he was too lazy to work.” Otherwise she notes that approximately fifty percent of Oneidas made progress similar to that which was experienced by her family.[6] After spending four years at Hampton Boarding School in Virginia, she returned to the reservation and noticed indications of improvement.

There was a distinct sign of progress. While out East and in New England I had seen some automobiles, and I had a trip in one of them. In Oneida there were not automobiles, but the Oneidas were well fitted out with nice carriages or buggies pulled by nice-looking teams. The roads were in better condition, and they had better homes. There were many new houses, and some had put improvements to their homes, and some had new barns and more livestock to most farms. I think at this period most of the Oneidas who were farming, were at the height of their advancement. About 75 percent were farming, the rest were laborers, but had their gardens, and lived on their allotments.[7]

   The reaction of Oneidas to the Dawes and Burke Acts varied from person to person. In an interview with Dennison Hill, Jessie Peters stated how ironic he felt it was that during the 1930’s that Oneida began to put up signs for others to keep off of their property. Peters said, “It would have been a very good idea, if the Indians would of thought of keeping out the white man when they were allotted with land in the early days. It seems odd to see such signs posted on Indians land as there is nothing left for them to hunt, as there is not even a burrow left for rabbits to hide in, maybe the Indians could hunt chickadees instead.”[8] On a lighter tone than Peters, Ida Blackhawk stated that while she was home after attending school in New York, she opted to sell her land. “While I was home I sold my allotment too, because my sisters and brothers had all sold their land, and it was sort of swampy, and I decided I did not want to live there…Everybody was selling land about this time.”[9] Those who did not sell their lands often lost them through other means. Many Oneida began to borrow money and used their land as collateral. If they failed to pay their loan or the interest on the loan, they lost their lands. Some Oneida lost their land by not paying their taxes.[10]

   The years that followed that prosperous interlude saw the beginning of mass losses of Oneida lands. Many Oneida started to mortgage their homes or take out small loans. Taxes were also applied, which became a source of confusion as the Oneida people had never before been subject to taxes. One Oneida man was alleged to have a spread rumor that Oneidas didn’t have to pay taxes and that the State couldn’t force them to. Several Oneidas believed him, which caused a number of them to lose their homes. Other Oneidas did not understand or read English, and contracts that they signed got them into trouble when they did not comply with the conditions of the loan. In at least a few cases it was questioned whether the white business men had taken advantage of the language barrier and intentionally deceived some Oneidas into signing over more property than they thought that they were or to sign over the property completely when they thought they were leasing it.[11]


[1] James W. Oberly, “The Dawes Act and the Oneida Indian Reservation of Wisconsin,” Laurence M. Hauptman and L. Gordon McLester III, eds., The Oneida Indians in the Age of Allotment, 1860-1920 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), 191-192.
[2] Robert E. Ritzenthaler, “The Oneida Indians of Wisconsin,” The Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee 19 (November 1950): 13; and Laurence M. Hauptman and L. Gordon McLester III, eds., The Oneida Indians in the Age of Allotment, 1860-1920 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 7.
[3] United States Statutes at Large 24:388-91, as found on http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/NATION/DAWESACT.HTM. Accessed on January 13, 2010.
[4] Shirley N. Mckinsey, An Economic Survey of the Oneida Indian Reservation of Wisconsin, (1937), 24, Collections of the Oneida Cultural Heritage Department, Green Bay, WI.
[5] Arlinda Locklear, “The Allotment of the Oneida Reservation and Its Legal Ramifications,” in The Oneida Indian Experience: Two Perspectives, Jack Campisi and Laurence M. Hauptman, eds. (Syracuse: Syracuse University, 1988), p 83-85.
[6] Ida Blackhawk, “Hard Times at Oneida”, in Oneida Lives: Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas. Herbert Lewis and L. Gordon McLester III, eds. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2005), 5-6.
[7] Blackhawk, Oneida Lives, 2005, p 8-9.
[8] Jessie Peters to Dennison Hill, Binder labeled OH-5D, entry D-77. WPA Oneida Language and Folklore Project, the Oneida Cultural Heritage Department, Green Bay, Wisconsin.
[9] Blackhawk, Oneida Lives, 2005, p 10.
[10] Oberly 2002, 195.
[11] Blackhawk, Oneida Lives, 2006, 9-10.