Railroads and Conflict in the West

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The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 and its primary purpose


The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 aimed to assimilate Native Americans into American society by dividing tribal lands into individual allotments. Each Native American family received a parcel of land, and the remaining land was sold to white settlers. The primary purpose was to encourage Native Americans to adopt farming and private land ownership, thereby eroding tribal culture and communal living.

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What was the Dawes Severalty Act?

The Dawes Severalty Act was a law passed in 1887.  Its purpose was to try to assimilate Native Americans and to encourage them to live more like white people.  It can also be argued that a purpose of the law was to make it easier to take reservation lands away from the Native Americans.

The Dawes Act took the land that had been given to Indian tribes and split it up between the individual members of the tribes.  The tribes were no longer allowed to own the land communally.  This was meant to push individual Indians to own their own land and become farmers.  However, all the land that was not parcelled out to individual Indians (160 acres per head of household) was sold to white settlers and to railroad companies.  This meant that much more of what had been Indian land was available for white use.

In this way, the Dawes Act had two goals.  It was meant to "civilize" the Indians, but it was also meant to make it easier for white Americans to get the Indians' land.

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What was the main purpose of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887?

The Dawes Severalty Act was intended to force Native peoples to assimilate to white society by making them into settled farmers. It was mainly intended to affect Plains Indians, whose reservation lands were split up into allotments that were given to Natives who agreed to settle as family units and farm the land. In other words, Native Americans, especially those who lived on the Plains, were given lands in return for a promise to live like white settlers. It would have relieved the responsibility of the federal government to take care of reservations, and it was intended to protect the land rights of Indian peoples whose reservations were increasingly encroached upon by whites. Overall, the Dawes Severalty Act was part of a broader assimilation effort that included sending Indian children to boarding schools, many of which were far away, to receive an education in a White American setting. In addition to the negative repercussions for Indian culture, it had many disastrous unintended consequences. The worst was that Indians who agreed to the arrangement often received very poor lands that were not capable of supporting a family. This, combined with the fact that many Native men were not interested nor experienced in agriculture meant that many Indian families lived in dreadful poverty. 

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