Home / General / This Day in Labor History: February 8, 1887

This Day in Labor History: February 8, 1887


On February 8, 1887, President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Severalty Act into law. The Dawes Act created a process to split up Indian reservations in order to create individual parcels of land and then sell the remainder off to white settlers. One of the worst laws in American history, the Dawes Act is not only a stark reminder of Euro-American colonialism and the dispossession of indigenous peoples, but also of the role dominant ideas of work on the land have in promoting racist and imperialist ends.

We might not think of the Dawes Act as labor history. But I want to make the beginning of a case that it is absolutely central to American labor history, a point I will expand upon in the future. Labor history is not just unionism. It is histories and traditions of work. The Dawes Act was absolutely about destroying traditions of Native American labor and replacing it with European notions of rural work. That it did so while opening more land to white people was a central benefit.

Now, it’s worth noting that there is nothing like a “Native American tradition of work,” now or ever. There were thousands of different ideas of labor. Eventually, I’m going to try and touch on a few specific examples of 18th and 19th century Native American labor. The Dawes Act was largely directed at the Native American populations that had developed their cultures and work systems around horses and nomadism. Acquiring horses by the early 18th century, some peoples such as the Crow, Comanche, Utes, Blackfeet, and others made the conscious decision to convert to horse-bound hunting cultures, which created entirely new ideas of work that included men on long hunts, women treating bison hides, horse pastoralism, and other labors to create a bison economy. These choices allowed them to resist white encroachment with real military might. It also meant they received quite sizable reservations when the U.S. signed treaties with the tribes in the post-Civil War period.

“Cree Indians Impounding Buffaloes,” from William Hornaday’s The Extermination of the American Bison.

At the same time, white Americans were populating the West through the auspices of the Homestead Act of 1862. Beginning with the Northwest Ordinance, white Americans had gridded the land to sell it off in 160 acre parcels. This led to the relatively orderly (and lawsuit-free) population of the West as Native Americans had been pushed off. The Homestead Act encouraged this process across the Great Plains. Although it had little immediate effect because of the Civil War, beginning in the late 1860s, white Americans began pouring into the Plains.

White ideas of rural labor on the Great Plains.

So when whites saw relatively few Native Americans holding legal title to vast tracts of lands on the Great Plains and American West, it offended both their notions of race and work. Whites saw land as something to be “worked” in very specific ways. Work meant the individual ownership of land or resources that create capital accumulations as part of a larger market economy. Proper labor “improved” upon the land; because Native American conceptualized the land differently, they did no legitimate work. The actual tilling of land for cash crops was the only appropriate labor upon the land, once existent resources like timber, furs, or minerals were extracted. The land did all sorts of work for Native Americans before 1887. It fed the bison upon which they had based their economy since they acquired horses in the early 18th century. It provided the materials for their homes and spaces for their camps. It also provided fodder for those horses. To whites, this was not work. It was waste typical of a lesser people.

The Dawes Act split up the reservation lands so that each person received 160 acres of land, the amount a white settler would receive under the Homestead Act. After allotment, the remainder of the reservations could be divided under the normal methods of the Homestead Act. Native Americans could not sell their land for 25 years. At the end of that time, they had to prove their competency at farming, otherwise the land reverted back to the federal government for sale to whites. By trying to turn Native Americans into good Euro-American farmers, the Dawes Act also upset the relationship between gender roles and work among many tribes. To generalize, men hunted and women farmed. But with the single-family breadwinner ideology of whites thrust upon them, it turned farming into men’s work, which many Native Americans resisted and resented.

Naturally, there was the usual language of concern for Native Americans in creating the Dawes Act. Cleveland claimed he saw this as an improvement on Native Americans wandering around their desolate reservations. I don’t want to underrate how tough those lands were by 1887; with the decline of the bison, an intentional effort by the federal government to undermine food sources and the willingness of Indians to resist conquest, poverty and despair was real. But of course, whites had created this situation and the “solution” of dispossessing Native Americans of the vast majority of their remaining lands was hardly a solution at all.

Allotted land for sale.

The Dawes Act devastated Native American landholdings. In 1887, they held 138 million acres. By 1900, that had already fallen to 78 million acres and by 1934 to 48 million acres. About 90,000 people lost all title to land. Even if Native Americans did try to adapt to Euro-American notions of labor on the land, the land itself was mostly too poor, desolate, and dry to farm successful crops. The Indian schools such as Carlisle continued this reshaping of Native American work, theoretically teaching students skills they could take back to the reservations, but there was little use for many of these skills in the non-existent post-Dawes Act indigenous economies. Plus that goal was always secondary to killing Indian languages, religions, and traditional workways.

The Dawes Act finally ended in 1934 with the U.S. Indian Reorganization Act.

There were many acts and events that ruptured the relationship between indigenous labor and the land in the late 19th century American West. The Dawes Act is among the most important. By thinking of the Dawes Act in terms of the relationship between nature, labor, and racial notions of proper work upon the land, we can expand our understanding of both labor history and the history of Euro-American conquest of the West.

This is the 51st post in this series. The rest of the series is archived here.

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  • shah8

    This concept was pervasive. Black, Latino(a)s, and Japanese people with land suffered from local initiatives (sometimes federal issues as well) that reflected conveniently rigid notions of social roles (that whites didn’t *have* to observe, but plenty did and suffered for this as well). It happens virtually every time land use changes on a broad scale. Enclosure of the “commons” didn’t just happens once, but it’s a part and parcel of the capitalist system with racist, sexist, and classist preferences.

  • DrDick

    Well done, sir! I completely agree. It is worth noting that British colonists in the Southern colonies routinely characterized the Indians of the region as shiftless and lazy, as well as emphasizing the role of hunting in their economy, even though the Indians’ yields per acre were comparable to the colonists’ and the bulk of the diet came from agricultural produce. The difference is that the Indians expended less effort to produce such yields. It is also the case that, unlike the Iroquois and other more northerly tribes, the Southern Indians did not practice shifting cultivation, but rather permanently intensively farmed the natural levees along the rivers.

    In the late 19th century, they used the same ideological claims to allot the Five Civilized tribes, despite the fact that they had largely adopted Euro-American agricultural practices and were selling large quantities of grain, produce, and livestock on US markets at the time. In the 1870s, there was a Creek cattleman selling 70,000 head of cattle a year on US markets by himself.

    • Whew! I was worried I would screw something up and you’d catch it! I mean, as a historian of the American West, I know this history well, but I’m a historian of Native America so I worried about flubbing a fact or something.

    • Linnaeus

      I’m not a specialist in native history, but I’ve had to get a basic understanding of the native peoples in the area of North America that I do study right now (Pacific Northwest & western Canada), and it’s interesting how native people in that region were also characterized as poor workers because they didn’t use the land in the way that Europeans and Euro-Americans did (they were “complex hunter-gatherer” societies). Yet their labor was absolutely crucial in the main extractive industry (the fur trade) that developed after European contact. A workforce completely imported from Europe would have been too expensive for even the largest fur trading companies.

      • The Dark Avenger

        The Russians ended up giving their Indian suppliers ‘receipts’ so that they wouldn’t be confused with those Indians who didn’t cooperate with the Slavic intruders.

        • Linnaeus

          The Russians were also known to enslave native people in Alaska, though the Tlingits resisted that pretty successfully.

      • DrDick

        Their labor was also essential to the development of the fishing industry (in the canning factories).

    • One of the Blue

      I wonder. The Five Civilized Tribes lost their entire reservations, as opposed to just most of the land, although by just about every measure used either then or now, they were the most acculturated the US system.

      Also I recall reading somewhere that Washakie, a 19th Century chief of the Shoshone (who seems to have operated a great deal like a 20th Century military dictator), tried for years without success to get the US to allow his people to become ranchers instead of farmers.

      Maybe the people who got treated the most harshly were those perceived as posing the greatest potential threat (of perhaps a future independence movement).

      • cpinva

        i’m guessing (and it’s just a guess), that the threat was more economic, than independence.

        “Maybe the people who got treated the most harshly were those perceived as posing the greatest potential threat (of perhaps a future independence movement).”

        you’ve been living on and farming the land for hundreds of years. over that time, you have developed the most efficient methods of extracting the greatest possible yield per acre, without destroying it in the process. this makes you a direct threat to the new white farmer, who lacks your skills, and is attempting to instead use classic european farming techniques, techniques ill suited for the prairie. in a “free market”, the native farmers would consistently out yield the newcomers, putting them out of business, by virtue of “economies of scale” pricing. this would not go over well, with the dominent white society. remove the native’s ability to directly compete with the white farmer, problem solved. we can now commence creating the great myth of the american west.

        something similar happened, earlier on, in the new england colonies. those early colonizers directly benefited from the almost complete destruction of the native tribes, by disease. conveniently enough for the english settlers, those tribes left already established agricultural lands, taken over by the settlers. that’s why only one native american showed up, and was nice enough to show the interlopers how to naturally fertilize their corn fields; he was the only survivor of his tribe, and was looking for a place to stay. because he was also a farmer, he was able to impart the best ways, to get the most out of the land. knowledge learned by his, and other local tribes, over hundreds of years of farming.

      • DrDick

        It really comes down to whites wanted the Indians land and were determined to take it.

        • Dave

          Yes, I think you may be over-thinking the effort put in by European settlers to researching their paper-thin justifications for grabbing the land. Deeming the “Other” to be lazy, shiftless and in need of domination is page 1 of the playbook and has been since the Roman Empire. See, e.g., Plantagenet Wales, Tudor Ireland, the slave Caribbean…

          • cpinva

            well yeah, there’s that too:

            “Deeming the “Other” to be lazy, shiftless and in need of domination is page 1 of the playbook and has been since the Roman Empire. See, e.g., Plantagenet Wales, Tudor Ireland, the slave Caribbean…”

            “we are more technologically advanced, as a society, than the “other” is, therefore, it is our right, perhaps even our god given responsibility, to destroy them, and take their lands and property for our own.”

            classic “might makes right”. after christianity, we gave it a religious supporting twist. of course, the ancient greeks, egyptions and romans preceded us, in the old world. in the new world, the aztecs, incas and mayans set the tone, until the spanish brought them old world disease.

            • Hogan

              Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from being a douchebag.

      • JoyfulA

        I wonder how things might have turned out in the northeastern US if British-French wars hadn’t been part of the history.

        What makes me ask is a genealogist’s talk I heard at a family reunion. We had a long-established story that a son of the original settlers in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, “ran off with the Indians” in the 1730s. This genealogist said his research showed the son hadn’t done that; rather, he had impregnated a woman from the Indian town of Shamokin (IIRC, or at least in that area), their parents had a talk (apparently in each’s second language of English) and agreed that the couple should marry, and the son moved in with the woman’s family, in the matrilineal manner of her family.

        So is it possible that these two agricultural “tribes” might have amicably coexisted into the present without the interference of the warmongers?

  • I like this article, but I think it should be put into an international perspective. Because the US was not unique among settler colonies in its treatment of the indigenous population. The forced settlement of nomads and the confiscation of their lands by colonial settlers advanced in rather similar ways in the 19th century for instance in the Asian areas of the Russian Empire as well. To which one could add Australia and other examples. I am pretty sure that all of these instances share common intellectual roots in their views of nomads. The conquest of the western US was part of a greater global phenomenon of European colonial conquest and settlement at this time. However, comparative studies are still pretty rare on this subject. George Fredrickson’s comparative work on the US and South Africa is probably the best scholarship in this genre. Ziolkowski’s book comparing the Navajos under US and Chechens under Russian/Soviet rule had a very interesting premise, but ultimately failed to explain the significant differences between the two groups in reaction to foreign rule. But, I haven’t seen anything more recent that attempted to compare the fate of indigenous groups in the US and the Russian Empire.

    • DocAmazing

      Ziolkowski’s book comparing the Navajos under US and Chechens under Russian/Soviet rule had a very interesting premise, but ultimately failed to explain the significant differences between the two groups in reaction to foreign rule.

      For starters, the Navajo had no RPG-7s.

      • cpinva

        true enough, but they did have bows & arrows,

        “For starters, the Navajo had no RPG-7s.”

        capable of a sustained rate of fire far greater than anything the US military had at the time. they also had guns, either purchased from early arms dealers, or taken on the battlefield. as well, they were excellent horsemen, giving them the ability to strike fast and hard, then quickly make their escape. the US had no abrams tanks or blackhawk helicoptors, so RPG’s would have been wasted munitions. see: bighorn, battle of

        what the natives lacked was the excess manpower, that would enable them to create a standing armed force, while also enabling them to produce the materials & supplies necessary, to both provide for that standing army, and the civilian population. it was the civil war, without slavery, cool nicknames, and nifty, tailored uniforms. in essence, the individual tribes weren’t big enough, and they could never unite long enough to present a sustained, cohesive threat to the US.

        • cpinva

          sorry, should have been: little bighorn, battle of

          an edit function would be a nice accessory here.

          • Dave

            Do you actually know the difference between Navajo and Lakota?

      • Well no, but the book deals deals a lot with the 19th Century when the Chechens did not have RPGs then either. It does not cover the Chechen wars under Yeltsin and Putin much. It does have quite a bit on the 23-29 (it was a leap year) February 1944 deportations to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and how it resembled the Long Walk of 1863. I have a review of the book from a number of years ago on my blog. But, ultimately as I noted above unlike Fredrickson, she does not do a good job of making the comparison work despite being a really interesting idea.

    • shah8

      Why Navajo and not Comanche?

      • DrDick

        Or the Lakota or Apache.

        • The Dark Avenger

          It is a good day for jihad.

        • I didn’t write the book. Although I have review from a number of years back on it on my blog. The impression I got was that she was interested in the literary depictions of the two groups. There is a lot of English language literature on the Navajos. This is in part due to their relatively large size. There is also the fact that the forced removal of the Chechens in 1944 to Central Asia has a lot of similarities with the Long Walk of 1863. Bosque Redondo functioned along lines similar to the Soviet special settlement regime both in terms of legal and material conditions. The similarities between the treatment of the two groups is greater than between the Chechens and Apaches or Chechens and Lakota.

      • Because the author spent a lot of time in Arizona apparently. But, specifically there is a lot of literature on the Navajos and the Long Walk of 1863 and Bosque Redondo have a lot of parallels with the 1944 deportation of the Chechens and the special settlement regime in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The history of the Comanche is considerably different.

  • JoyfulA

    How was the work done before the introduction of horses?

    Or was different work done?

    • DrDick

      Depends on the tribes. In the Eastern US, horses did not much affect the allocation of labor. On the Plains, it had a profound transformative impact on the nature and allocation of labor, as well as on the structure of society. There was a shift from communal drives to the more individualistic surround. In the former, meat was distributed equally among all the families. In the latter, each man owned the buffalo he shot (identified by marks on his arrows). The status of women also declined and a degree of social inequality based on wealth emerged, though it is difficult to separate the effects of the introduction of the horse from that of the fur trade and guns (all occurred at about the same time).

      • JoyfulA

        So they still hunted buffalo on the plains, but they used the work techniques (that I remember from a book or movie from my childhood in the 1950s) of stampeding buffalo off a cliff and similar all-human methods?

        • DrDick

          Yes. In addition to the buffalo jumps you describe, they also used impounds (driving them into box canyons or large fenced pens). That was for the large communal hunts (which provided most of the meat for the year, when dried), they also stalked individual animals during other parts of the year.

          • JoyfulA

            Thank you!

    • A lot of human labor. The only domesticated animals they had were dogs and turkeys. So the work was done differently and the work itself was very different.

      • Murc

        I was always curious why the llama, which isn’t an excellent domestic beast of burden compared to the horse but is better than nothing, didn’t spread further north. I guess climatological reasons?

        • The Dark Avenger

          Geographical, along with the fact that there were many native groups that wouldn’t find them useful, so there was no way they could disperse northward to those tribes in North America that would’ve found them useful.

      • cpinva

        which was pretty much the same way that the first agricultural societies got things done,

        “A lot of human labor.”

        before they were able to domesticate beasts of burden, such as ox and, eventually, horses and mules, in those areas where these animals were indigenous. all this occurred over the course of probably thousands of years, certainly not overnight.

        interestingly, it was the development of those first agricultural societies that pre-saged the eventual doom of all hunter-gatherer societies. again, thousands of years in the making, with a cast of millions, but the writing was on the wall from the start.

        • JoyfulA

          I have read (“somewhere”) that hunter-gatherers preferred their lifestyle and became part of agricultural society only when their population exceeded the space available for hunting and gathering (not enough game, nuts, berries, etc., to feed them). Also, bones of hunter-gatherers versus bones of agriculturalists show the hunter-gatherers to have been taller, stronger, and better nourished than their farming peers.

          Is that established knowledge in early history/archaeology or just a random outlier study I read?

          • The Dark Avenger

            That is the current thinking on hunter-gatherer societies vs. agricultural ones:

            Quite independently, people took the same step in at least six other parts of the world over the next few thousand years: the Yangzi valley, the central valley of New Guinea, Mexico, the Andes, West Africa and the Amazon basin. And it seems that Eden came to an end. Not only had hunter-gatherers enjoyed plenty of protein, not much fat and ample vitamins in their diet, but it also seems they did not have to work very hard. The Hadza of Tanzania “work” about 14 hours a week, the !Kung of Botswana not much more.

            The first farmers were less healthy than the hunter-gatherers had been in their heyday. Aside from their shorter stature, they had more skeletal wear and tear from the hard work, their teeth rotted more, they were short of protein and vitamins and they caught diseases from domesticated animals: measles from cattle, flu from ducks, plague from rats and worms from using their own excrement as fertiliser.

            • JoyfulA

              Thank you. My last anthropology coursework was c. 1970, and I’m thinking it’s time to take Everything Interesting 101 again to catch up.

  • DrDick

    OK. My response to JoyfulA just got eated. Not even any links or bad words in it.

    • For whatever reason, they went into the spam folder. I moved them.

      • DrDick


  • David Hunt

    Wow. I knew that the native peoples got reamed by the Federal government repeatedly in many varied ways, but I didn’t know about this. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

  • joel hanes

    As a high-schooler, my view of American history was completely transformed by reading Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. How is that work regarded now? What other accessible works would you folks recommend ?

    • Dr. Dick might be able to answer this a bit more fully than I can. My sense is that Bury My Heart is certainly an important book and it is definitely still read, but it is also dates in important ways. Though to be honest, I’ve never read it. As far as other books, I can suggest books about individual tribes or regions, as well as some first hand accounts like Charles Eastman’s From the Deep Woods to Civilization, but as far as a nice overview, I’m honestly not sure although I could look around.

      • DrDick

        I think that is a fair assessment of Brown and there are number of more recent and better books available.
        Eastman is also a bit problematic, as he buys into the dominant Euro-American “civilization” narrative.

        For Native perspectives, I suggest Ella Deloria’s (Vine’s auntie) Waterlilly and fictional account of the life of a mid-19th century Lakota woman. Also Morning Dove’s (Colville from central Washington) autobiography. Arthur Parker’s work on the Iroquois is also good (he was Seneca from a prominent family, including Cornplanter and Eli Parker) and Francis LaFlesche’s work on the Dhegihan Siouans (Omaha, Ponca, & Osage). He was the son of the last hereditary chief of the Omaha.

    • grouchomarxist

      Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor — published in 1881 — is an unsparing review of the first 100 years of the U.S. government’s dealings with Native Americans. (I think the title makes it fairly clear where the author’s sympathies were in this matter.)

      You can download the ebook for free, or there are quite a few reprints floating around (mine’s from Bison Books) which can be ordered online. It’s 550+ pages long — which sadly is about what you need to do even minimal justice to the subject. The late 19th Century prose is a bit dense at times. Well worth a read, though, and boy will it piss you off.

      • The Dark Avenger

        Her work of fiction, Ramona, is much more well-known and covers some of the same ground:

        The novel’s influence on the culture and image of Southern California was considerable. Its sentimental portrayal of Mexican colonial life contributed to establishing a unique cultural identity for the region. As its publication coincided with the arrival of railroad lines to the region, countless tourists visited who wanted to see the locations of the novel.

  • Jeffrey Beaumont

    Great perspective, I like the revision of what labor history means. It seems to me that, were I a labor historian (and I probably would be, if I had it to do over again), I’d just say “I study the history of work”. Divorces it from labor union studies.

    • Yeah, I think it makes a lot more sense to think of it in terms of history of work or the history of working-class people. The history of labor unions is often central to that, but it’s hardly a complete picture.

  • Bruce Vail

    Interesting, although I doubt the Dawes Act is properly described as an event in labor history.

    The very specific racial aspect of the law means that the goal was not to impose some order on the labor market, but to punish the Native Americans for their reluctance to accept white rule. Athough there clearly are areas of overlap, it is the intent of the authors of the law that counts.

    • This seems like an artificial division to me. It also suggests that changing how Native Americans worked was not central to the Dawes Act, when it absolutely was.

      • Bruce Vail

        Okay, I am not arguing against your thesis, but wondering aloud if you are too broad in your view of ‘labor’ history.

        Almost all Native American law and policy is aimed at forcing a class of individuals to conform to the Euro-American social model. Issues of work and land ownership become a component of that in different instances. But isn’t the point of these laws and policies to force conformity in a specific racial group, rather than to set labor policy in the broader economy? And from your description of the Dawes Act, it seems the policy goal was transfer land ownership more than anything else.

    • DrDick

      Actually, the purpose was to force Western notions of private property and a proper agrarian work ethic on the Indians (this was the explicitly stated purpose), as well as to open lands for settlement. It was very much about labor.

      • Bruce Vail

        Well, yes, but wasn’t the objective to impose these notions/ethic on certain Native Americans of the West (as opposed to the Native Americans of the East, or the immigrant slum dwellers of the cities)? So the law seems very strictly targeted at at a very specific racial group, rather than an attempt to set a labor policy.

        • DrDick

          Actually it was theoretically imposed on all Indians. In reality, many reservations in the West were never allotted, such as the Navajo. Most of the Indians in the East had already been removed to the West (mostly in what is now Oklahoma). Those that remained were largely on very small reservations and were mostly heavily assimilated already. Allotment destroyed the economies of the “Five Civilized Tribes” in Oklahoma, which had been quite prosperous prior to it.

  • Aidian

    I buy the labor history element of the Dawes Act. I’d also argue that the Indian Reorganization Act should be considered as part of the New Deal — just anecdote, but I had a brilliant history professor who really knew his stuff about pre-war America who’d never heard of it.

    IIRC, the proceeds of the sold land were supposed to be deposited in trust accounts, which never happened, and some tribes are in the middle of a decades-long lawsuit against the federal government for billions of dollars they’re owed.

  • Thank you for this.

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