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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 567

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This is the grave of Henry Dawes.

Born in 1816 in Cummington, Massachusetts, Dawes went to Yale, where he graduated in 1839. He worked as a teacher and a newspaper editor. In 1842, he was admitted to the bar and practiced in North Adams, Massachusetts, where he also continued to edit a newspaper. He was also deeply interested in a political career. He was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1848, the state Senate in 1850, back to the House in 1852, and then was a delegate for the 1853 Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. That same year, he was named district attorney for the western district of Massachusetts. This was a man on the rise.

In 1856, Dawes was elected to Congress. In this period, it was pretty common for congressmen to serve only a term or two. But Dawes stuck around until 1875. As a good Gilded Age Republican, Dawes supported the building of capitalism an the railroads. And as a good Gilded Age Republican, that meant he was more than happy to personally profit off the corruption that ensued. Yes, Dawes was one of the people caught up in the Crédit Mobilier scandal, that gross absurdity where the Union Pacific, in which company executives created a fake construction company that charged the UP absurd rates which they then profited and spread around to their friends, including Grant’s VP, Schulyer Colfax, future president James Garfield, and Dawes, among other Republicans. Dawes had some second thoughts about all this–being illegal and all–so he actually returned most of the money, though it seems he kept the interest, which only amounted to about $100. There was no incongruity between being a pro-Reconstruction Republican and being corrupt and Dawes could cover all bases. He was pretty heavily in favor of an aggressive Reconstruction effort in the South. As a congressman of growing importance, he served key roles on the Ways and Means and Appropriations Committees, which he used to pursue strongly anti-slavery and pro-freed slave policies. He also supported a generally more active federal government in issues such as providing national weather reports and developing fishery policies.

Dawes also became very interested in the American West. At this time, most of the West was still nominally controlled by Native peoples. Dawes, like many Republicans, very much including abolitionists, found this completely unacceptable. For these people, the nation was for development by white farmers and capitalists. Dawes played an important role in the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, including using his powerful position in the House to fund surveys. Part of creating Yellowstone was evicting Native people from the park. The area’s fecund wildlife, especially in cold Rocky Mountain winters, had attracted Native Americans for thousands of years. But now those wildlife herds were demanded for white tourists. Native Americans were routinely arrested and prosecuted for doing what they had done for centuries thanks to people such as Dawes. White poachers were too, but that’s a different beast.

In 1875, the Massachusetts legislature sent Dawes to the Senate. There, he continued his interest in the West and in eliminating Native American control over land. By this time and into the 1880s, the reservation system was being created and implemented. The widespread slaughter of the bison and the genocidal campaigns ordered by William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan had forced the tribes onto reservations. The treaties gave them that land forever. But what was a treaty compared to the needs of whites and especially the “proper” use of land for farming? Nothing worth respecting, that’s for sure.

And that’s where Henry Dawes comes into the story. In 1887, as chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, Dawes sponsored and pushed through Congress the General Allotment Act, which is popularly known as the Dawes Act. This act alone makes Dawes on the great villains of American history, giving his name to a huge tool of land theft and cultural genocide. Here’s the rub. Men like Dawes saw the reservations. They were pretty big. And they saw Indians as people heading toward an extinction they mostly deserved. After all, they weren’t using land in the ways that God intended, which was to be tilled by white Christians. And since if the Indians were going to survive, their only hope was to become white men, the best thing the government could do was to apply the Homestead Act to them. They would get their 160 acres and then the rest of the ladn could be sold to whites. Until the Dawes Act was repealed in 1934 under John Collier’s Indian New Deal, millions of acres of land were stolen and given to whites. This ad for stolen land sums up so much.

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.

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, led by the racist scumbag Richard Henry Pratt, 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.

This is the legacy of Henry Dawes. He actually believed this was good for Indians, that he was the only man who was going to give them something to hold onto from whites stealing all their land. That took a lot of blindness. And it’s not like he didn’t remain at the center of all of this. In 1893, Dawes retired from the Senate and then led the Dawes Commission. Here, he worked to steal land from the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes,” itself a racist construction. He did this until the day he died. He “negotiated,” which meant bulled, with the tribes to giving up their communal lands and their tribal sovereignty. Theoretically, this meant that the tribes would now be “Americans.” In fact, citizenship rights was one of the carrots here. Not all Native people would gain citizenship until 1924, but they did if their land was allotted. But of course this just meant they lost the last resource they had in a white supremacist country that made sure they stayed at the bottom of society.

Henry Dawes died in 1903. That lots of abolitionists made the swing toward genocide (not to mention hating unions, which was very common) does not redeem Dawes. For people like this, it showed both that being anti-slavery was usually more about supporting white rights than black rights, in terms that the nation needed to be developed by white freeholders and not slaveowners with no room for the middling white, and that just because these people supported basic rights for one minority group doesn’t mean they weren’t all in on genocide against other groups.

As for me, I hope Henry Dawes is burning in Hell. He was a terrible, horrible man, equal to Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump in his racist horrors.

Henry Dawes is buried in Pittsfield Cemetery, Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other purveyors of genocide, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I thought George Armstrong Custer is right where his idiotic body fell, at Battle of Little Bighorn National Monument in Montana, but it turns out he was reburied at West Point. William Tecumseh Sherman is in St. Louis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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