The Dawes Commission and the Enrollment of the Creeks


Last Updated: 19 years

What can you do when you “discover” a continent, but there are already people living there? Europeans arriving in North America tried a number of approaches to solve what was often referred to as “the Indian Problem,” depending on the relative military power of the natives and non-natives.

By the late 1870s, most tribes had been pushed onto reservations in areas that were generally undesirable and out of the path of settlement, but many friends of Native Americans became convinced that efforts to isolate and then civilize them were not working and that assimilating them into the general population would be a better policy.(1)

It became almost an article of faith with the reformers that private ownership of property was one of the most powerful tools that could be used to bring about assimilation. They therefore set out to destroy the tribal governments and their system of communal ownership and give each Indian his or her own piece of land.

Getting the federal government to adopt a policy of allotment of land in severalty was almost an “obsession of the later nineteenth-century Christian reformers.”(2 They were convinced that such a policy would force the Indians to become more like the industrious white farmers who were rolling over them like a tidal wave.

Powerful economic interests supported the policy because it would open surplus land to non-Indians. Congress gave in to a persistent lobbying effort driven by both good intentions and basic greed and passed a General Allotment Act that was signed into law on February 8, 1887.(3)

The Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes were exempt from this original legislation primarily because any change in title to their lands raised a tangle of legal questions. They were collectively known as the Five Civilized Tribes because they had already adopted many of the economic, social, and governmental practices of whites and were widely perceived as so different from other tribes that some would come to question whether they were “real Indians.”(4)

In the end, however, it did not matter how far these “civilized” tribes had already come on the road to assimilation because they occupied over twenty million acres of valuable land sitting almost dead center in a nation bent on economic development. The appropriation bill for the Office of Indian Affairs that was passed on March 3,1893, authorized the President to appoint three commissioners to negotiate with the Five Civilized Tribes to bring about the allotment in severalty of their land.

Former Senator Henry L. Dawes, who had played a major role in getting the 1887 allotment law passed, was named chairman of what became known as the Dawes Commission.(5)

Not everyone wanted to be allotted land and assimilated. In each tribe, both pro- and anti-allotment factions developed, and bitter struggles sometimes ended in violence.

The Four Mothers Society claimed to have twenty-four thousand Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek members who were opposed to any changes in the existing treaties. Its leaders visited Mexico looking for a new home where they could escape allotment and maintain their communal land ownership.

Chitto “Crazy Snake” Harjo became the leader of a band of full-blood Creeks who opposed allotment. His followers became widely known as the Snakes, and they would spend more than a decade resisting the Dawes Commission.(6)

In the Creek Nation, as in most Indian tribes, “membership” decisions were made by tribal “officials” based on tribal “customs and usages.” (7) Few tribes had written laws governing citizenship or even written census rolls.

In relatively small populations bound together by family or clan relationships “recognition of citizenship rested more upon family and neighborhood knowledge than upon official registration.”(8)

When the Creek tribe was forced to move to what is now eastern Oklahoma in the late 1830s, tribal members attempted to retain pre-removal settlement patterns as much as possible.

An enumeration made in 1859 showed 13,537 Creeks living in forty-four towns, with the “Upper Creeks” along the Canadian River and the “Lower Creeks” along the Cimmaron River.(9)

Each Town King was supposed to keep track of his citizens, but there appear to have been few written census rolls made, and many of those disappeared. The “tribal rolls were loosely kept and members of government took them home or loaned them to neighbors.”(10)

The Creek constitution of 1867 gave the power to decide on applications for citizenship to the tribal courts for Coweta, Muskogee (Arkansas), Eufaula, Wewoka, Deep Fork, and Okmulgee districts. Anyone claiming membership had to submit petitions and supporting affidavits to the court.(11)

Legal changes occurred soon after a general census of the Creek Nation was taken in April 1882.(12)

The power to determine citizenship was transferred from the district courts to the Committee on Citizenship in the Creek National Council by an act of November 29,1883. G. W Stidham, a judge on the Creek Supreme Court, served as chairman of the committee, and A. P. McKellop was clerk.

In 1890 Congress authorized a fund of $400,000 for per capita payments that had accumulated under the 1866 treaty restoring relations between the U.S. government and the Creeks after the Civil War. In order to determine who was eligible for the money, tribal officials in each town took a census and certified the results. Officials in Coweta stated that “this census we took it all right.”

The rolls were submitted to a special committee of the National Council established in October 1890, which had authority to investigate and make corrections.(13) William Robinson served as chairman with Mrs. A. P. McKellop as clerk.

The payment, which amounted to twenty-nine dollars a person, was made by agents of the Department of the Interior at Okmulgee from January 22 to March 4, 1891.(14) Principal Chief Legus C. Perryman was authorized to have triplicate copies of the census typewritten and certified, with one copy forwarded to the secretary of the interior “to be taken and accepted as the correct enumeration.”(15) A Special Committee under L. W Perryman was authorized to prepare an “Omitted Roll” that listed persons who did not participate in the payment and any children born after April 3, 1891.(16)

The 1890-1891 rolls listed a total of 13,842 citizens, including 4,203 former slaves who had been adopted by the tribe after the Civil War.(17) The 1890 federal population census, taken at roughly the same time, shows about 18,000 people living in the Creek Nation, including 3,000 noncitizen whites.(18)

The Creeks had been exempt from the General Allotment Act, but their temporary reprieve from its intent ran out on March 3, 1893. On that date Congress authorized the establishment of a commission to negotiate an agreement with the Five Civilized Tribes that would provide for the dissolution of the tribal governments and the allotment of their lands.

The commission, which would spend the next fourteen years trying to fulfill its mission, came to be commonly known as the Dawes Commission after its first chairman, Henry Laurens Dawes, the recently retired U.S. senator from Massachusetts. Dawes was widely regarded as a friend of the tribes and an expert on Indian affairs.

The secretary of the interior made the commission’s goal very clear in his instructions to Dawes: “success in your negotiations will mean the total abolition of the tribal autonomy of the Five Civilized Tribes and the wiping out of the quasi-independent governments within our territorial limits.

It means, also, ultimately, the organization of another territory in the United States and the admission of another state or states into the Union.”(19) With the establishment of the Dawes Commission, “the United States had finally determined to break down the autonomy of the Five Tribes and erect a white man’s state upon the ruins of the Indian governments.”(20)

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