Date of Award


Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Francis Paul Prucha

Second Advisor

William D. Miller

Third Advisor

Robert P. Hay


Indian land is a topic of great interest. Land has traditionally been the most important issue in Indian-white relations and has been the main focus of federal Indian policy. In land policy can be found the government's fundamental assumptions about what the Indian should be and do and how he should fit into American society. I set out to study one specific aspect of federal land policy, land allotment, but quickly discovered that allotment was only part of a larger process aimed at "freeing" the Indian from government control. It was intricately tied to other aspects of land policy such as leases, sales, and fee patents, and thus its significance could not be fully understood or explained without incorporating these other topics. I have not attempted to present an exhaustive study of every aspect of land policy but to de­ scribe generally what that policy was, how it was implemented, and what the results were. Because of the nature of the materials available, I have focused on the government's administration of land policy rather than the Indian response to that policy.

The early twentieth century seemed to be the logical setting for my study. Between the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887 and the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, the Indian estate dwindled from 138 to 47 million acres, and I was anxious to discover why. A few historians have noted the decline in landholding, but none have studied or explained' it in detail. Other questions also appeared: Why did the Dawes Act fail to create, prosperous, independent farmers? Why did the Indians become more dependent on the government rather than less between 1887 and 1934? What events and policies led to the major reforms in the 1930's?

The period 1887-1934 was, however, too broad to cover, adequately in this dissertation. The years 1913-1929 provided a more feasible unit. These years not only marked the administrations of two important figures in Indian affairs, Indian commissioners Cato Sells and Charles Burke, but also revealed the change and continuity in federal land policy. Sells and Burke continued long-established policy toward allotting, leasing, and selling Indian land, but the issuance of fee patents reached its peak under Sells and then dropped sharply under Burke. During the period, dissatisfaction with the ad­ministration of Indian affairs increased, paving the way for the reforms of the 1930's.

Land policy in the early twentieth century is, I believe, a timely topic, for the Indian land base continues to shrink. The problems of multiple land ownership and the alienation of Indian land through leasing and sales are even more acute today. We must understand the roots of these problems if we are ever to solve them. In a broader sense, the topic tells us something about the tragic effects of forcing one culture on another and the high cost of "progress."



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