End of the Frontier: Grover Cleveland and Devastating Dawes Act

Whitehouse.gov/ Grover Cleveland opened his second term as president of the United States with a call for “humanity and consistency” toward Indians as efforts continued to assimilate them into mainstream American culture.

Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States.

This is the 24th in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.

Grover Cleveland opened his second term as president of the United States with a call for “humanity and consistency” toward Indians as efforts continued to assimilate them into mainstream American culture.

“Our relations with the Indians located within our border impose upon us responsibilities we cannot escape,” he said in his second inaugural address, in March 1893. “Every effort should be made to lead them, through the paths of civilization and education, to self-supporting and independent citizenship. In the meantime, as the nation’s wards, they should be promptly defended against the cupidity of designing men and shielded from every influence or temptation that retards their advancement.”

Born in New Jersey in 1837, Cleveland served as governor of New York before being elected as President in 1884. He lost his bid for re-election in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison, but beat Harrison in 1892. A member of the Democratic Party, Cleveland is the only president in U.S. history to serve non-consecutive terms.

During his first term in office, from 1885 to 1889, Congress enacted three measures with devastating effects on Native Americans. The Major Crimes Act of 1885 provided for federal jurisdiction over serious crimes committed by Indians on their own land; the Dawes Act of 1887—sometimes called the climax of assimilation policies—authorized the President to divide Indian land into individual allotments, forcing Indians into private property ownership; and the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889 opened “unassigned” lands to white settlers.

The day before Cleveland took office a second time, in March 1893, Congress authorized the Dawes Commission, which extended the allotment policy to the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole). The commission, headed by Henry Dawes, also introduced citizenship records called the Dawes Rolls, which required individuals to enroll by claiming only one line of ancestry—even if they had mixed heritage from several different tribes.

“This presented an interesting controversy,” said John Pafford, author of the 2013 biography The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland. “To what extent do you preserve the separate status of various people, and to what extent do you emphasize commonality? Cleveland wanted to see the Indians integrated into society and not kept separate from the rest of the country. He wanted to unite all the nation’s people.”

The Dawes Rolls, which ultimately stripped some individuals of their ancestry, are still used to determine citizenship or as a requirement for tribal membership. The federal government uses the Dawes Rolls to determine blood-quantum status when issuing Certificates of Indian Blood.

Cleveland’s second term, which came on the heels of the Wounded Knee Massacre and was the first administration free of Indian wars, was marked by a distinct change in federal relationships with Indians. Four months after Cleveland took office, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his “Frontier Thesis” to a gathering of historians at the World’s Fair in Chicago, an enormous event celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage.

Turner, a professional historian, declared that the American frontier was gone, a statement that came three years after the U.S. Census Bureau announced the disappearance of a contiguous frontier line.

Calling the frontier “the meeting point between savagery and civilization,” Turner argued that America’s unique character was defined by “the influence of the frontier.” He pointed to “the disintegration of savagery” as one of several developmental stages America endured on its path to industrialization.

Turner closed his speech with a warning: if the frontier had been so important to the development of American culture and democracy, what would happen next? “And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history,” he said.

The end of the frontier also marked a new era for Indians. In his first message to Congress, in December 1893, Cleveland said the government had a “sacred duty” to improve the condition of the Indians.

“I am sure that secular education and moral and religious teaching must be important factors in any effort to save the Indian and lead him to civilization,” Cleveland said. “I believe, too, that the relinquishment of tribal relations and the holding of land in severalty may in favorable conditions aid this consummation.”

During his second term, Cleveland opened to white settlers “surplus” lands purchased from the Yankton Sioux in South Dakota, the Alsea in Oregon, the Kickapoo in Oklahoma and the Nez Perce in Idaho. The allotment program, which opened surplus land to settlers, diminished Indian land holdings from more than 155 million acres in 1881 to about 78 million in 1900.

In his final message to Congress, in December 1896, Cleveland announced the discovery of “a very valuable deposit of gilsonite or asphaltum” on the Uncompahgre Ute reservation in Utah. Calling the find an “important source of public revenue,” Cleveland assured Congress that the government would secure a “fair share” of its value, while a “nominal sum” would be extended to “interested individuals.”

In the same speech, Cleveland called himself a “sincere friend of the Indian,” and reported that the Indian population topped 177,000. More than 110,000 individuals had accepted allotments, and 23,000 of the 38,000 total school-age children were enrolled in nearly 200 government-operated Indian schools.

“It may be said in general terms that in every particular the improvement of the Indians under Government care has been most marked and encouraging,” he said.

In his final days in office, Cleveland issued 13 proclamations, creating forest reserves in California, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Cleveland left office in 1897 and was succeeded by William McKinley. He died in 1908 at age 71.

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