The Dawes Act Turns 126 Years Old: Discovering Native American Ancestors

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The Dawes Act Turns 126 Years Old: Discovering Native American Ancestors

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On February 8th 1887…

the Dawes Act, also known as the General Allotment Act, gave authorization to the President of the United States to survey Native American lands for allotment to individuals.

The stated objective of the Dawes Act was to stimulate assimilation of Indians into American society. Individual ownership of land was seen as an essential step. The act also provided that the government would purchase Indian land “excess” to that needed for allotment and open it up for settlement by non-Indians. Read more.

In 1893 a new Indian Office appropriation bill organized the Dawes commission, named for proponent Senator Henry Laurens Dawes, and began to collect applications from members of five southeastern tribes: Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole.

Tribe members were entitled to an allotment of land, in return for abolishing their tribal governments and recognizing Federal laws. In order to receive the land, individual tribal members first had to apply and be deemed eligible by the Commission. Read more.

Between 1886 and 1914 more than 250,000 Native Americans applied, with more than 100,000 being accepted between the years of 1898 and 1914.

The applications taken during this time were compiled into the Dawes Rolls (Dawes Commission Enrollment Records) and are still used today as a basis for tribal membership into the five named tribes.

The Dawes rolls are vital to family historians because they contain critical information for discovering details about Native American ancestors in a time when such records were scarce.

Enrollment cards (also called census cards) include residence, roll numbers, names of family members, relationships, ages, sex, degree of Indian blood, enrollment date, place and number, parents and their enrollment date or place, spouses, divorces, children or grandchildren.

Applications for enrollment include affidavits, vital records, letters, questionnaires, and decisions mentioning relatives, dates, and places.

Letter logs include name, address, date of the letter, file number, date received, subject, and action taken. Letters are with the applications.

Read more from Family Search

If you think you may have an ancestor that could be found in these rolls visit Family Search or the National Archives for more information about what they contain, where to find online indexes and how to access the records themselves.

We’d love to hear from anyone who has found an ancestor in these rolls. 


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  • February 9, 2013 at 11:39 pm

    How fascinating Tina. I love discovering resources that reveal more than just dates and names.

  • Tina
    February 8, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    Both my parents have connections in the Dawes Rolls. My mother’s great uncle and his wife are listed in the testaments giving me a great picture of their life. Neither were Native Americans but his wife had married and divorced a Native American and was listed on the rolls. A very interesting story.

    My father’s grandfather was a Dawes Commissioner and did surveys. I have found many newspaper articles written about his service in IT. One even talked how he would be late in returning because he broke his foot.

    It all makes interesting reading.

  • February 8, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    Thanks for sharing Ruth. Have you tried the US Indian Census Rolls? They may help you locate your grandmother. They can be accessed on Ancestry and other sites if you have a subscription.

  • Ruth
    February 8, 2013 at 9:30 am

    I tried the Rolls to locate my Great Grandmother. But, she was not there. She married outside the tribe and did not want to label herself American Indian. As in early years they were considered bad people who would hurt or kill you. I do know she was Shawnee/ Delaware Indian and her mother ans father were as well, or the story goes. The hunt still goes on for her..

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