Dawes Commission Cherokee

1890s Cherokee Nation Principal Chiefs: Joel B. Mayes, Colonel Johnson Harris, Samuel Houston Mayes, and T. M. Buffington
1890s U.S. Presidents: Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley

In the 1890s, a financial depression hit the U.S. economy. The Cherokee Nation had worked hard to rebuild itself following the devastation of the Civil War. As a sovereign nation, the Cherokee government operated its own legislature, court system, jails, newspaper, an orphanage, and schools including seminaries of higher learning for both men and women.

The six-million-acre Cherokee Outlet was land owned by the Cherokee Nation (not to live on, but to use for hunting). The Outlet was unsettled land, and located just below Kansas where railroad tracks existed. Texas cattlemen found the grasslands of the Outlet ideal for fattening their cattle before loading the cattle onto trains in Kansas. Grazing leases provided needed funds to operate the Cherokee government. However, when the Unassigned Lands of Oklahoma Territory opened to pioneer settlement in 1889, the hunger for Indian Territory land by American citizens grew. The grazing leases of the Outlet were disallowed by the federal government, and the Cherokee Nation was forced to give up the Outlet, which was subsequently opened to pioneer settlement in an 1893 run for land. The Cherokee Nation, along with neighboring Native nations, found their autonomy and well-being threatened by the growth in numbers of non-Natives moving into Indian Territory. The Cherokee court system of a Supreme Court and nine district courts became threatened because so many incidents involved non-Native individuals, causing federal courts to intervene.

The Dawes Commission, established by the U.S. Congress, began the task of allotting the lands in the Cherokee Nation (formerly held in common by Cherokee people) to individual Cherokee citizens (with the result that excess land was sold on an open market). The allotment process created the Dawes Roll, a formal list of Cherokee citizens (present-day Cherokee Nation citizens are descendants from the Dawes enrollees). The Dawes Commission resulted in the dissolution of the Cherokee government, Cherokee schools were handed over to the new state, and Cherokee courts were closed. One last hope was a constitutional convention held by the various Native nations of Indian Territory in an effort to create an American Indian-led state called Sequoyah. However, Indian Territory was made to join with Oklahoma Territory to form the State of Oklahoma.

The events of the 1890s represent the turbulent era in which the buildings of the Cherokee Heritage Center’s Adams Corner Rural Village are set. While small rural villages might have seemed havens of bucolic peace, the minds of the residents of these villages were often agitated and concerned with issues affecting their future well-being. Some of the dismantling efforts undertaken by the federal government were later reversed (and there was a settlement providing added compensation from the forced sale of the Cherokee Outlet). The Cherokee Nation, along with other Native nations, have regained status as sovereign domestic nations. Still, the heartache and disruption of the Nineteenth Century leaves its legacy today as contemporary Cherokee citizens seek to explore and understand past events, ensure survival of the Cherokee language, vigilantly protect existing rights, and invigorate past and continuing arts and practices. Cherokee residents of territorial-era communities like Adams Corner lived out their lives focusing on family and friends, working at daily tasks, engaging in ceremonies, and enhancing their properties and skills, just as Cherokee people do in today’s challenging world.