When Grover Cleveland, an assimilation supporter, started his first term, an estimated 260,000 American Indians lived on 171 reservations comprising 134 million acres of land in 21 states.

Grover Cleveland: Pushed Land Ownership as a Way to ‘Civilize’ Indians

Alysa Landry

Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 22nd 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.

The day before Grover Cleveland took office as the 22nd president of the United States, Congress passed the Major Crimes Act of 1885, providing for federal jurisdiction over seven major crimes committed by Indians on their own land.

The act came in response to Ex Parte Crow Dog, an 1883 Supreme Court decision that upheld tribal sovereignty over criminal matters. The case, which marked the first time in history an Indian was tried for the murder of another Indian, began in 1881 when Crow Dog, a member of the Brule band of the Lakota Sioux, shot and killed Spotted Tail, a chief on the Rosebud Sioux reservation.

In a unanimous and condescending decision, the Supreme Court found that federal courts lacked jurisdiction over Indian-on-Indian crimes on reservation land and that Brule law—not federal—governed the reservation. Subjecting Indians to federal law, the court ruled, would “impose upon them the restraints of an external and unknown code” that Indians lacked the ability to understand.

“It tries them not by their peers, nor by the customs of their people, nor the law of their land, but by superiors of a different race,” the justices wrote in their opinion. Doing so would amount to “measur(ing) the red man’s revenge by the maxims of the white man’s morality.”

Congress reacted to the ruling with the Major Crimes Act, claiming the high court undercut federal efforts to assimilate Indians into mainstream America. The act placed under federal jurisdiction the crimes of murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, maiming, rape, incest and assault with intent to commit murder.

The act was one of three devastating measures enacted during Cleveland’s first term in office that undermined tribal sovereignty and robbed Indians of land. Cleveland in 1887 signed the Dawes Act, which authorized the President to divide Indian land into individual allotments. Two years later, he signed the Indian Appropriations Act, officially opening “unassigned lands” to white settlers.

Cleveland, who was born in New Jersey in 1837, worked as an attorney in Buffalo, New York, where he earned a reputation for honesty and fairness. He avoided military service during the Civil War by hiring a replacement for $150, a common practice.

A member of the Democratic Party, Cleveland served as county sheriff, mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York before being elected as President in 1884. Known as the 22nd and 24th presidents, Cleveland was the only one to serve non-consecutive terms (1885-1889 and 1893-1897).

When Cleveland started his first term, an estimated 260,000 American Indians lived on 171 reservations comprising 134 million acres of land in 21 states. A supporter of Indian assimilation policies, Cleveland sought to integrate Indians into white society by means of education, private land ownership and paternal guidance from the federal government.

“By the time Cleveland was elected, most of the major Indian wars were over,” said John Pafford, author of the 2013 biography The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland. “During the late 19th century, there was a dispute concerning whether American Indians should be integrated into the mainstream, or whether they should be separated on reservations. Cleveland leaned more toward integration, and so while he was president, the long, slow process of acculturation moved forward.”

Although he supported acquisition of Indian land, Cleveland also took a firm stance against illegal white settlements that often led to Indian violence. Nine days after he took office, Cleveland issued a proclamation prohibiting non-Indian settlement of Indian territory in Oklahoma. Four months later, he issued another proclamation prohibiting white settlers from grazing cattle on the Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation.

Yet the “intricate and difficult” task of managing the Indians was not going to be solved by punishing settlers, or by exterminating Indians, Cleveland told Congress in his first annual message.

Indians “are properly enough called the wards of the Government; and it should be borne in mind that this guardianship involves on our part efforts for the improvement of their condition and the enforcement of their rights,” he said, predicting that, surrounded by “advanced civilization,” Indians would “readily assimilate with the mass of our population.”

But Cleveland also noted “marked differences” in individual Indians’ personalities and attitudes toward civilization.

“While some are lazy, vicious, and stupid, others are industrious, peaceful, and intelligent,” he said. “While a portion of them are self-supporting and independent, and have so far advanced in civilization that they make their own laws, administered through officers of their own choice, and educate their children in schools of their own establishment and maintenance, others still retain, in squalor and dependence, almost the savagery of their natural state.”

Cleveland’s solution was laws that more closely monitored individual Indian behavior, including creation of a six-member commission charged with carefully inspecting all the Indians to determine how to move them toward “complete civilization.” Commissioners would ascertain which of the reservations might be reduced in area, which Indians might be consolidated to other reservations and which Indians “should be invested with the right of citizenship.”

Early in his presidency, Cleveland also called for surveys of all the reservations “in order to carry out the policy of allotment of Indian lands in severalty”—a preview of what would come under the Dawes Act of 1887.

Authored by Massachusetts Sen. Henry Dawes, who believed land ownership had the power to civilize, the Dawes Act allowed the President to divide tribal land into allotments for individual Indians. Those who accepted allotments of 40 to 160 acres and lived separately from their tribes for 25 years would be granted U.S. citizenship. Under the law, remaining land was declared “surplus” and sold to non-Indians.

Cleveland signed the act in February 1887. By 1934, more than 90 million acres of Indian land had been lost, or about two-thirds of the 1887 land base.

Two days before the end of Cleveland’s first term, he signed the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889, officially opening “unassigned lands” in Oklahoma to white settlers under the tenets of the Homestead Act.

Cleveland left office in 1889 and was succeeded by Benjamin Harrison. He was re-elected in 1892 and served a second term.

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