First Annual Message to Congress (1901)

Image: Theodore Roosevelt. (1905) National Portrait Gallery.
Why was the General Allotment Act, which broke up commonly held reservation lands into private property, so important to President Roosevelt? In what terms did he speak about it? What did he say about the education of Indians?
Compare President Roosevelt’s ideas with those of Richard Henry Pratt. How do they differ?

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The Constitution requires the president to “from time to time give the Congress information of the state of the Union.” There is no requirement that it be a speech. From Thomas Jefferson until Woodrow Wilson, this was merely a written message.

Theodore Roosevelt, who became president upon the assassination of William McKinley, spent most of his first message discussing the territories acquired in the recent Spanish-American War. He did, however, devote a few paragraphs to Indian affairs.

Roosevelt saw it as crucial to turn Indians into individual Americans and not members of separate tribal nations. He called the General Allotment Act of 1887, which broke up reservations into individually held parcels of private property, a “mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” His language was remarkably similar that used during the early Republic to encourage Indians to emigrate voluntarily to the trans-Mississippi West (See An Address to the Whites).

Those who favored allotment thought it would prepare Indians for citizenship by giving them incentive to farm. General William Tecumseh Sherman was more cynical. He declared, “The fastest way to civilize Indians is to teach them greed, and [the] fastest way to teach them greed is to give them private property.”

Theodore Roosevelt also spoke to the issue of educating Indians. Like Richard Henry Pratt, he believed Natives were capable of learning, but also like him, Roosevelt thought their education should be limited to basics and vocational skills.

—Jace Weaver

Source: Theodore Roosevelt, First Annual Message to Congress, Papers relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, with the Annual Message of the President Transmitted to Congress December 3, 1901, U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian,

. . .In my judgment the time has arrived when we should definitely make up our minds to recognize the Indian as an individual and not as a member of a tribe. The General Allotment Act1 is a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass. It acts directly upon the family and the individual. Under its provisions some sixty thousand Indians have already become citizens of the United States. We should now break up the tribal funds, doing for them what allotment does for the tribal lands; that is, they should be divided into individual holdings.2 There will be a transition period during which the funds will in many cases have to be held in trust. This is the case also with the lands. A stop should be put upon the indiscriminate permission to Indians to lease their allotments. The effort should be steadily to make the Indian work like any other man on his own ground. The marriage laws of the Indians should be made the same as those of the whites.3

In the schools the education should be elementary and largely industrial. The need of higher education among the Indians is very, very limited. On the reservations care should be taken to try to suit the teaching to the needs of the particular Indian. There is no use in attempting to induce agriculture in a country suited only for cattle raising, where the Indian should be made a stock grower. The ration system, which is merely the corral and the reservation system, is highly detrimental to the Indians.4 It promotes beggary, perpetuates pauperism, and stifles industry. It is an effectual barrier to progress. It must continue to a greater or less degree as long as tribes are herded on reservations and have everything in common. The Indian should be treated as an individual—like the white man. During the change of treatment inevitable hardships will occur; every effort should be made to minimize these hardships; but we should not because of them hesitate to make the change. There should be a continuous reduction in the number of agencies.

In dealing with the aboriginal races few things are more important than to preserve them from the terrible physical and moral degradation resulting from the liquor traffic. We are doing all we can to save our own Indian tribes from this evil. Wherever by international agreement this same end can be attained as regards races where we do not possess exclusive control, every effort should be made to bring it about.

  1. 1. 1The Dawes Act (1887) allowed individual Native Americans to own parcels of the land that had been given to the tribe.
  2. 2. Treaties by which native peoples agreed to reside on reservations contained provisions for payments to the tribe.
  3. 3. When individual Indians were given authority to own tribal land, like all landowners they were given the authority to lease or sell it.
  4. 4. Treaties by which Native peoples agreed to reside on reservations contained provisions for the tribe to receive provisions or rations.
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