Charles Curtis, 31st Vice President of the United States, is probably best remembered for the Curtis Act of 1898.
The Curtis Act of 1898 was an amendment to the United States Dawes Act that brought about the allotment process of lands of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indian Territory: the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee, Cherokee, and Seminole. These tribes had been previously exempt from the 1887 General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act (also known as the Dawes Severalty Act, named for its sponsor and author Senator Henry Laurens Dawes), because of the terms of their treaties. Prior to the Curtis Act, each of these tribes had sole authority to determine the requirements for tribal membership. The act transferred this authority to the Dawes Commission. Thus, members could be enrolled without tribal consent. By effectively abolishing tribal courts and tribal governments in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, the act enabled Oklahoma to attain statehood, which followed in 1907.
Officially titled the “Act for the Protection of the People of Indian Territory”, the Act is named for Charles Curtis, its original author. He was of Kansa, Osage, Potawatomi, and French descent, was raised on the Kansas Reservation, and was a member of the United States House of Representatives. Although Charles Curtis was the author of the original draft of the Act, by the time the bill HR 8581 had gone through five revisions in committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, there was little of Curtis’ original draft left to become law. In his own hand-written autobiography, Curtis noted that he was unhappy with the final version of the Curtis Act. He believed that the Five Civilized Tribes needed to make changes. He thought that the way ahead for Native Americans was through education and use of both their and the majority cultures, but he also had hoped to give more support to Native American transitions.
The Curtis Act called for the abolition of tribal governments on March 6, 1906. It was intended to establish the concept of individual land holdings. The act also provided for the establishment of public schools.
The Act incorporated the basic points regarding land allotments and termination of tribal governments that had earlier appeared in the Atoka Agreement between the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations. The Atoka Agreement had been rejected by a popular vote of the Chickasaws, but accepted by the Choctaws. The Curtis Act required that the Atoka Agreement be resubmitted to a vote of both nations. The agreement was approved in a joint election on August 24, 1898.
The Curtis Act also scrapped the enrollments performed under the Dawes Act and ordered that new enrollments be performed.
This Act extended all provisions of the Dawes Act to the lands of the Five Civilized Tribes, making large parts of these lands open to settlement by whites. It resulted in removing an estimated 90 million acres of land formerly reserved for Native Americans.
The Curtis Act also provided for the incorporation of towns in Indian Territory. This meant that towns had a legal basis to be laid out, surveyed and platted. Any individual could obtain title to the lot in fee simple . The title owner of a lot had the legal right to sell or mortgage the property. An incorporated town or city had the right to self regulation and levy taxes, allowing them to establish public services. By 1900, the largest towns in Indian Territory had incorporated. These included: Ardmore. with 1,500 residents; Muskogee 4,200; McAlester 3,500; Wagoner 2,300; Tulsa 1,300 and Eufaula 800.
The Act also provided that residents could vote for city officials, even though it did not allow territorial residents to vote for national office.