A Cruel Kind of Coercion: The Nelson Act of 1889

A Cruel Kind of Coercion: The Nelson Act of 1889

On January 14, 1889, Congress passed an Act for the removal of the Ojibwe people in Minnesota from their reservations. With the expectation of those at Red Lake, the Ojibwe were to be resettled on allotted sections of land within the boundaries of the White Earth reservation. The so-called “surplus” land that resulted from the removal and allotment, was to be sold at auction to white settlers, logging companies, and mining companies. Known commonly as the Nelson Act of 1889, its actual title was, “An act for the relief and civilization of the Chippewa Indians in the State of Minnesota.” The act was made in the wake of the General Allotment Act of 1887, known more commonly as the Dawes Act. 

According to the Dawes Act, and the successive Nelson Act, reservation land was to be broken up into sections and given to individual Native head-of-households as private property. The goal of this action, as seen by the U.S. government, was to break up the communal land holdings of the tribes, encourage private enterprise, foster the assimilation of Native peoples, and open up more land for white settlement and business. The Nelson Act took one step further than the Dawes Act by actually trying to eliminate some reservations altogether. 

Ojibwe people living at the White Earth Reservation, circa 1890 – MNHS Collections

Like most federal policies regarding Native populations throughout American history, the Nelson Act was marked by fraud, corruption, and greed. It unilaterally broke all previous treaties with the Ojibwe and further impoverished already desperate communities. As noted by the educational exhibit and website Why Treaties Matter, “many [Native] families lost their allotments through sales, tricks, contracts, taxes, and corrupt government officials” while “a few white men got very rich off of the timber and mineral contracts.” Commenting on the Dawes Act, writer David Treuer stated that, “allotment was as cruel a kind of coercion as the withholding of rations.”

Land Ownership on the Leech Lake Reservation – Sourced from the Minnesota Center for Rural Policy and Development

Ultimately, the Act did not succeed in eliminating the Ojibwe reservations in Minnesota. But it did directly and indirectly strip the Ojibwe of large sections of their land promised them by previous treaties. Furthermore, as non-Native owners acquired reservation lands, it “checkerboarded” Native held land making it impossible for Native communities to develop or protect the larger area. For instance, according to the Minnesota Center for Rural Policy and Development, of the 800,000 acres of land within the boundaries of the Leech Lake reservation, only 30,000 acres or four percent of that land is held by the Ojibwe tribe. 

In 1999, after a long legal battle, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims awarded the Ojibwe tribe with twenty million dollars to compensate descendants for the losses their families suffered under the Nelson Act. Unfortunately, such compensation is miniscule when compared to the aggregate effects over time of the Nelson Act and other acts like it that illegally wrest away Native land. 

See this blog post on YouTube.


David Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019). 

“Nelson Act of 1889,” Wikipedia, Accessed on November 18, 2020, Last Updated on May 27, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nelson_Act_of_1889

“This Day in History: The Nelson Act Defrauds Minnesota Chippewa of Land and Timber; Update on Paiutes and the Oregon Standoff,” Healing Minnesota Stories, Accessed on November 18, 2020, Published on January 14, 2016, https://healingmnstories.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/this-day-in-history-the-nelson-act-defrauds-minnesota-chippewa-of-land-and-timber-update-on-paiutes-and-the-oregon-standoff/#:~:text=This%20day%20in%20history%2C%20January,treaties%20and%20took%20tribal%20lands

“The Chippewa National Forest: Educator Guide for Grades 6-12,” Why Treaties Matter: Self-Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations, http://treatiesmatter.org/exhibit/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/The-Chippewa-National-Forest.pdf

Larry Schumacher, “Solving a Land-Control Dilemma,” Minnesota Center for Rural Policy and Development, https://www.ruralmn.org/rmj/rmj_winter2014/rmj2014q3-land-control-dilemma/

“An act for the relief and civilization of the Chippewa Indians in the State of Minnesota,” Library of Congress,  https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/50th-congress/session-2/c50s2ch24.pdf

Colin Mustful is a Minnesota author and historian with a unique story-telling style that tells History Through Fiction. His work focuses on Minnesota and surrounding regions during the complex transitional period as land was transferred from Native peoples to American hands. Mustful strives to create compelling stories about the real-life people and events of a tumultuous and forgotten past.

Comments are closed.
Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial