- Historic Sites
The Great White Father’s Little Red Indian School
Supporters of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School believed that complete absorption of the Indian into American society was best for everyone
December 1970 | Volume 22, Issue 1
Brevet Major General G. A. Custer and about 215 soldiers of the 7th Cavalry had been massacred at the Little Big Horn only a little more than three years before. Geronimo and his Apaches would not surrender for another seven years. The date was October 6, 1879, and the good burghers of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, were treated to the sight of a band of blanketed Indians parading through the old colonial town toward the abandoned army post on the outskirts. True, the “savages” were youths and children, but they were Sioux, members of the same tribe that had helped to do in Custer.
An eyewitness recalled, “They were a wild outfit - badly clothed, dirty and unkempt, and altogether bearing the impression of being uncivilized.” Outlandish or not, Indians were to be a feature of Carlisle life for the next four decades. The ragged Sioux were the first students in the new Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
The establishment of the school resulted from the almost obsessive idea and the persistent effort of a thirtyeight-year-old Regular Army lieutenant, Richard Henry Pratt, who has been described variously as “the red man’s Moses” and “an honest lunatic.”
Born in New York on December 6, 1840, Pratt left school at thirteen to become the family breadwinner. After a five-year stint as a printer’s devil he moved on to become an apprentice tinsmith. Eight days after the first shots at Fort Sumter he abandoned his trade to enlist in the Union Army. By Appomattox, four years later, he was a brevet captain of cavalry. Married in 1864 to Anna Laura Mason of New York, Pratt retired to civil life for almost two years, but in 1867 he returned to the service and became a first lieutenant in the ioth Cavalry. The shrunken postwar army was spread thin on the frontier, and Pratt soon found himself at Fort Arbuckle in the Indian Territory, where he began an association with the Indians that was to last to the end of his life.
Pratt believed that the co-operation of the Indians could be gained through kindness and sympathy and that Indians could and should be completely assimilated into the white population. He was detailed in 1875 to take seventy-two apparently intractable Indian prisoners to Fort Marion at Saint Augustine, Florida. During the next three years the soldier-jailer got good results with his methods. His charges were taught to read, write, and speak English. Their surprisingly enthusiastic response impressed Pratt and reinforced his belief in the adaptability of the Indian to the white man’s ways. Pursuing that idea, Pratt sought employment for his prisoners in a variety of unskilled jobs. The Indians were allowed to keep their pay for pocket money.
At the end of the three years the prisoners were released from confinement, but twenty-two wanted to remain in the East for further education. Pratt took seventeen of these to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia, an institution operated primarily for the education of Negroes. The former prisoners were joined there by fifty Sioux, Arikaras, Mandans, and Gros Ventres, who were shepherded from their Dakota reservation by Pratt and his wife.
After a few months at Hampton, Pratt became con- vinced that the different backgrounds and ethnic characteristics of the Negro and the Indian raised a serious obstacle to his efforts toward Indian education. He felt that the Indians would fare better in a separate school located in an area where they could observe the best features of contemporary white American society.
Pratt packed his bags, went to Washington, and buttonholed Carl Schurz, then Secretary of the Interior. He proposed that Carlisle Barracks, an army post that had then been unoccupied for several years, would make an ideal site for a school devoted entirely to the education and industrial training of Indians. Secretary Schurz, sympathetic to Pratt’s plan, approached the Secretary of War, George W. McCrary, seeking the release of the military post to the Department of the Interior. Such a transfer required congressional action, and tireless Pratt lobbied in Washington in this cause for several months.
Congress, then as now, was difficult to hurry, but the departments of War and Interior proceeded to demonstrate an unusual capacity for joint improvisation. General Winfield Scott Hancock, who commanded the military department in which Carlisle Barracks was located, wrote, “Carlisle Barracks will never again be required for military purposes, and I know of no better place for such an experiment.’ Upon the approval of General William Tccumseh Sherman in September, 1879, Carlisle Barracks was given over to the use of the Department of the Interior pending congressional approval.
Lieutenant Pratt then went into action. By October 6 he had returned from the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Sioux agencies in the Dakota Territory with the eightyfour boys and girls who so startled the citizens of Carlisle by their march from the railroad siding to the empty bar- racks. Pratt would have preferred Io recruit among the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche of the southwestern territory where he had served, but the Indian Bureau administration had the idea that children from the wayward Sioux groups could serve as hostages for the tribe’s good behavior.