American Indian Education

views updated

American Indian Education

Beginning with the Massachusetts seal, depicting an Indian pleading "Come Over and Help Us," educating American Indians was a major part of the effort to "civilize" the Indian during the Revolutionary era and the early Republic. These efforts presaged the proliferation of off-reservation boarding schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The architects of federal Indian policy placed great importance on Indian education.

European missionaries viewed Indians as proud savages in need of the humility of European ways of life. As the historian James Axtell has noted, the colonists shared the hope that they could, in their oft-repeated phrase, "reduce Indians to civility." Many individuals concerned with the education of American Indians believed that if they changed Indians' outward appearance, Indians would assimilate more quickly. Thus they cut Indians' hair, gave them European clothes, and taught them civilized arts such as agriculture and domestic work. The colonists brought Indian children into schools to remake them as Europeans. They also set aside funds to support the education of Indians at such institutions as Henrico College, William and Mary College, and Harvard College. Yet these schools enrolled very few Indian students.

The institution most closely associated with the education of American Indian children was Moor's Charity School. Eleazar Wheelock (1711–1779) established Moor's, a charity school for poor Indian and white boys and girls, in Lebanon, Connecticut, in 1754. Previously, Wheelock had tutored Indian children such as Samson Occom, a member of the Mohegan tribe, in writing and religion. Wheelock believed other American Indians could experience the same kind of success as that achieved by Occom. The majority of Indian students came from neighboring Algonquian and Iroquoian communities. In addition to civilizing Indians, Wheelock argued that an Indian school also protected the English frontier. Establishing his school during the Seven Years' War, Wheelock argued that education pacified Indians and prevented future warfare. Moor's accepted both male and female Indian students, a novelty for its time. Girls took classes in basic writing and reading but spent the majority of their time learning how to take care of a colonial home, as was typical of schools for Euro-American girls. Boys attended morning prayers, attended classes in the classical languages, and spent the afternoons engaged in agricultural labor.

In 1763 Wheelock wrote "A Proposal for Introducing Religion, Learning, Agriculture and Manufacture among the Pagans in America" and sent it to officials in England. Wheelock outlined his plans for an Indian college and enlisted Occom to help raise funds for this venture. Between 1765 and 1768, Occom willingly made several trips to England and Scotland, raising more than £12 thousand for Wheelock's school. After securing the funds, Wheelock moved Moor's to Hanover, New Hampshire, and established Dartmouth College in 1769. However, like its predecessors, Dartmouth attracted few Indian students. Between 1770 and 1780, only 40 Indians attended school at Dartmouth, compared to 120 non-Indians. The apparent gap between the school's intent—to educate Indians—and its results—educating more whites than Indians—caused a rift between Occom and Wheelock. Indeed, Axtell describes Wheelock as possessing little talent for and less interest in educating Indians at Dartmouth. Much of his rhetoric of Indian education was a scam to raise money for Dartmouth in England.

Indians who attended white schools and colleges had a great impact on Indian affairs during the American Revolution and early Republic. Alexander McGillivray, whose father was Scottish and his mother a Creek Indian, attended school in Charleston, South Carolina, where he received a classical education. He returned to the Creeks and fought with the British during the American Revolution. After the Revolution he ascended to high positions among the Creeks because of his opposition to the sale of Creek land. He corresponded with Spanish and American politicians and was well versed in the political language of republicanism. Joseph Brant, a Mohawk, had similar experiences. In the 1760s Brant attended Moor's School and learned how to work in an English world. Education provided McGillivray, Brant, and others with an opportunity to act as cultural go-betweens and achieve prestige.

After the Revolution, Americans continued in the attempt to educate Indian children. In many post-Revolution treaties, American officials inserted provisions for the education of Indian children. For instance, the Treaty of New York, signed by the Creeks and the United States in 1790, provided for five Creek children annually to attend schools outside Creek country. Both American and Indian leaders pushed for Indian education; for the Americans, the goal was to civilize Indians and open land for American settlement.

In the early nineteenth century, Thomas McKenney, a secretary of Indian affairs, placed great emphasis on Indian education. Beginning in 1816, when he served as the superintendent of Indian trade, and into the 1820s, he supported a national school system for Indians. Although this effort failed, other American Indian groups, such as the Cherokees, requested teachers and schools. Moravians and Presbyterians answered the Cherokees' call. At schools headed by Moravian missionaries, Cherokees received a vocational education—agriculture for Cherokee males and housekeeping for Cherokee females. Presbyterian schools, on the other hand, emphasized classroom instruction. Cherokees took courses in reading, writing, and mathematics, along with agriculture and housekeeping. Both Moravians and Presbyterians, however, faced a great obstacle in the language barrier. Few Cherokees seemed willing to teach missionaries their language, and thus education was confined to mixed-blood Cherokees or those who could speak English.

Euro-Americans attempted to change Indians through education during the Revolutionary period. Americans established schools within Indian communities and brought them into their own schools to teach Indians the English language and the Euro-American way of life. Yet Indians took what they wanted from the education experience. Some assisted their people in maintaining the integrity of Indian ways, whereas others sought to build bridges between Indians and whites.

See alsoAmerican Indians: American Indian Relations, 1763–1815; American Indians: American Indian Resistance to White Expansion; Moravians; Presbyterians .


Axtell, James. The School upon a Hill: Education and Society in Colonial New England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.

——. The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Caughey, John Walton. McGillivray of the Creeks. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1938.

McLoughlin, William G. Cherokees and Missionaries, 1789–1839. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Abridged edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

Szasz, Margaret Connell. Indian Education in the American Colonies, 1607–1783. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.

Wright, Bobby. "'For the Children of the Infidels'?: American Indian Education in the Colonial Colleges." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 12 (1988): 1–14.

William J. Bauer

About this article

American Indian Education

Updated About content Print Article


American Indian Education