Carlisle Indian School

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Carlisle Indian School

United States 1879


The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, located on the site of an army barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was founded by Richard Henry Pratt, an army officer who remained the school's driving force until he resigned in 1904. The purpose of the school, the first nonreservation Indian school funded by the federal government, was to "civilize" Native American children by removing them from their reservations, immersing them in the values of white society, and teaching them a trade.


  • 1859: Building of the Suez Canal begins.
  • 1864: George M. Pullman and Ben Field patent their design for a sleeping car with folding upper berths.
  • 1869: The first U.S. transcontinental railway is completed.
  • 1871: U.S. troops in the West begin fighting the Apache nation.
  • 1876: General George Armstrong Custer and 264 soldiers are killed by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn River.
  • 1877: Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph surrenders to federal troops.
  • 1879: Thomas Edison invents the incandescent electric light.
  • 1879: Great Britain fights the Zulus in South Africa, bringing an end to the nation founded by Shaka Zulu in 1816.
  • 1879: F. W. Woolworth opens his first department store, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
  • 1881: In a shootout at the O.K. Corral outside Tombstone, Arizona, Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, along with "Doc" Holliday, kill Billy Clanton, Frank McLowry, and Tom McLowry. This breaks up a gang headed by Clanton's brother Ike, who flees Tombstone. The towns-people, however, suspect the Earps and Holliday of murder. During the same year, Sheriff Pat Garrett shoots notorious criminal William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
  • 1885: Sudanese capital of Khartoum falls to forces under the Mahdi Mohammed Ahmed, whose forces massacre British General Charles "Chinese" Gordon and his garrison just before a British relief expedition reaches the city.
  • 1889: Indian Territory in Oklahoma is opened to settlement.

Event and Its Context


In the years following the Civil War, federal and state authorities wrestled with what was referred to as the "Indian problem." As the nation's borders pressed inexorably westward, federal troops did frequent battle with Native American tribes, usually—but not always—with brutal success. In 1867 General Winfield Hancock led an unsuccessful campaign against the Plains tribes. General Philip Sheridan had more success in the winter of 1868-1869, but the Plains tribes were not broken until the Red River War of 1874-1875. To the north, the government's campaign against the Native Americans led to the disastrous Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. In the Northwest, General George Crook defeated the Paiutes of northern California and southern Oregon in 1867-1868. In the Southwest, federal troops carried on a running battle with the Apache, often having to pursue them across the Mexican border until the Apache surrendered in the mid-1880s.

As armed conflict began to slow and finally end, the question that remained for the authorities was what to do with the Native American tribes. Some whites advocated preservation and development of a distinct Native American culture on the reservations, whereas others thought that the only way the Native American could survive in a white man's world was to become, in effect, as much like the white man as possible and be assimilated into white culture. Among those who took this position was a young cavalry lieutenant who had taken part in the campaigns of 1867-1868 and 1874-1875, Richard Henry Pratt.

In 1867 Pratt, an officer in the Tenth Cavalry stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, assumed command of a regiment of African American "Buffalo Soldiers" whose task was to keep the Native Americans on the reservations and protect white settlers from raiding parties. During these years (1867-1875) Pratt developed a deep and abiding distrust of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which he repeatedly harassed with complaints about the pitiful provisions—rancid beef, diseased livestock, poor grain—that the bureau provided for the reservations. These conditions, Pratt believed, made it inevitable that the Native Americans would try to escape the reservations to find game.

In 1875 the government, frustrated with its inability to control the "hostiles," decided to incarcerate 72 Native Americans at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. These prisoners were in effect hostages held to ensure the good behavior of their kinfolk out west. Appointed as their jailer was Pratt, who, with the help of local women who volunteered their services, taught the Native American prisoners to read. He enforced military discipline, promoted arts and crafts, and even allowed many of the Natives to find work as laborers in the local community. Then in 1878, when Pratt was transferred to the Hampton Institute in Virginia to organize the school's Indian Branch, he persuaded 17 of his Fort Marion prisoners to follow him there and enroll at the school. The Hampton Institute, founded in 1868 by Samuel Chapman Armstrong, was a boarding school for African Americans; its goal was to train "the head, the hearts, and the hands" of students, then return them to their communities where they could become leaders and professionals.

During this period Pratt's educational philosophy began to take shape. In many respects he found the Hampton philosophy consonant with his own, although he believed that the only lasting solution to the Native American problem was assimilation. With this end in view, he began an aggressive campaign to create a Native American school that would be supported with federal funds augmented by donations from wealthy backers, many of whom had vacationed in the St. Augustine area and had expressed support for Pratt's efforts. Those efforts began to bear fruit in 1879, when he received permission from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to take over a deserted army barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, for this purpose. In September he headed to the Dakota Territory, where he recruited a total of 82 students from the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations, overcoming the skepticism of tribal leaders by arguing that only by learning English and the white man's ways could the Indians ever protect their own interests. Meanwhile, two of his former Fort Marion prisoners recruited students from Kiowa and Cheyenne reservations further south. Pratt arrived at the Carlisle train station with his students in the middle of the night on 6 October—only to discover that the provisions he had been promised, including beds, food, and clothing, had not arrived. Pratt immediately turned around to accompany the Kiowa and Cheyenne students to the school; when he returned, the needed provisions, with one exception, still had not appeared. The exception was an organ.

The Carlisle Curriculum

When students arrived at the school in native dress, the staff immediately cut the students' hair. The school provided military uniforms for the boys and Victorian-style dresses for the girls. Pratt and his staff enforced strict military discipline: students were organized into companies with a hierarchy of officers, and they marched to classes and the dining hall. They were forbidden to speak their native languages, so they learned English by total immersion. One can only imagine the sense of dislocation students felt as they left their families and communities and entered this utterly alien environment—though many in later years conceded in autobiographies that after a while they adapted and took pride in their personal accomplishments and in those of the school.

Pratt often expressed his philosophy in a single statement: "Kill the Indian, save the man." A central part of his effort to assimilate nomadic Native Americans into white society was the school's industrial program, which was designed to help the Native Americans enter the U.S. labor force. Like many reservation schools, the Carlisle school followed a "half-day" curriculum. Half of the day was spent on academic subjects such as English, writing, arithmetic, drama, and geography. The other half was devoted to industrial education. Thus, every student learned a craft. For the boys, these included industrial crafts such as tinsmithing, construction, carpentry, and farming. The girls learned cooking, sewing, laundry, baking, and similar domestic arts. Students received payment for their work, and the school staff encouraged them to save their earnings. Additionally, the school maintained an extensive printing shop that they used to publish newspapers and magazines. This trained students in printing and gave Pratt—a tireless advocate for the school—the opportunity to promulgate his views and to raise funds.

An important component of the school's industrial program was the so-called outing system. During the summer months students did not return to their reservations. Instead, Pratt continued the process of "detribalizing" them by placing them for hire with non-Native American families. Many worked on farms; some worked at the Wanamakers department store in Philadelphia. Some eventually remained with the families year-round and attended local public schools. For business owners, craftsmen, and farmers, the outing system was a good source of cheap, reliable labor.


Until his retirement in 1904, Pratt remained in nearly continual conflict with government officials over Native American policy. He also incurred the enmity of reservation schools in the West, whose superintendents felt that Pratt's school siphoned off scarce funds that they needed. Some people were highly critical of his methods, including Zitkala-sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin), a teacher at the Carlisle school who frequently clashed with Pratt over his methods and argued that the school left students suspended between two worlds, ill equipped either to return to their reservations or to enter white society.

By some measures the Carlisle school was a success. During the school's 39-year history more than 10,000 students attended. Every student took music classes and received private instruction, and the school band performed in every presidential inaugural parade during the life of the school. Drama productions at the school attracted large audiences, and original works of art created by the school's students are still highly valued. Sports fans will recognize the name of student Jim Thorpe, who won gold medals in the 1912 Olympics, led the school's football team to winning records against college competition, and went on to a career in professional baseball and in the National Football League. Ironically, though, most of the students who attended Carlisle returned to their reservations rather than entering the white labor force, although some, to Pratt's dismay, joined Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show.

The school's prominence could not ensure its continued existence. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, the Carlisle barracks were returned to the army and became the site of the U.S. Army War College.

Key Players

Bonnin, Gertrude Simmons (orig. Zitkala-sa, 1876-1938):Bonnin was born Zitkala-sa, which means Red Bird in Sioux, in South Dakota and attended a Quaker school in Wabash, Indiana. At the age of 19 she enrolled in Earlham College in Indiana, where she distinguished herself as an orator. After teaching at Carlisle for two years, she published short stories and essays in such magazines as Atlantic and Harper's and studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she met and married Raymond Bonnin. As Gertrude Bonnin, she became a leading Native American activist, serving as secretary of the Society of American Indians and editor of the American Indian Magazine. In 1926 she and her husband organized the National Congress of American Indians.

Pratt, Richard Henry (1840-1924): Pratt was born in Rushford, New York, and grew up in Logansport, Indiana. With the outbreak of the Civil War he joined the Ninth Indiana Infantry, then served as a junior officer in the Eleventh Indiana Cavalry. After briefly trying the hardware business, he returned to the army in 1867 to command a regiment of African American soldiers on the western frontier. After leaving Carlisle in 1904 and retiring from the army as a general, he devoted himself to public discussion of Indian affairs.

Thorpe, James Francis (1888-1953): Born Wa-tho-huck (Bright Path) near Shawnee, Oklahoma, Thorpe was sent to the Carlisle school in 1904. In 1909 he left to play two seasons of minor league baseball, then returned in 1911 to lead the Carlisle football team to an 11-1 record. In 1912 he won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the Olympics in Stockholm, though he was later stripped of the medals when it was learned that he had played professional baseball. (The medals were returned to his family in 1982.) He played professional baseball and football before being named the first commissioner of the NFL in 1920. In 1950 the Associated Press named him the greatest athlete of the first half of the twentieth century, and he was inducted into the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.



Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

Coleman, Michael C. American Indian Children at School,1850-1930. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1993.

Pratt, Richard Henry. Battlefield and Classroom: Four Decades with the American Indian, 1867-1904. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964 (reprint, 1987).

Witmer, Linda F. The Indian Industrial School, Carlisle,Pennsylvania, 1879-1918. Carlisle, PA: Cumberland County Historical Society, 1993.


Carlisle Indian Industrial School Web site [cited 3 September2002]. <>.

—Michael J. O'Neal

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