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The Great White Father’s Little Red Indian School

July 2024
12min read

Supporters of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School believed that complete absorption of the Indian into American society was best for everyone

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.


Pratt also sent one Etahdleuh, one of the ex-prisoners from Saint Augustine, to the Kiovva and Comanche agencies, and another protégé, Making Medicine, to the Cheyenne and Arapaho agencies. The two disciples rounded up parties of would-be students, which included some children of Pratt’s Florida prisoners. A. J. Standing, an English Quaker experienced with the southwestern Indians, was recruited as a teacher by Pratt and showed up from the Washita and Fort Sill agencies with a group of Pawnees in tow. The combined student body numbered one hundred and forty-seven pupils when the school opened officially on November 1, 1879.

The new school was not legitimatized by congressional action for three years. Expenses for the lean first years were borne mainly by the “Civilization Fund,” which the Interior Department had derived from the sale of usage lands in Kansas. Pratt wrote to General Joseph R. Hawley, a member of Congress, in 1880: I do not know what is proposed, but as the matter will come before the Appropriations Committee, may I not hope that you will do what you can for me? I must cither have relief or return to my duties in the line. I simply can’t stand it. Il the Committee only could see the work that is grown up here, and understand the leverage it has upon a better state of things for the Indians, I am sure they would help me stand by it.

The recruitment of new students was not always easy. Family ties were strong among the American Indians, and Indian fathers were reluctant to part with their children in return for the questionable benefits of a white man’s education.

Jason Betzinez, an Apache of Ceronimo’s band sent to Saint Augustine as a prisoner of war in 1886, was there when Pratt made one of his recruiting trips. Although Pratt brought along an Apache student from Carlisle to assist him, he was unable to drum up a single volunteer for the school. Undaunted, Pratt marched down the line and raised the hands of sixty-two Apaches: boys, girls, and young men, married and unmarried. Betzinez was one of those who were thus “volunteered.” He was twenty-seven years old, spoke no English, and was full of resentment.

Some of the young Indians were not only completely unfamiliar _with their new environment but were painfully unprepared to accept it. When the first group was gathered for the Hampton experiment, Mrs. Pratt was placed in charge of the girls for the trip East. She was struck by their astonishment over the two-story buildings they saw at the Indian agency. She told one of the little girls who understood some English that in a few days they would be surrounded by buildings five times as high. The child refused to pass this fantastic story on to her comrades, saying, “Maybe so you lie.” In Chicago, three days later, Mrs. Pratt placed her hand on the girl’s shoulder and pointed to the city outside. The child looked into her face, flushed with shame, and covered her head with her shawl.

When the new students arrived at Carlisle complete with blankets and beads, they were subjected to an almost shattering reorientation. Off came the blankets and the braids of hair, and the newcomers were completely reoutfitted, the boys in uniforms and the girls in voluminous Victorian dresses. Hapless neophytes reaching Carlisle without white man’s names were presented with them as a part of their reception.

As might be expected from Pratt’s background, the boys were organized into a military formation. Since Pratt held his commission as an officer of the ioth Cavalry, the student military organization was composed of “troops of dismounted cavalry,” complete with a band. The resulting “regiment” was officered by cadets from the student body. This organization provided a convenient means of control. Military guards were posted, and wayward pupils were sometimes apprehended and locked in the guardhouse by student guards. The life of the Indian girl pupils was more genteely regimented. A school catalogue says: The discipline of the girls is firm, but kindly. Just as in a well regulated home the daughter does not go away without the consent of her mother, so here the girls must have the matron’s permission before leaving the grounds. When girls go to town to shop or for other purposes they are always accompanied by a matron, or by a teacher who acts as chaperone.

On the last Saturday of each month a general social gathering for both the pupils and the employees of the school was held in the gymnasium, and it was noted that this gathering “gives ample opportunity for the proper association of the two sexes.”

Along with the white man’s clothes the Indians were expected to adopt various extracurricular activities on the white man’s pattern. In addition to the Y.M.C. A. and Y.W.C.A., there was, for the girls, a choice between the Mercer Literary Society and the Susan Longstreth Literary Society. The boys were offered either the Standard Literary Society or the Invincible Debating Society.

There was an intense rivalry between the student-run societies, and they competed with each other in the preparation of programs for the student body. One such program, the product of the Mercer Literary Society, lists a variety of entertainment: “piano and vocal solos,” “declamation,” “humorous recitations,” “a parasol drill byten girls,” “a one act farce, ‘My Aunt from California,’ ” and finally—a sole reference to the ethnic background of the students—an “Illustrated Indian Song.”

The great event between the “Invincibles” and the “Standards” was the annual debate, attended by the entire student body and preceded by songs and cheering. The Invincibles won in 1916, and their yearbook recalls, “from the actions of some of them anyone would have believed that a bomb had been thrown into their midst.” It is doubtful that the enthusiasm resulted from the emotions aroused by the question, which was: “Resolved, that the adoption of a ship purchase bill is essential to our commercial prosperity.”

Every aspect of student life was a subject for the “civilization” process. The school paper in 1899 offered pungent advice on etiquette: “If a person grasps his fork at table as one would a spike through a catfish head while skinning it, there is something wrong with his bringing up. Nothing tells so much against a person’s early training as the awkward manner of holding the fork.”

The civilization process was viewed with dismay by some visiting Indian elders. Spotted Tail, chief of the Brule Sioux, objected to the use of military uniforms for the boys. Hc protested that the boys were in training to become soldiers. He cited further complaints concerning the food and the living accommodations, but, worst of all, he found that his son had been confined to the guardhouse for a week.


Pratt explained that the boy had been punished by a student court for stabbing a schoolmate with his jackknife. Spotted Tail was unmollified. He withdrew his nine children and relatives from the school and returned them to the reservation at his own expense.

The nature and the level of academic instruction varied during the history of the school. The age of the pupils ranged from the early teens to the mid-twenties. Some were almost completely unschooled, and others had been at various agency schools for several years. Although Carlisle was popularly believed to be a college-level institution, it never attempted to teach even through the high-school level.

At first, courses to the tenth grade were taught. Eventually, the academic program was restricted to the fourth through the eighth grades, with admission limited to those who had the equivalent of the first three grades.

Carlisle was a vocational school, and when the academic program interfered with vocational training, the academic requirements gave way. The real meat of the school programs was a three-year sequence in agriculture, mechanical arts, and home economics. The academic subjects were ruthlessly trimmed to essentials. Arithmetic was taught mainly through the medium of problems bearing on farm work and industry, and reading was taught from such readers as the Riverside Readers, Stepping Stones to Literature , and the Farm Life Readers . These solid works were supplemented by reading from such books as Franklin’s Autobiography and Black Beauty .

An important aspect of the Carlisle educational scheme was the “outing” system. Under this system an attempt was made to place each pupil in a Pennsylvania home for at least one year. During this year, in addition to performing regular farm or other work, the Indian pupil attended local public schools.

The outing system was, of course, a logical extension of Pratt’s firm belief that the Indian could achieve success only by leaving the reservation and by abandoning the tribal pattern. The year’s residence with a Pennsylvania Dutch family could be counted upon to blur the tribal association.


Critics have attacked the outing system as part of a ruthless “de-Indianizing” program that alienated the young Indians from their people. Oliver La Farge, writing many years after the school closed, said: Carlisle Indian School was founded in Pennsylvania for a purpose of inspired and brutal benevolence. Indians of high-school age were taken—often almost literally kidnapped—from the Western reservations and sent there, to remain for four, six or even more years. The idea was to break them completely away from their families and their tribes, forbid any speaking of their native languages or any manifestation of their native culture, and put them through a course of sprouts that would make them over into white men.

The autobiography of the old Apache warrior Jason Betzinez, on the other hand, recalled with nostalgia his life on a Pennsylvania farm in the iSgo’s. This reluctant pupil was later to remember his days at Carlisle as the happiest ones in a long life. He wrote years later: During the First World War our old Carlisle superintendent made his last visit to Fort Sill. Several of his former students went to Anadarko to meet him at the train. The train arrived very late but we waited there patiently for it because we were as anxious to see General Pratt as if he were our own father. When the cars rolled in and the General stepped on the platform the Indians stood there with the tears rolling down their cheeks, overcome with happiness to see their old friend.

The poor health of some Indian pupils caused disheartening problems. Medical examinations of prospective students, when given at all, were sketchy, and a high incidence of disease occurred after arrival at the school. Adding to the difficulty was the susceptibility of the Plains-reared Indians to the common diseases of civilization. Young Indians not previously exposed to the childhood diseases endemic among the whites, such as measles, chicken pox, and mumps, were unlikely to avoid them in the East.

The startling excellence of the Indians in athletics provided the Carlisle school with more publicity than the more important but less dramatic aspects of the educational program. The Indians learned the white man’s sports in a well-organized intramural program.

Although the Carlisle school was on an almost primary level and was concerned mainly with vocational training, the Carlisle teams played such teams as Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, West Point, and the United States Naval Academy. Pratt was determined that the Carlisle football teams would play with the best on equal terms. He wrote to the famous football coach Walter Camp and asked him to recommend the best coach in the United States. Camp named Glenn “Pop” Warner, then coach at Cornell. Warner was promptly hired for Carlisle at what seemed to Pratt to be “an almost impossible figure.”

By the early 1900’s the Indian football teams had become the darlings of the sportswriters. Jim Thorpe, the almost legendary star athlete of Carlisle, was responsible for reams of publicity. The entire nation sympathized when he was forced to return the gold medals he won at the Olympic Games at Stockholm in 1912. Thorpe, a Sauk and Fox, was disqualified when it was discovered that he had once played professional baseball.

Pratt was never happier than when showing off either his school or its student body. In order to get his boys and girls to a parade or exposition he would haggle without shame over railroad fares, room charges, and meal costs. In 1893 he took over five hundred students to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He bartered for free admissions by promising to show off the whole group in a series of military parades, complete with band. He found a restaurant that let the young Indians provide their own table service at reduced prices. His economies saved enough money to hire a steamboat for a nighttime excursion to view the fireworks. The trip was a huge success for the young Indians, other fairgoers, and officials of the fair.

Alien though they were, the Indians came to be an accepted element of society in southern Pennsylvania. Old Jason Betzinez remembered lounging on Carlisle street corners on Saturday night, “just like the young white farmers.” Devil-may-care Jason even patronized the seafood stands in Carlisle and ate oysters in flagrant violation of the Apache taboo against eating food originating under the water.

The townspeople of Carlisle remember the Indians even today with affection. Almost half a century after their departure the town still considers itself “the home of the Indian School.”

By 1910, although over four thousand Indians had attended Carlisle for varying periods, there were less than six hundred recognized as graduates. At that time, a survey showed that over half of the living graduates were employed away from their reservation. Of the nongraduates, or “returned students,” a high percentage were found to be successfully earning a living.

Still, it is not possible to claim complete success for the Carlisle experiment. Many of the students returned to their reservations alienated from their tribal society but still unfitted to lead an independent life among the whites. Some of these reacted with an angry renunciation of everything they had been taught. Others maintained a livable equilibrium between the two societies.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School operated for thirty-nine years. Pratt was superintendent for twentyfive of these years. He never deviated from his original idea that the country and the Indians could best be served by the complete absorption of the Indian into American society. He fought the reservation concept, and more dangerously, he fought the Indian Bureau. As his work at the school progressed, he became increasingly outspoken, and in 1904, after his retirement from the active list of the Army, he collided head-on with the bureaucracy.


In a speech given to a group of Baptist ministers in New York he let fly with the flat statement, “Nothing better could happen to the Indian than the abolition of the [Indian] Bureau.” Bureaucratic reaction was swift, and Pratt’s active association with the Indian school was ended. As a retired brigadier general, the old soldier continued to press his ideas for solution of the Indian’s problems. In 1924 his grave at Arlington was marked with a plain but imposing monument, inscribed, “Erected in Loving Memory by His Students and Other Indians.”

The school lasted until 1918. The climax of its athletic fame occurred after Pratt’s time. Professional educators polished the curriculum. With Pratt’s departure, though, the élan and dynamism of the school slackened. When the school finally closed, the War Department reclaimed the old barracks. The military remains in residence today and Carlisle Barracks presently houses the United States Army War College.

Beside the back entrance to the modern military reservation lies a tiny graveyard. The headstones are similar to those in a national military cemetery, and the rows of graves are militarily exact. Only the names on the headstones are unusual. Among others there are Mativito Horse … Cheyenne; Jane Lumpfoot… Arapaho; Nora Izancho … Apache.


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