November 1, 1879 – Formal Opening of the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania

The Black Hills, the oldest mountain range in the United States, stretches across South Dakota and Wyoming. It was given the name by the Sioux because of the thick dark forest of pine and spruce trees covering the hills.

The Black Hills, South Dakota, United States image from space

Pursuant to the Treaty of Fort Laramie of April 29, 1868, 15 Stat. 635, 636, the United States confirmed in the Sioux Nation the title to all of the present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River, and the government agreed to keep unauthorized persons out.

In 1874, George Armstrong Custer led a large expedition into the Black Hills, in direct violation of the Ft. Laramie Treaty. Even more unfortunately, gold was discovered near what later was Custer City, which led to a mad rush of prospectors and miners to the area.

Custer Expedition into Black Hills, 1874, photo by William H. Illingworth. Custer in light colored clothing to left of center.

President Ulysses S. Grant felt that even the army (not sympathetic to Native Americans in any event) could not hold back the greedy onrush, and he offered the Sioux $6 million if they ceded the Black Hills to the U.S. They declined the offer.

On November 3, 1875, Grant presided over a secret meeting with General Sheridan and others at which they decided that since they could no longer prevent waves of miners invading the Black Hills, therefore Grant would relax the order keeping them out. The group also decided to force Sitting Bull, who had opposed the sale of the Black Hills, to relocate on agency land by January 31, 1876.


Grant authorized a military force to ensure Sitting Bull’s compliance, and after the deadline passed without it, Sheridan had his army march against Sitting Bull and his ally Crazy Horse. The force was led by George Armstrong Custer, who was known for his cruelty toward Native Americans. In the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25-26, 1876, commonly referred to as “Custer’s Last Stand,” Custer and his men were annihilated by the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors along the Little Bighorn River, and Custer’s body was mutilated. But the victory backfired; the backlash by whites against Native Americans, not only by white Americans but also by the government and the army, was fierce and devastating to them.

George Armstrong Custer poses with his Indian scouts during the Black Hills expedition of 1874. The man pointing to the map was named “Bloody Knife,” a member of the Cree tribe. Photograph by William Illingworth.

Specifically, Congress responded with the Agreement of 1877, also known as the Act of February 28, 1877 (19 Stat. 254). This Act officially took away Sioux land, ceding the Black Hills to the United States. This change flagrantly violated the 1868 treaty, which stipulated that its terms could not be changed unless three-fourths of the adult male Sioux population agreed. It also attached what the Sioux call the “sell or starve” rider (19 Stat. 192) to the Indian Appropriations Act of 1876 (19 Stat. 176, enacted August 15, 1876), cutting off all rations for the Sioux until they terminated hostilities.

Article 5 of the Act was particularly egregious. It delineated specifics of a food allowance, but added “or in lieu of said articles the equivalent thereof, in the discretion of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.” This opened the door to outrageous abuse and graft in the Indian Department. Already in 1875, Grant had received a report of pervasive corruption at the Red Cloud Agency that furnished Sioux supplies in northwest Nebraska, near the Black Hills, with tales of putrid pork, inferior flour, rotten tobacco, and other shoddy goods foisted upon the tribe. (Ron Chernow, Grant, p. 831)

The new 1877 Act also provided that “whenever schools shall have been provided by the Government for said Indians [mostly boarding schools off reservation and having the intent to strip the children of their culture], no rations shall be issued for children between the ages of six and fourteen years (the sick and infirm excepted) unless such children shall regularly attend school.”

3 Lakota boys before and after assimilation at a mandated school

The government operated as many as 100 boarding schools for Native Americans, both on and off reservations. Children were sometimes taken forcibly, by armed police. If parents wanted their children to have food, or even an education, federal schools were the only option; public schools were closed to Indians because of racism.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened on November 1, 1879, with an enrollment of 147 students. The youngest was six and the eldest twenty-five, but the majority were teenagers. Two-thirds were the children of Plains Indian tribal leaders. The first class was made up of eighty-four Lakota, fifty-two Cheyenne, Kiowa and Pawnee, and eleven Apache.

Richard H. Pratt, the school founder, was a former Union Calvary officer who served in the west after the Civil War. He was assigned to work closely with Native Americans and African Americans when he commanded Buffalo Soldiers and Indian Scouts in Oklahoma. He developed an interest in educating Indians, convinced that he could transform the ‘savages’ in his care into model citizens.

Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt, Founder and Superintendent of Carlisle Indian School, in Military Uniform and With Sword 1879

In 1879, Pratt successfully submitted a petition for an Indian School to the Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz, who authorized the opening of a boarding school at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, the site of a closed military post.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the first off-reservation boarding school and had the primary goal of eradicating tribal culture and indoctrinating Indian children in Anglo-American ways.

3 Lakota boys before and after assimilation at a mandated school

Barbara Landis, in an online history of the school, writes:

In September 1879 – Pratt, accompanied by Miss Mather, a former teacher and interpreter from St. Augustine, headed to Dakota Territory to recruit the students he had been instructed to enroll in his new Carlisle school. These were to be children from Spotted Tail’s Rosebud reservation and Red Cloud’s Pine Ridge Agency. Pratt’s instructions were to recruit 36 students from each reservation.”

As Anita Satterlee reports in her account of the school and its founder:

For almost 40 years, from 1879 to 1918, the school sought to civilize ‘savage’ Indian children. Richard H. Pratt, founder of the school, believed that the school was the solution to the ‘Indian problem.’ To successfully carry out the mission to assimilate and rehabilitate, Pratt believed that the school must ‘Kill the Indian, save the man.’ To achieve this goal, totalitarian methods were employed, and all aspects of life were controlled. All traces of Indian culture were removed from the view and memory of students. Students were given new Anglo names, and they were forbidden to speak their native language. Boys’ hair was cut in the Anglo fashion, and Indian dress was replaced with military uniforms. Girls were given Victorian-style uniform dresses and shoes. During summers, students were placed with Anglo families instead of returning home. Students spent half the day at scholastic study, primarily learning English, and the other half pursuing vocational training. By total immersion in Anglo-American culture, students internalized the belief that Whites were culturally superior.”

One of the “inferior” Indians attending in 1912: All-America Jim Thorpe of the Carlisle Indian School football team in Pennsylvania. Credit: Panworld Sports/Icon SMI

Between 8-12,000 students representing 139 tribes attended the school during its 39 years of operation.

Saterlee notes that Pratt encouraged his pupils never to return to reservations. He had no understanding of Native American culture, only believing that it was uncivilized. She observes: “The prevalent belief of the times was that there was something wrong with a people and culture that was so unlike the typical American culture.”

Most horrifically, because of the totalitarian methods Pratt employed, “Students began to internalize the racism that they were taught through books and teachings, that whites were culturally superior.”

In 2017, The Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections acquired a collection of 39 glass plate negatives from the studio of John Nicholas Choate, the famed photographer who frequently captured images of Carlisle Indian School students and activities. The digital archive includes individual and group portraits, most of which were not commercially sold. As the website notes, “Through these resources, we seek to increase knowledge and understanding of the school and its complex legacy, while also facilitating efforts to tell the stories of the many thousands of students who were sent there.”

Two unidentified male students at Carlisle from the Dickinson Collection

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