Captain Pratt's dream
him in all ways but color into a white man, and, in fact, the Indian
would be exterminated, but humanely, and as beneficiary of the greatest
gift at the command of the white man - his own civilization."
- Characterization of Carlisle Indian School founder R.H. Pratt's
philosophy by historian Robert H. Utley, 1979
history of the Carlisle Indian School is inextricably linked with its
founder. R.H. Pratt, a US Army captain, had commanded a unit of
African-American soldiers and Indian scouts in Dakota Territory for
eight years following the Civil War. Subscribing to the ideas of the
"Indian reformers" of the time - many of whom were Quakers and
Christian missionaries - Pratt believed the solution to the so-called
"Indian problem" was not separation, which was the function of the
reservations, but assimilation.
Pratt believed the best way for
Indians to be absorbed into mainstream American society was to provide
them with an education. In 1875, Pratt was assigned to guard a group of
Caddo, Southern Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa prisoners at Fort Marion
in St. Augustine, Florida. He selected a group of these prisoners to
test his hypothesis about Indian education and sent them to the Hampton
Institute in Virginia, then a boarding school for black children. The
17 students adapted so completely to European-American ways that Pratt
decided he wanted an all-Indian school of his own.
In 1879, the
Army gave Pratt permission to house his school on an old cavalry post
in the small, rural town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He traveled west to
recruit his first students from Rosebud and Pine Ridge, two Lakota
reservations in what is now South Dakota. In the meantime, two of
Pratt's former pupils from Hampton were recruiting Cheyenne and Kiowa
children for Pratt in the Southwest.
Meeting with well-known and
influential Lakota chiefs and elders - Spotted Tail at Rosebud and Red
Cloud at Pine Ridge - Pratt argued that had their people been able to
understand English, they might have prevented the loss of land and
freedom that had occurred with the institution of the reservation
system, or at least understood what was to come.
Cloud and Spotted Tail were skeptical of Pratt's intentions, they
believed their land and resources inevitably would continue to be
purloined by the white men. Each chief sent 36 children with Pratt,
including five of Spotted Tail's own children and Red Cloud's grandson.
According to Pratt's account, 10 more were added to the group as it
made its way to the steamboat for the first leg of the journey.