Carlisle Indian School Records

Chiracahua Apache Indians After Training at the Carlisle Indian School, 1886 (photograph from the National Archives, ARC identifier 593352, local identifier 111-SC-85688)

Carlisle Indian Industrial School (1879–1918) was an Indian boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1879 at Carlisle, Pennsylvania by Captain Richard Henry Pratt, the school was the first off-reservation boarding school, and it became a model for Indian boarding schools in other locations. It was one of a series of 19th-century efforts by the United States government to assimilate Native American children from 140 tribes into the majority culture. The goal of total assimilation can be summed up in the school’s slogan:

 “To civilize the Indian, get him into civilization. To keep him civilized, let him stay.”

From the earliest years of the republic, United States leaders struggled with the issues of integrating Native Americans into the European-based society, which they believed was superior and bound to dominate, especially with increasing immigration. Some leaders also hoped to protect the indigenous peoples and their distinct cultures. In the late 18th century, reformers, starting with George Washington and Henry Knox, supported educating native children, in efforts to “civilize” or otherwise assimilate Native Americans into the European-American society. The Civilization Fund Act of 1819 promoted such policy by providing funding to societies (mostly religious) who worked on Native American improvement. Washington and Knox believed that Native Americans were equals but that their societies were inferior. Washington had a six-point plan for civilization which included,

  • impartial justice toward Native Americans;
  • regulated buying of Native American lands;
  • promotion of commerce;
  • promotion of experiments to civilize or improve Native American society;
  • presidential authority to give presents; and
  • punishing those who violated Native American rights.

A letter from Henry Knox to George Washington in the 1790s summed things up pretty well:

“How different would be the sensation of a philosophic mind to reflect that instead of exterminating a part of the human race by our modes of population that we had persevered through all difficulties and at last had imparted our Knowledge of cultivating and the arts, to the Aboriginals of the Country by which the source of future life and happiness had been preserved and extended. But it has been conceived to be impracticable to civilize the Indians of North America — This opinion is probably more convenient than just.”

The historian Robert Remini wrote that Native Americans were encouraged to think that “once the Indians adopted the practice of private property, built homes, farmed, educated their children, and embraced Christianity, these Native Americans would win acceptance from white Americans.”

The United States appointed agents, such as Benjamin Hawkins, to live among the Native Americans and to teach them how to live like European Americans.  Many agents took Native wives, sometimes in addition to European ones.

After the American Civil War and Indian Wars ended in the late 19th century, the government encouraged schools on the reservations, as well as expanded missionary activity. The schools on and near reservations were often run primarily by or affiliated with Christian missionaries. They often believed that children had to accept the Christian religion and struggled to suppress traditional ways.  At this time United States society thought that Native American children needed to be acculturated to the general society to help them get ahead and have opportunities in the larger world.

I have been working on the Carlisle records for several months now.  I have very mixed emotions about these records because of two situations, one much more difficult than the other.

The first problem is that these children were often “renamed,” so I have no clue in general whether I’m working with a name they used before Carlisle, only during their stay at Carlisle, or for the rest of their life.  However, given that many of these children married and had children, these names may well be found in their descendants.  Some names are obviously Native, such as Eagle Bear, Eagle Chief and Eagle Dog.  For these, I’m exceedingly grateful.  Some I know are Native family names because they appear in other records for that tribe as well.  Others, we simply don’t know, but as names accumulate in the Native names project, we should be able to get a much better idea which names were ancestral and which were not.

Secondly, the Carlisle School and other similar schools are known widely for their abuse, although at the time their policies were widely accepted.  This next paragraph is difficult for me.

During the years of operation, hundreds of children died at Carlisle. Most died from infectious diseases common in the early 20th century that killed many children. More than 175 were buried in the cemetery. The bodies of most who died were sent to their families. Children who died of tuberculosis were buried at the school, as people were worried about contagion. The new climate, separation anxiety and lack of immunity increased the death toll. Others died while attempting to escape from the school. Some suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse or malnutrition. Beatings were a common form of punishment for students’ grieving, speaking their native languages, not understanding English, attempting to escape and violating the harsh military rules. Other forms of punishment included hard labor and confinement. According to Dr. Eulynda J. Toledo of the 21st-century “Boarding School Healing Project”, children at Carlisle had their mouths washed with lye soap for speaking in their tribal languages.  Punishments were worse at other schools.

The children who arrived at Carlisle able to speak some English were presented to the other children as “translators.” The authorities at the School sometimes used the children’s traditional respect for elders to require them to inform on other children’s misbehavior. This was typical of the pattern in the large families of the time, in which older children were required to take care of and discipline younger children.

Sometimes school officials required students to take new English names. This was confusing, as the names from which they were to choose had no meaning to the children. In traditional Native American culture, people had a variety of formal and informal names that reflected relationships and life experiences. The “renaming” was difficult for many of the children, especially because they could not read and had to pick their names by the way that the writing looked or someone selected the name for them.

The issue of names being rejected by schools is not unique to Carlisle or the 1800s.  I was speaking with a First Nations Odawa woman last week who was born about 1950 and when she was in school on the reservation where she lives, the Catholic nuns refused to let her use her Native name which meant “Dawn.”  They renamed her, but today she uses the first name of Dawna, in tribute to her original Native name.

Renaming  and corporal punishment was not the worst of the abuse.  In other schools, the abuse deteriorated into torture and murder. 

The Carlisle School was a model for 26 Indian boarding schools which the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) founded across the country by 1902. In addition, more than 450 schools were run by Christian missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant. Generally they operated from the premise that Native American children needed to assimilate to the majority culture and religion both to survive in the society and to advance. The children were forced to give up much of what they knew about traditional ways. Ideas about education have since changed drastically.

Pratt experienced conflict with government officials over his outspoken views on the need for Native Americans to assimilate. In 1904 he was forced to retire as superintendent of the Carlisle School. After Pratt was forced out, some of the school was upgraded to be a counterpart of colleges and training institutes. Its football teams competed against those of colleges. It had a strong sports program and training for trade industries, as industry represented what directors saw as the area of greatest job expansion at the time. The number of industrial jobs in society had expanded greatly. 

I have found several Carlisle students working between 1918-1921 for the Ford Motor Company in the Detroit area according to their draft registrations.

When the “noble experiment” at Carlisle ended in 1918 when the school closed, nearly 12,000 children had been through the school. Students came from 140 tribes from all over the United States. Less than 8% graduated from the full program, while well over twice that percentage ran away.

Late 20th-century appraisal of the school led to criticism like this:

“The boys and girls at Carlisle Indian School were trained to be cannon fodder in American wars, to serve as domestics and farm hands, and to leave off all ideas or beliefs that came to them from their Native communities, including and particularly their belief that they were entitled to land, life, liberty, and dignity….separated from all that is familiar; stripped, shorn, robbed of their very self; renamed.”

My heart aches for those frightened children, punished for speaking the beautiful lyrical language of their birth and not understanding why, deprived of their families and stripped of their culture – everything that was familiar or comforting to them.  Their parent and families, far removed and unable to help them, had no idea, I’m sure.  They believed they were offering their children opportunities for the future that they could never have living on the reservation…and in some cases, they were right….but not always and at what ultimate cost?

Many Native Americans are bitter about the deracination that took place at the Indian boarding schools, and the experiences suffered by children taken from their families. Others appreciate the chances their ancestors got for education, having heard positive stories in their family traditions. In 2000 the Cumberland County Pa. 250th Anniversary Committee worked with Native Americans from numerous tribes and non-natives to organize a Powwow on Memorial Day to commemorate the Carlisle Indian School, the students, and their history in all its aspects.

The names of the students are held in the National Archives and are available by directed searches using tribal names and states.  By adding the names of these students to the Native Heritage Project, we can, in some small way, write them back into their rightful place in tribal history.  We have no idea whether they lived or died, so in some cases, we may be memorializing them.  What we do know is their name as recorded in school records, their tribal affiliation, the Indian Agency that they were affiliated with, if any, and their home state.

To search, use the Archive Research Catalog Search and enter the words “Carlisle Indian School,” including the comma, followed by the term you want to search for, such as “Oneida” or “Virginia.”  Tribal names are often spelled in differing ways, so sometimes multiple searches are required using various terms.


About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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2 Responses to Carlisle Indian School Records

  1. Grand Father was William H, White
    On Carlise Ind. School Roll is
    Listed two more cherokee children!
    William H is 22 +\- 1886- 1910
    Two infants –
    Were children his ?
    Mother may be: AKA:
    Mrs William H White , Mont, 1900- 1910
    .,Shanee Indian Reservation
    Oral Translation has William’s birth
    In California.
    Mother’s Name – Margret
    Fathers Name – William
    Oral Family History has Willoam’s
    Uncle Lonny ( Kai-Yaii) being Shot for Escape
    By Sheriff’s Deputys!

  2. Pingback: Chief Big Head, Standing Rock, Dakota Territory | Native Heritage Project

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