Richard Henry Pratt (1840-1924) was a soldier in the American Civil War and later fought in armed conflicts against Native Americans on the Great Plains. In 1879, Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the first Native American boarding school in the United States. These schools removed Native American children from their homes and forced them to assimilate into white American society under the guise of providing education. Carlisle created the template for similar state and religious institutions in the United States.
Pratt believed that Native Americans should be “reformed” into white American society. He first practiced his notion of reform when he was given power over a group of Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Arapahoe, and Caddo Native American prisoners of war at Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Florida, in 1875. Pratt implemented military protocols and standards, including military haircuts and uniforms, drills, English language education, and a guard system where Native men monitored each other.
Pratt’s observations and experiences at Fort Marion led him to believe that an educational system based on military tenets of strict conformity and discipline would allow Native Americans to effectively assimilate into white American culture. Pratt’s experience at Fort Marion allowed him to convince officials in the United States Army and government that similar strategies could be used on Native American children. The Department of the Interior gave Pratt the Carlisle Barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania for this purpose, and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened in 1879.
Pratt served as superintendent of Carlisle from 1879 to 1904. In the summer of 1879, he journeyed to western reservations and removed eighty-two children from their homes and families for the inaugural cohort. Pratt instituted a zero tolerance policy for any aspect of Native American traditions and culture. At Carlisle, children lived an extremely disciplined life, performing drills and following a bell system throughout the day. Children were forbidden from wearing traditional Native American clothing and were instead given garments similar to what their white peers would wear. Even with Pratt’s vigorous defense of the boarding school system, the number of children who graduated from Carlisle remained low throughout his superintendency, with only thirty to forty degrees granted in a given year. Throughout the years that Carlisle existed, many students aged out without graduating, ran away, or died. More than one hundred children are known to have died while at Carlisle, mostly of infectious diseases. At present at least 186 people are known to be interred in the Carlisle Indian School cemetery.
The papers primarily relate to Richard Henry Pratt’s work and theories on education as a means of assimilating Native Americans into white American society. This is documented in correspondence, letter-press books, writings, diaries, notes, and photographs. Also included are papers relating to Pratt’s family, responses to Pratt’s work, and documentation about his founding and running the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which removed Native American children from their homes and forced them to assimilate into white American society under the guise of providing education. The papers also include ledger art by Etahdleuh Doanmoe (Kiowa), drawings by other unidentified Native American artists, and photographs both of Native American subjects more broadly and of children at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.