Phillip Earenfight, Seminar Adviser/Director, The Trout Gallery

Visualizing a Mission: Artifacts and Imagery of the Carlisle Indian School, 1879-1918 examines artifacts associated with the nation’s first boarding school for Native Americans. The artifacts illustrate various educational, cultural, and visual facets of the Carlisle Indian School and how the institution served to “civilize” Native Americans as part of a larger process of government directed cultural assimilation.1

The history of Indian boarding schools, and the Carlisle Indian School in particular, began in the early 1870s when major combat in the Indian Wars had ended and the United States Army had started to direct tribes onto reservations.2 However, the reservation system soon proved to be a failure and many felt that the Indian population would have to assimilate into American society or face extinction.3 After much consideration, federal policymakers concluded that if the native populations were shown the way of “civilization,” they would be prepared to take their place in American society. This conclusion rested on the assumption that an academic education would elevate one from a primitive to a more civilized state.4

Policy became practice at the Carlisle Indian School, which had its origins in the events following bloody skirmishes near Fort Sill, in what is now Oklahoma. In the aftermath, seventy-two warriors were taken prisoner and moved temporarily to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. They were met by Lt. Richard Henry Pratt, who transported them by train to St. Augustine, Florida to be detained at Fort Marion. Not without incident and death, the surviving captives arrived at the fort on May 21, 1875 (fig. 1; cat. 50a).5 Through a series of drastic procedures, Pratt converted Fort Marion into a military-style school. He stripped all vestiges of the students’ native culture, including their clothes, hairstyles, and languages, and issued military uniforms, showed them how to march, and instructed them in English and the Christian faith.6 Pratt tore them down culturally and then rebuilt them according to Western models. After three years of work, the transformation of “blanket Indians” into properly dressed, “civilized” students convinced the government to release the captives.

Encouraged by this early success, Pratt continued his mission in 1878 by introducing Native American students, some of them from Fort Marion, to the Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute (later Hampton College) in Virginia. Founded in 1868 and run by Samuel Chapman Armstrong, the Institute was established as a school for recently-freed black slaves.7 Working together at Hampton, Pratt and Armstrong began taking photographs of the Indian students immediately upon their arrival and again, several months after, as a way to illustrate the efficacy of their civilizing mission. Pratt and his students remained at Hampton until 1879, when the government, further encouraged by his efforts, granted him permission to create an Indian school at the military barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.8 At Carlisle, Pratt refined and amplified many of the ideas that he introduced earlier at Fort Marion and the Hampton Institute. As at Hampton, Pratt had “before” and “after” photographs made of countless students, which he used to promote his cause and gain political and financial support for the school.9 He also introduced the Outing System, a feature of the Fort Marion experience, which arranged employment opportunities for advanced students at various businesses, farms, and industries in the surrounding communities, towns, and in some cases, distant metropolitan centers. The program was the final step of the school’s educational experience, which aimed, as Pratt noted, “[t]o civilize the Indian, get him into civilization. To keep him civilized, let him stay.”10

Pratt had his successes and his failures, supporters and critics. However, his repeated and sharp attacks on the Indian Bureau in Washington as well as his unyielding approach to Indian education, led to his dismissal in 1904. After Pratt’s departure, poor administration led the Carlisle Indian School into a period of institutional decline.11 Despite the school’s nationally recognized football team of 1912, with players such as Jim Thorpe, the school’s future was in jeopardy. Ultimately, pressure from the Indian Bureau, declining enrollment, and the outbreak of WWI brought an end to the school. In 1918, on the pretext that the military needed a medical facility for soldiers returning from war in Europe, the government returned the Carlisle Barracks to military use. Today, the site is home to the United States Army War College.

Over the course of its thirty-nine year history, the Carlisle Indian School enrolled more than eight-thousand students and produced a large body of records and artifacts, much of it visual.12 Photographs, student art, campus publications, and native clothing document the institution and its people from its origins through its final days. In this catalogue and corresponding exhibition, members of the Art Historical Methods Seminar at Dickinson College bring to light and analyze a body of largely unpublished material, most of it drawn from the Dickinson College collections with additional works borrowed from the Cumberland County Historical Society. Working with these artifacts, each of the seminar members identified specific topics associated with the Carlisle Indian School for focused research. Their results are published in the subsequent essays and presented in the exhibition for The Trout Gallery, at Dickinson College.

Visualizing a Mission: Artifacts and Imagery of the Carlisle Indian School, 1879-1918 opens with a biographical sketch of Richard Pratt, collectively written by the members of the methods seminar, which provides an introduction to many of the issues raised in the subsequent studies. Six essays, one by each seminar member, follow, beginning with Kathleen McWeeney’s study of A Kiowa’s Odyssey. She examines this important album of ledger drawings, which documents the experiences of Etahdleuh Doanmoe while he was at Fort Marion. Her study reconstructs the album and its association with Richard Pratt and his son Mason. The two essays that follow consider the largest body of visual imagery associated with the school—photographs. Laura Turner’s work concentrates on J. N. Choate, the principal photographer of the Indian School during the Pratt years. Her study considers the various types of photographs produced by Choate, including the cabinet, boudoir, and stereoscopic cards which feature portraits of students, visiting chiefs, campus activities, and views of the grounds. Molly Fraust considers Pratt’s use of photographs as a means to promote the school and its civilizing mission. By carefully examining the “before” and “after” photographs of the students, Fraust illustrates how Pratt and Choate orchestrated the portrait settings and the sitters in order to heighten the contrast between their “savage” and “civilized” state and emphasize the efficacy of Pratt’s educational methods.

Stephanie Latini’s work examines a series of Plains Indians artifacts, including two painted drums, a painted shield, and three painted cloths, focusing on the iconography and style of these works. They represent a native tradition that, under Pratt, was not permitted at the Carlisle Indian School. Kathryn Moyer further addresses the issue of native art in her essay on Angel De Cora, the school’s art instructor during the post-Pratt years. Moyer shows how De Cora, a Winnebago Indian, insisted that students be introduced to the arts practiced by their ancestors, thereby breaking with previous requirements that all aspects of traditional life be excluded from the school’s curriculum. In the catalogue’s final essay, Antonia Valdes-Dapena examines how, after the end of the Indian Wars, the image of the Indian became a commodity to be sold and commercialized. By analyzing artifacts such as the cabinet card photographs of students, Valdes-Dapena illustrates how their images were purchased and collected as specimens of the exotic.

Together the six essays provide insight into the Carlisle Indian School and how the surviving photographs and artifacts open a view into the complex and controversial topic of the Indian boarding school experience in America. It is hoped that their findings help us to better understand artifacts that visualize the mission.



1 The bibliography on the principal issues noted in this introduction is extensive. Only essential references are provided here. Henry E. Fritz, The Movement for Indian Assimilation, 1860-1882 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963); Frederick E. Hoxie, A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984).

2 David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction. American Indians and the Boarding School Experience (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995).

3 Robert A. Trennert, Jr., Alternative to Extinction: Federal Indian Policy and the Beginnings of the Reservation System, 1846-1851 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1975).

4 Roy Harvey Pearce, The Savages of America: A Study of the Indian and the Idea of Civilization, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), chaps. 3-4.

5 Adams, Education for Extinction, 36-39; Richard Henry Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom: Four Decades with the American Indian, 1867-1904, Robert M. Utley, ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964); Pratt, “American Indians: Chained and Unchained: Being an Account of How the Carlisle Indian School was Born and Grew in the First 25 Years,” Red Man (June 1914): 395-398; Pamela Holco Oestreicher, “On the White Man’s Road? Acculturation and the Fort Marion Southern Plains Prisoners” (Ph.D. diss., Michigan State University, 1981); Louis Morton, “How the Indians Came to Carlisle,” Pennsylvania History 29 (January 1962): 53-63.

6 Adams, Education for Extinction, 39-41.

7 Edith Armstrong Talbot, Samuel Chapman Armstrong: A Biographical Study (New York: Doubleday, Page, and Company, 1964); James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), chap. 2; Robert Francis Engs, Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia, 1861-1890 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979), chap. 8; David Wallace Adams, “Education in Hues: Red and Black at Hampton Institute, 1878-1893,” South Atlantic Quarterly 76 (Spring 1977): 159-176; Donal Fred Lindsey, “Indian Education at Hampton Institute, 1877-1923” (Ph.D. diss., Kent State University, 1989).

8 Perry Lee Walker-McNeil, “The Carlisle Indian School: A Study of Acculturation” (Ph.D. diss., American University, 1979); Adams, Education for Extinction, 48-55; Linda F. Witmer, The Indian Industrial School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania 1879-1918, 3rd ed. (Carlisle, Penn.: Cumberland County Historical Society, 2002).

9 In a letter to Pratt, Armstrong states, “We wish a variety of photographs of the Indians. Be sure and have them bring their wild barbarous things. This will show whence we started.” Adams, Education for Extinction, 47.

10 Adams, Education for Extinction, 55; Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom, 283.

11 Adams, Education for Extinction, 321-326; Witmer, The Indian Industrial School, 59-90.

12 For a list of students see Witmer, The Indian Industrial School, 123-148.