Richard Henry Pratt: 1840–1924
Seminar Members

The history of the Carlisle Indian School is inexorably bound to its founder, Richard Henry Pratt (fig. 2; cat. 30), whose attitude toward Native Americans shaped virtually every dimension of it. In order to better understand the Carlisle Indian School, it is necessary to consider aspects of Pratt’s life and how his experiences influenced his regard for Indians and their future.1

A primary force in Richard Henry Pratt’s life was the military. It shaped his life and provided him with the model for reshaping the lives of the Native Americans. Indeed, the mileposts in his life are all directly associated with military appointments, which put him into direct contact with Native Americans. In 1861, he enlisted in a volunteer regiment during the Civil War. Six years later, he was assigned to Fort Gibson, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) where he led a cavalry unit composed largely of recently-freed slaves and Indian scouts. In 1875, Lt. Pratt transported captured Indian warriors from Fort Sill, Indian Territory, to Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Florida. This assignment proved fateful, as he transformed a routine detainment detail into a radical educational and social experiment. Three years and a promotion later, Ct. Pratt’s record at Fort Marion led him to the Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia, where he continued to refine his approach to “civilizing” Native Americans. In 1879, he persuaded the Department of the Interior and War Department to allow him to establish an Indian school in Carlisle. His assignment to the Carlisle Indian School was to last twenty-five years. Pratt was promoted to Brigadier General shortly before his forced retirement in 1904.

The military provided Pratt with various perspectives of the Native Americans, which contributed to his evolving attitude toward them. Depending upon the context, they were enemy warriors, valuable scouts, unfortunate victims, skilled interpreters, and trusted guides. Such direct and varied contact with the Indians mixed with prevailing stereotypes. As Pratt once noted: “…talking with the Indians, I learned that most had received English education in home schools conducted by their tribal government. Their intelligence, civilization and common sense was a revelation, because I had concluded that as an army officer I was there to deal with atrocious aborigines.”2 He commented further on how well some of the Indians had served the army and how poorly they were treated in return: “Indian scouts, who were enlisted to perform the very highest functions of citizens…were imprisoned on reservations throughout the country and were thus barred from these guaranteed opportunities which they only needed in order to develop, become equal, and able to compete as citizens in all opportunities of our American life.”3

The military also provided Pratt with the model on which to base his educational institutions. Pratt operated Fort Marion and the Carlisle Indian School like a military unit, “with discipline, crystal clear instructions and total inflexibility.”4 Despite objections from several students, their hair was cut, and the boys were issued military uniforms and the girls were given proper dresses. The students were taught to practice marching and drilling. Each child was to select their new Anglo name. Students were forced to abandon their native language and began English lessons as soon as they arrived at Carlisle. They were punished, at times harshly, if they spoke in their native tongues, even privately.

In addition to the military, religion played an important role in shaping Pratt’s attitude toward Indians. His beliefs fell into the camp of the so-called “Indian reformers” of the time, many of whom were Quakers and Christian missionaries. Christian values were heavily espoused at the school. Bible stories were routinely read to teach moral lessons to the students. For Pratt, religion was a motivating force in his approach to educating the Native Americans: “In Indian civilization I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.”5 Pratt saw his work with Native Americans in part as a religious calling. He regarded the transformation of Indians into civilized Americans as a form of conversion. His rhetoric of salvation was rooted in notions of Christian sacrifice and rebirth. Pratt’s motto, “Kill the Indian, but save the man,” bluntly stated that to save the Indians, their culture had to be sacrificed. To these ends, Pratt required each student to attend mass regularly. Fittingly, he came to be known as the “Red Man’s Moses.”6

While much of the curriculum at Fort Marion and Carlisle included subjects taught at most schools (English, arithmetic, geography, history), students were also to learn the values of possessive individualism and industry.7 In these matters, Pratt was shaped by capitalist notions of private property and religious values that regarded labor as a positive work ethic. At Fort Marion, Pratt experimented with ways in which he could train students for employment. At Carlisle, such experiments were made into a full-fledged program, the Outing System, which provided Indian students an opportunity to work and live with white families. Pratt termed this the “Supreme Americanizer” because it allowed the Indians to venture outside the school’s walls and be placed in the homes of local residents and businesses. Pratt’s dream was to scatter the entire population of 70,000 Native American children across the country, assigning each to a white family.8

Although Pratt’s operation of Fort Marion and Carlisle was heavily influenced by military models, there was also a domestic component to the experience. As the children continued to assimilate into the ways of the white man, Pratt’s relationship with the students became increasingly personal and parental. Indeed, both he and his wife, Anna Mason Pratt, were involved with all aspects of the Carlisle Indian School. Oftentimes, he would lead the weekly Bible readings and spoke to the students every morning. Pratt was also particular in keeping in touch with former students as a way of tracking the school’s progress.

From his home and headquarters on the main square at the Carlisle Indian School, Pratt exercised his considerable administrative skills. Pratt labored daily for government and private funding, and fought to expand the school’s facilities and programs. Pratt recognized the power of photographs and print, and used them to promote his mission.9 He also oversaw the printing and distribution of the school newspapers. Although officially written and produced by the students, the pages included articles that, if not written by Pratt himself, clearly represented his views.10

Pratt’s program at the Carlisle Indian School had its share of failures and successes. Some students died at school; an alarming number ran away. Much to the dismay of Pratt, many returned to their reservations, only to find that the world they left as a child was no longer “home.” No longer able to speak their native language and with little opportunity to find respectable work in white society, many discovered that their education had made them ill-suited for either world. However, some made their way successfully into society. Several of the students became educators and administrators in Indian-related schools and federal and state agencies.

Pratt’s view of the Native Americans remains controversial. Although he sought to improve the lives of the Native Americans by educating them according to Western models, he required that they deny who they were, which he considered to be savage and inferior.



1 David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction. American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1995), 36-55; Richard Henry Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom. Four Decades with the American Indians, 1867-1904, Robert M. Utley, ed. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964); Frederick J. Stefon, “Richard Henry Pratt and His Indians,” Journal of Ethnic Studies 15 (Summer 1987): 88-112.

2 Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom, 5.

3 Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom, 7.

4 Genevieve Bell, “Telling Stories Out of School: Remembering the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1879-1918” (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1998), 62.

5 Linda F. Witmer, The Indian Industrial School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1879-1918, 3rd ed. (Carlisle, Penn.: Cumberland County Historical Society, 2002), 19.

6 Witmer, The Indian Industrial School, 50.

7 Adams, Education for Extinction, 149.

8 Adams, Education for Extinction, 54.

9 Lonna M. Malmsheimer, “‘Imitation White Man’: Images of Transformation at the Carlisle Indian School,” Studies in Visual Communication 11 (Fall 1985): 55.

10 Witmer, Indian Industrial School, 41.