Skip to main content
Original Issue

The history of the Carlisle Indians is told by their peppery and idealistic founder

Richard Henry Pratt, who founded the Carlisle Indian School in 1879, completed his autobiography in 1923, but no publisher wanted to print it. One trouble was that General Pratt had been forgotten. A tough, old Civil War cavalryman, Pratt was a curious combination of an executive genius and an impractical visionary. If people remembered the Carlisle Indian School it was because of Jim Thorpe and other great Indian athletes, and Pratt had devoted only one chapter to them. There was only one line about Thorpe in the 600-page typescript.

Now published for the first time in a superb scholarly edition, however, General Pratt's Battlefield and Classroom (Yale University Press, $8.50) stands out as a book that will be timely for a long time to come. Pratt was a 26-year-old second lieutenant leading untrained cavalrymen (mostly newly freed slaves) in the wild country of Oklahoma when his lifelong mission became clear to him. There were 25 Indian scouts on that first mission, and Pratt and his brother officers soon became impressed with their "intelligence, civilization and common sense," as well as with the rapid progress of the Negro troops. They decided that the U.S. Constitution implied equal rights. Confining Indians to reservations was wrong.

Eight years policing the frontier strengthened his conviction. In 1875 he conducted 72 Indian prisoners to St. Augustine, Fla., and was their jailer and teacher for three years. He managed to get the more adaptable placed in Negro colleges and used his success with them to promote Carlisle.

Pratt's account of persuading the Indians to send their children to Carlisle to learn the white man's ways is invaluable new history and sometimes great drama. "The white people are all thieves and liars," said Spotted Tail. "We do not want our children to learn such things." Pratt's real enemies, however, were anthropologists who glorified aboriginal values, and the agents of the Indian Bureau, who wanted to maintain the nearly unlimited control and coercion of the reservation system.

In the light of his revelations the record in sports of the Carlisle Indians becomes incredible except, perhaps, by the standards of a first-class medicine man. But their athletic triumphs came too late to help Pratt personally. Worn out by what he considered the insidious sabotage of the Indian Bureau, he denounced it openly in 1904. "Better, far better for the Indians," he said, "had there never been a Bureau." He was immediately retired from active duty, which took Carlisle out of his hands.