Tag Archives: Andrew Jackson

Context for Carlisle: Whiteness and Native Assimilation 1880-1900

Written November 7, 2015


It was the end of the Indian Wars. The buffalo were dead and the Indians were starving on their reservations[1]. The rations handed out on reservations by the federal government looked fiscally unsustainable. “After the conquest,” says historian Patricia Limerick, “Indians were a population in trouble, with massive unemployment and poor prospects for economic recovery.”[2] Meanwhile, attendees of the Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indian, a group of Progressive-era reformers, decided that the only problem with Indians, was that they were so Indian: “[t]hey acted on the assumption that inside every Indian was a white American citizen and property holder waiting to be set free.”[3] If only they could separate the individual Indian from his tribalism,[4] they could be the heroes of these people whose culture was vanishing[5].

Why not save the vanishing culture along with its individual representatives? Native American culture was enticing, exotic and exciting, evidenced by its role as source material for Wild West shows, an incredibly popular form of entertainment at the time[6]. Native American culture had the nation’s attention. But not all attention is good attention: the culture was, in the eyes of the empowered white public, for entertainment only. It was a child’s game, a clever show in which the “good” guys – white cowboys – always won. It wasn’t real to the white show-goers and policy makers. Indian culture had become a nostalgic recreation, not a way of life that was in any way sustainable in their modern world. More consequentially, Native culture was seen as disabling to the individual Indian; it was a culture that was bound to disappear because in the whitewashed lens of social Darwinism,[7] Native culture was the lesser of two, and must cede the future to the ‘fitter’ white culture. Social Darwinism had reached its popular climax in American discourse; it fueled white arguments both for and against assimilation of Indians. Applied to cultures, Social Darwinism supported allowing the Native American culture to die away unaided; applied to individuals, it argued against ‘helping’ them move into the dominant culture. The reformers who conceived and supported the Indian Boarding Schools took a different stance – they wanted to save the individual Indian by hurrying the demise of Indian culture.

In Legacy of Conquest, historian Patricia Limerick described the Mohonk plan to ‘save’ the Indians, saying “once they had become assimilated, voting property holders themselves, Indians would be able to protect themselves as white Americans did.”[8] There are two key ideas here. First, to be empowered individual Indians had to be made white, not just stripped of their Native culture, because only white people could be the masters of their own destiny. Second, one had to own property and be a member of the electorate in order to protect oneself. Limerick suggests that humanitarians who thought white avarice had made Indians vulnerable were partially to blame for the urgency of the Mohonk reformers, quoting then-Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz,[9] who said the government was “impotent to protect the Indians on their reservations, especially when held in common, from the encroachments of its own people.[10] But the government, throughout its history of Indian policy, had never shown an inclination to attempt, seriously, to keep settlers out of Indian territories. On the contrary, major events like President Jackson’s Indian Removal program[11] had encouraged the encroachment and outright theft by European-Americans of Native American lands. Furthermore, the Native Americans, like any group, had the best successes when they gathered in larger numbers. Thus the idea that communal lands weakened the stance of the Native Americans seems to fall flat, but for the value that white culture placed on individual property ownership. Private property ownership, or the pursuit of such, was thought by some contemporary philosophers to be one of the primary motivations of the developed human.[12] Living on communal land, then, further lessened the Native American in the eyes of white culture.

The Mohonk group set out to rescue Native Americans from Native culture, with Richard Henry Pratt at the helm with his Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School, to be funded and managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Pratt, who is the first person known to use the word ‘racism,’ was one of the Mohonk attendees.[13] His school, he believed, would help Native American children, by cutting their tribal ties, removing them from their cultural practices, and teaching them to be ‘civilized’ – which was code for ‘white’. American progressivism, says historian Christina Snyder, was “still shaped around ideas of whiteness,”[14] but ‘whiteness’ itself was a vaguely defined classification. For Pratt and his fellow Mohonks, whiteness was a culture to which Indians could be elevated, but the scientific community was in the grip of a different philosophy. For Daniel Brinton, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1895, whiteness was an inescapably superior anatomical classification, reserved primarily for Anglo-Saxons.[15]

Brinton’s work gave a convenient rationale to the pervasive cultural chauvinism that defined race relations at the turn of the century, but for the majority of the white American population, from which the administrators and teachers of the boarding schools came, the culture of white authority was largely unconscious. It would be decades before science would verify the tendency of people in power to abuse that power,[16] yet Pratt shows a certain amount of naiveté in thinking that boarding schools would be conducted without abuse to Indian children. By the time the schools were investigated in the 1920s (six years after the close of the Carlisle School), it was clear that wasn’t the case. A 1928 report, titled The Meriam Report, said, “Punishments of the most harmful sort are bestowed in sheer ignorance, often in a sincere attempt to be of help.”[17] The intention to help seems to have been consistent. The experience of the intent varied considerably.

“Most unsettling is the experience of reading an Indian autobiography and finding in the details of the individual’s life no mention of the federal policies that were supposedly the key determinants of Indian life,” observed Limerick.[18] Indian boarding schools are a striking exception to that observation. Narratives of abuse at the hands of school administrators shape the theme of survivors’ stories; instances of kind treatment are harder to find. In Don’t Let the Sun Step Over You, Apache Eva Tulene Watt recalls her, her mother’s, and her siblings’ attendance at multiple boarding schools, including one Fransiscan school, St. John’s Indian School and Mission near Laveen, Arizona. Watt also details her family’s experiences at the government-run schools they attended, at Rice Station and San Carlos, Arizona, and Pratt’s own Carlisle school in Pennsylvania. The stories contained in Watt’s narrative frequently compare the schools. Some were thought to be “good” because the children had enough to eat while they were there (Carlisle) or they got beaten less often (St. John’s). Watt tells, too, of the “children catcher,” who caught her brothers one summer, and took them to the school at San Carlos without notifying their parents.[19] It must have been horrifying for the parents whose children simply didn’t come home from playing, but the rationale is clear. The boarding schools were mandatory; the parents and the parents’ culture were precisely what the policy sought to cut from the children. The Bureau of Indian Affairs wasn’t concerned with the consent of the vanishing race.

It’s easy to look back at Pratt and his Mohonk contemporaries and condemn their beliefs as culturally chauvinistic, describing as they did the failings of Indian culture compared to white culture, but there are aspects of their stance that are morally commendable, even by modern standards. At a time when many of the governing people wanted to outright murder the Indians, reformers like Pratt wanted – truly – to help. His arguments for assimilation countered popular science that would have made it easy to ignore the fate of Indians. Attempting to save the lives of the individual Native Americans was, in the context of the times, admirable, and perhaps the only effective way to help at all. One imagines that anyone advocating for simply treating Indian nations as we would have treated European nations – honoring borders and treaties, for instance – would have been chided into obscurity, accomplishing nothing. This was the age of Emerson, the abolitionist who firmly believed in the superiority of his mythical White Race, which for him described only people of English ancestry.[20] Was there any other option, any alternative to assimilation or annihilation that could have succeeded politically?

Pratt himself faced constant challenge from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was then largely populated by those who thought off-reservation boarding schools wasteful. The disagreement between Pratt and the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ administration was not just a friendly philosophical difference of opinions. In 1886 the Superintendent of Schools under the Bureau’s control, John H. Oberly, threatened “to have [Pratt’s] scalp.”[21]

Eventually, Pratt’s philosophy of assimilation lost the confidence of the legislature, and the school was closed. The heyday of Indian Boarding Schools was over, though most lingered much longer than Carlisle.[22] The loss of legislative support was not in response to abuses in the schools, nor was it a shift toward a more helpful approach to the difficulties of Native Americans. Rather, it was a response to the rising public fear of ‘race-mixing,’ a social response to white fear of black and immigrant integration[23] that spilled across all the races. Assimilation became frightening to the electorate, and the legislature could not support any endeavors associated with it.

The pressure on Native Americans to be assimilated reduced, and may have even reversed in some ways, but that generation’s ties to family and culture were already damaged beyond repair.[24] The Indian Boarding Schools that remain in use have evolved into places that preserve and encourage Native culture, but they are still controversial to those involved in them. For those not involved, the schools are part of history, assumed to be closed. The nation has turned its attention away from the Native American. “Told so often that the Indians were vanishing, many Americans… assumed that it was true.”[25]



Brinton, Daniel. “The Aims of Anthropology.” Science 2, no. 35 (1895): 241-52.

“Carl Schurz.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Schurz (accessed October 29, 2015).

“Carlisle Indian Industrial School.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlisle_Indian_Industrial_School (accessed October 29, 2015).

Cave, Alfred A. “Abuse of Power: Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act of 1830.” The Historian 65, no. 6 (December 2003): 1330-1353.

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Demby, Gene. “The Ugly, Fascinating History of the Word Racism.” NPR. http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/01/05/260006815/the-ugly-fascinating-history-of-the-word-racism (accessed October 31, 2015).

“Historical Trauma.” About Healing and Justice. National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. http://www.boardingschoolhealing.org/historical-trauma (accessed November 4, 2015).

Leonard, Thomas C. “Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization71 (2009): 37-51.

“Letter from Richard H. Pratt to Cornelius R. Agnew.” Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center. Dickinson College. http://carlisleindian.dickinson.edu/topics/mohonk-conference (accessed November 1, 2015).

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Zimbardo, Philip. “Stanford Prison Experiment.” Social Psychology Network. http://www.prisonexp.org/ (accessed November 2, 2015).



[1] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 218.

[2] Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987), 210.

[3] Ibid., 196.

[4] Ibid., 196.

[5] “Carlisle Indian Industrial School,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlisle_Indian_Industrial_School (accessed October 29, 2015).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Thomas C. Leonard, “Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 71 (2009): 37-51.

[8] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 197.

[9] Carl Schurz was the US Secretary of the Interior from 1876 to 1881; “Carl Schurz,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Schurz (accessed October 29, 2015).

[10] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 197.

[11] The Indian Removal Program under President Andrew Jackson is described in Alfred A. Cave, “Abuse Of Power: Andrew Jackson And The Indian Removal Act Of 1830,” The Historian 65, no. 6 (December 2003): 1330-53.

[12] This idea was repeated by anthropologist Daniel Brinton, and is a paraphrase of John Stuart Mill’s ideas of human motivation; for more, see Daniel Brinton, “The Aims of Anthropology.” Science 2, no. 35 (1895): 251.

[13] Pratt’s use of ‘racism’ would come to be seen as ironic, because he was speaking against racism while lobbying for Indian Boarding Schools; Gene Demby, “The Ugly, Fascinating History of the Word Racism,” NPR, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/01/05/260006815/the-ugly-fascinating-history-of-the-word-racism (accessed October 31, 2015).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 235-36.

[16] This was most famously demonstrated by the Stanford Prison experiment in 1971; for more, see Philip Zimbardo, “Stanford Prison Experiment,” Social Psychology Network, http://www.prisonexp.org/ (accessed November 2, 2015).

[17] The report was named after it’s supervisor, Lewis Meriam; Charla Bear, “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many,” NPR, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16516865 (accessed November 2, 2015).

[18] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 195.

[19] Eva Tulene Watt and Keith H. Basso, Don’t Let the Sun Step Over You: A White Mountain Apache Family Life, 1860-1975 (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 2004), 33-145.

[20] Painter, History of White People, 151-189.

[21] Pratt relayed this in a letter to his friend, Dr. Cornelius Agnew, dated March 27, 1886; Oberly was the Commissioner of the BIA from 1888 to 1889, but it’s unclear what years he was Superintendent of the School, except for his mention as that in Pratt’s letter. “Letter from Richard H. Pratt to Cornelius R. Agnew.” Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, Dickinson College, http://carlisleindian.dickinson.edu/topics/mohonk-conference (accessed November 1, 2015).

[22] Carlisle closed in 1914 as more schools opened in the western states, closer and therefore more convenient to the reservations. The proximity was important to the Bureau of Indian Affairs because it reduced transportation costs. There are still some of these schools open today, but they are conducted under a vastly different philosophy, which includes retaining Indian culture. Charla Bear, “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many,” NPR, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16516865.

[23] Painter, History of White People, 301.

[24] “Historical Trauma,” About Healing and Justice, National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, http://www.boardingschoolhealing.org/historical-trauma (accessed November 4, 2015).

[25] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 213.

Imperialism and the Indian Removal Act

Written October 18, 2015

In a message to the Congress of the United States dated 8 December 1829 [President Andrew] Jackson declared of [Indian] removal: ‘This emigration should be voluntary, for it would be as cruel as unjust to compel the aborigines to abandon the graves of their father, and seek a home in a distant land.’ The president added that ‘our conduct toward these people’ would reflect on ‘our national character.’[1]

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 is associated with the height of the Native American genocide; it was American imperialism, and it was encouraged by our national character. There has never been a time in American history when America wasn’t an imperialist endeavor. Manifest destiny did not begin with its naming by John O’Sullivan in 1845[2]. The governance of this country, beginning with the British Empire and continuing with the United States, has consistently valued growth above human rights. The American Revolution did little but shift the title of ‘imperialist’ from the British monarchy to the American heads of state, and the acquisition of new territory continued. Throughout, growth via imperialistic means was pursued above all else. Of particular historical significance is why the influence of sincerely held moral disagreement with our policies never ultimately held sway over the implementation of our policy. Our government has behaved amorally, even while led by individuals of good moral character. It was unmitigated by the sincere ethical considerations of the influential men who raised their fears of what this Act would mean for American democracy.

The American population was divided about the genocide which was predicted would accompany the Indian Removal Act[3], yet Americans could not – or did not – resist genocide. This says something about the nature of imperialism that we as historians should talk about: imperialism is ultimately amoral when examined in aggregate. Imperialism is a process that, by definition, supports growth absent any other considerations, specifically in such a way that the growth of one civilization subjugates another. Growth is fed by the resources of the vanquished, leaving them bereft in almost every case. This precludes any role for moral values in actions taken. The weaker participants are always preyed upon, and despite moral ambiguity, depredations continue and contribute to the process. Growth is the centralizing purpose for all imperial action, moral or not.

The ideals expressed by our founding documents were apparently egalitarian but inherently elitist. This inconsistency is actually consistent with the culture of the founding fathers. The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, often considered pinnacles of democratic canon, were written by men who were the first orchestrators of the Native American genocide. The First Continental Congress’ government “for the people, by the people,” even if understood as referring only to white males, still required that a man have enough wealth to own property in order to participate in that government[4].  In their conception and application, the liberties assured by our Constitution were accorded to landed white males only. In spite of our contemporary egalitarian interpretations of our founding documents, their nature stood as the structural foundation of our country’s institutional racism. The conspicuous moral incongruities regarding Native Americans between the documented policies and the real enactment of those policies give credit to the understanding that the authors of our founding documents were not primarily concerned with morality. Although their arguments against British rule called on ethical considerations, their arguments were less ideological and more expedient as justifications for the colonies’ rebellion.

From the earliest days of the American West, paternalism and presumptive ownership have shaped the underpinnings of ethical justifications for the cultural and racial domination of any residents of the West who were not of European descent. Simultaneously, political marketing strategies have been used to persuade the population to accept the least moral of our behaviors. Many white Americans of Jackson’s sociopolitical strata already viewed Native Americans as children, and had done so since at least the early 1800s when President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their expedition. In a speech to Native Americans he encountered, Meriwether Lewis called the Native Americans “children,” admonishing them to look to their “Great Father” – the President of the United States – for the dispersal of goods and of punishments.[5] This infantilization of Native Americans wasn’t just a handy metaphor, it clarified the nature of the Jeffersonians’ appraisal of the Native Americans. In Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, John Livingstone Smith asserts that metaphors are linked to thoughts and judgements. Metaphors such as this one are tools of dehumanization. “It’s intended as a description rather than as an attack.”[6] It reflects their perception of Native Americans relative to the values of an imperial culture. Native American technological and infrastructure development were perceived as uniformly inferior, but potentially capable of acculturation – like children.

The “children” label for Native Americans was prevalent in the communications during the Indian Removal but the use of the label illuminated a new way of thinking in the populations involved. Jackson’s administration discarded the idea that Native Americans could be assimilated and was far more accepting of violence than Jefferson’s had been. In the year following the signing of the Indian Removal Act, one chief wrote a letter to President Jackson, whom he addressed as “Great Father.” The chief hoped that the President would enforce the law and protect the Native Americans from the abuses they were suffering. Cave notes that Jackson had no intention of doing so, and Jackson’s language has clearly departed from acknowledging any paternal responsibilities. His response to the Native Americans’ appeals to the paternal relationship Jefferson had worked to foster was to tell them it was not in their nature to be civilized, and thus they could not live within the bounds of any civilization.[7] For Jackson, the paternalism of his predecessors had ceased to be useful.[8] Factions of the population, including the Whigs, recoiled from even the potential for crimes against the Native Americans’ humanity.  Jeremiah Evarts’ 1829 prediction that the Indian Removal Act would be executed inhumanely and would cause extreme hardships for the Native Americans voiced the fears of those “moved by humane considerations.”[9]

With the electorate divided, compromises had to be made. Or, more accurately, the appearance of compromise had to be published. They say the first modern presidential campaign was a product of the Gilded Age, when J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller bought William McKinley’s 1896 election[10]. If that’s true, then the mechanisms of imperialism in the Antebellum West are the foundation of modern politics being laid. Jackson and his advisors knew that to get the Act passed, they would have to allow the verbiage to reflect a more paternalistic approach, which meant including some consideration for the human rights of the Native Americans by requiring voluntary treaties to precede removal, and allowing for the potential assimilation, should individual Native Americans choose to stay as American citizens. Jackson had no intention of enforcing or even tolerating either of those concessions. As Cave notes, “[t]he Jacksonians’ insistence on the voluntary nature of their removal program was a political ploy aimed at winning badly needed votes in the House of Representatives.”[11] The ploy worked, although public uproar over the Indian Removal Act and the atrocities of its execution continued to build throughout this era, especially as the execution ignored the restrictions of the Act. Ultimately, the public outcry was ineffective: Jackson successfully removed the Native Americans from his America.

The Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs may have disagreed on the means of imperialistic acquisition, but they did not disagree on the fundamental moral authority that allowed for the process. When it came time to vote, the concessions Jackson had made to the method of removal made the Indian Removal Act palatable enough for Congress to pass the law. According to historian Patricia Limerick, “White Americans saw the acquisition of property as a cultural imperative, manifestly the right way to go about things. There was one appropriate way to treat land – divide it, distribute it, register it.”[12] Property wasn’t just land[13], but the audacious land-grab of Indian Removal Act won agricultural and mineral wealth[14] for the United States while displacing Native Americans and robbing them of life, liberty, and dignity.

The political divide in Congress and the longevity of the public uproar demonstrates that the nation was philosophically divided on this issue. Likewise, the execution of the removal demonstrates that ultimately imperialism was more powerful than the cause of human dignity and life. In this episode of American history, growth was pursued as both justification and means, and ethical consideration did not change the end result. The imperialist impulse, whether benign or nefarious. In the end morality did not sway events. Imperialism ultimately drove decisions of policy, and the aggregate effect was amoral.




Ambrose, Stephen. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York: Touchstone, 1996.

Cave, Alfred A. “Abuse of Power: Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act of 1830.” The Historian 65, no. 6 (December 2003): 1330-1353.

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.

O’Sullivan, John. “Annexation.” The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17 (July 1845). https://pdcrodas.webs.ull.es/anglo/OSullivanAnnexation.pdf (accessed October 10, 2015).

Smith, David Livingstone. Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011.

The Men Who Built America, “When One Ends, Another Begins,” episode 4, November 11, 2012.

Zinn, Howard, and Rebecca Stefoff. A Young People’s History of the United States. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2009.



[1] Alfred A. Cave, “Abuse Of Power: Andrew Jackson And The Indian Removal Act Of 1830,” The Historian 65, no. 6 (December 2003): 1330-53.

[2] John O’Sullivan, “Annexation,” The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17 (July 1845): 5–10, https://pdcrodas.webs.ull.es/anglo/OSullivanAnnexation.pdf (accessed October 10, 2015).

[3] Cave, Abuse of Power, 1347; though truly, this was only a continuation of an ongoing genocide.

[4] Howard Zinn and Rebecca Stefoff, A Young People’s History of the United States (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2009), 57-88.

[5] Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 156.

[6] David Livingstone Smith, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011), 25.

[7] Cave, Abuse of Power, 1340.

[8] His shift from paternalistic racism to a more violently oppressive racism partially explains the concurrent split of Jefferson’s Republican-Democratic party into Democrats and Republicans, the latter of which was absorbed by the Whig party. Cave, Abuse of Power, 1336, describes inconsistencies in partisanship concerning this bill. Cave, Abuse of Power, 1349, differentiates racism styles of the two parties.

[9] Cave, Abuse of Power, 1347.

[10] The Men Who Built America, “When One Ends, Another Begins,” episode 4, November 11, 2012.

[11] Cave, Abuse of Power, 1335.

[12] Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987), 55.

[13] The varying definitions of ‘property’ would cause great conflict and is one of the themes of westward expansion.  Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 71-73; see also William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 27.

[14] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 67-68; The benefit of mineral and agricultural wealth, along with the profits to be made by land speculators, might help explain why politicians were split so nearly, even when the public outcry became formidable.