FRONTLINE: Retrospect

Better Than Extermination
When Sitting Bull came to Wayne, he said it was OK. He was only being polite.

Better Than Extermination
When Sitting Bull came to Wayne, he said it was OK. He was only being polite.

Dubya’s big Iraq mistake? Going to war without liberals. Military victors can’t brainwash defeated populations without liberals.

Doubt it? Consider post-war Germany, where de-Nazification never really took hold until economic reforms and the Marshall Plan (administered by liberals) allowed the economy to recover. Or the Philippines, which resisted our 1898 takeover until we captured Filipinos’ hearts by founding a university and sending a thousand teachers to set up local schools.

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Earlier in the 19th century, Washington turned Indian affairs over to “social gospel” liberals who’d criticized plans to make “good”—i.e., dead—Indians of the western tribes. Instead, church groups used schools to turn Indian children into little Caucasians.

So it’s no surprise that when Sitting Bull visited Ponemah, an Indian school in Wayne, in 1884, he was not impressed. Ponemah was the summer campus of the Lincoln Institution, an Indian school on South 11th Street in Philadelphia. Founded in 1866 to educate orphans of men killed in the Civil War, Lincoln re-invented itself in the 1880s. By 1884, it had enrolled 103 girls and 99 boys from 15 different tribes. More than half were Sioux.

According to Lincoln’s 1884 annual report, “The managers determined to devote their energies to educating the Indians, and thereby attempt the solution of one of the most important problems of the day.” The Indians became a “problem” after the Civil War, when tribes that had allowed immigrants to pass through the Dakotas, Colorado and New Mexico began to resist permanent settlement. The most serious conflict was in Montana, where the Sioux repeatedly attacked crews building the Bozeman Trail across tribal lands.

In 1869, Ulysses S. Grant came into office with a plan: “Much impressed with the humane ideas of the Quakers,” said the Boston Advertiser, he asked members of the denomination to serve as Indian agents. Noting that Quakers had had good relations with Indians as far back as William Penn, Grant hoped their presence would make reservation life more attractive. Initially popular, this plan was abandoned after a few years when other denominations complained that they, too, should have a piece of the action. Thereafter, agents were appointed from all Protestant denominations, which were also allowed to establish churches and schools. Catholic missionaries received access in 1880.

Beyond the competition for souls, however, the church people—Quakers, too—agreed that Indian culture should be suppressed through education. Most Indian parents wanted their children to be literate, but resisted the schools’ cultural mission.

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“Day schools failed because they were day schools,” wrote A. T. Andreas, author of an 1882 history of Nebraska. “The parents, having the scholars under their influence except during the few hours they were in school each day, exerted more power for evil than the teachers could for good.”

Whites responded with non-reservation schools, pioneered by Army jailer Richard Henry Pratt, who’d spent three years guarding Plains Indian prisoners in Florida. During this period, he “civilized” the Indians by putting them in military uniforms, cutting their hair and forcing them to speak English. A year after their release, Pratt founded Carlisle (Pa.) Indian School on similar principles.

At first, children went to Carlisle voluntarily. Later, parents were coerced to give them up. “I would withhold rations and supplies,” said Thomas Jefferson Morgan, commissioner of Indian Affairs. “And when every other means was exhausted, I would send a troop of U.S. soldiers—not to seize them, but simply to be present as an expression of the power of the government. Then I would say to these people, ‘Put your children in school. And they would do it.’”

In 1895, some Hopi parents were imprisoned at Alcatraz for hiding their children. Perhaps word had gotten out that the schools were no picnic. When Lone Wolf, a Blackfoot, arrived in the 1890s, he was stripped of clothes, belongings and his hair, which were all burned. “Even the little medicine bags our mothers had given to us to protect us from harm,” he recalled later. “Everything was placed in a heap and set afire. All of the buckskin clothes had to go, and we had to put on the clothes of the white man.”

Indian names were replaced with white names chosen by teachers. The children were required to join a Christian church and forbidden to speak native languages.

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“One evening, one of the boys said something in Indian to another boy,” remembered Lone Wolf. “The man in charge pounced on the boy, caught him by the shirt and threw him across the room,” breaking his collarbone. The boy’s father took the child and went to live in Canada.

Carlisle’s curriculum oozed white superiority. “The books told how bad the Indians had been to the white men—burning their towns and killing their women and children,” said Sun Elk of Taos Pueblo in 1890. “But I had seen white men do that to Indians.”

Pratt’s stated goal was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” And on a certain level, the system worked: Indian families and culture were damaged. When Anna Bender, a Chippewa, returned to Minnesota after seven years, she found herself not quite Indian and not quite white. “[My father] talked to me kindly and tried to help me recall my early childhood, which proved unsuccessful,” she said. “At last he told me I had changed greatly from a loving child to a stranger and seemed disappointed, which only added to my lonesomeness.”

Between 1879 and 1918, more than 10,000 Indian children attended Carlisle, which also funneled students to Lincoln. Official descriptions of Lincoln activities—intended primarily to reassure donors—are glowing. In 1890, Robert Blight, chaplain, described students as “models” of “docility, gentleness and good temper.”

They worked with “diligence and interest.” The girls made their own clothes. The boys learned trades and farming and made brooms, “which sell well.” Blight also triumphantly noted the baptism of 28 girls in the Episcopal church, with which Lincoln was affiliated.

Lincoln officials praised students’ potential—they were “intelligent”—but also dripped with cultural condescension. If the Indians were sickly, they blamed the primitive conditions in which they were raised. If students were disinterested, the cause was the lack of intellectual curiosity “natural to” Indian culture. In 1888, Dr. Thomas J. Mays of Philadelphia reported to the county medical society that, based on his studies of 82 Lincoln girls, Indians were sickly because their breathing was incorrect. “Abdominal breathing is the original type of respiration in both male and female,” wrote Mays. “Costal breathing in the civilized female is acquired through the constricting influence of clothing around the abdomen.”

LINCOLN’S WAYNE PROGRAM WAS announced in the spring of 1884, when the Daily Local News reported that the derelict Spread Eagle Tavern (now the site of Spread Eagle Village) had been lent to the school by George W. Childs, developer of north Wayne. Philanthropists Mary and J. Belangee Cox paid for repairs and new furniture. Books were brought from the city, and the Pennsylvania Railroad agreed to transport the children for free. The reason for all this wasn’t specified, but it may have been at least partially financial, as the students were put to work growing vegetables, producing a hundred bushels of potatoes, 25 bushels of onions, 250 baskets of tomatoes and a thousand ears of corn. They also presented at least two concerts at the Wayne Lyceum (now Cold Stone Creamery), raising about $700.

Lincoln used the tavern for two seasons. After Childs demolished the building in 1886, the Coxes provided land near their country estate, Ivycroft, in Tredyffrin to erect new facilities.

Enthusiasm for Lincoln’s work was mixed. When the school’s girls ventured north of Conestoga Road for a July 4 picnic, the Local bitingly observed the irony of the occasion: “The recollection of their parents under guard of rifle in a few thousand acres of Western land will possibly inspire them to be thankful for the white man’s independence and hopeful for their own.”

Meanwhile, Sitting Bull was on the road. After the Custer massacre in 1876, the Sioux holy man had lived in Canada for five years before finally agreeing to live on South Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation. However, he retained every bit of his charisma—so much so that the local Indian agent considered him an obstacle to the goals of the reservation. When Wild Bill Cody proposed that Sitting Bull join his Wild West Show for the 1884 season, the agent said, “Go.”

“He drew tremendous crowds,” according to historian Dee Brown, but may have been too naïve to understand show business. In Philadelphia, after Sitting Bull spoke in Lakota about the need for peace and education, a white man stood to “translate” his lurid description of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

On Oct. 15, Sitting Bull alighted at the Wayne train station and was met by the entire student body and a niece with whom, said the Local, he had “a good hugging time.” Mary Cox gave Sitting Bull and the other chiefs pipes and tobacco. Back at the tavern, they feasted at long tables, after which the chief watched without comment as the children sang Episcopal hymns, marched in formation like soldiers and recited the writings of white men.

“He thought it was a nice place,” reported the Local, “but mentioned that the fathers of the children were being starved a little now and then out on the frontier.”

The liberals’ solution, in other words, was better than extermination—though not by a lot.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at

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