Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Open Access)


Colby College. History Dept.


Elizabeth D. Leonard


"Even wild turkeys only need the environment and kind treatment of domestic civilized life to become a very part of it.” Richard Henry Pratt made this observation while preparing for Thanksgiving with his family in 1867 in response to his interactions with Native Americans on the frontier. He served out West as second lieutenant in the 10th United States Cavalry, an African American regiment. The basic idea behind Pratt’s mentality was that the Indians’ inferiority was cultural, not racial, and that even Native Americans could become educated and “civilized” if only given the same opportunities provided to white Americans, African Americans, and immigrants. Pratt continued to apply this logic to white and Indian children, saying: "It is a great mistake to think that the Indian is born an inevitable savage. He is born a blank, like the rest of us. Left in the surroundings of savagery, he grows to possess a savage language, superstition, and life. We, left in the surroundings of civilization, grow to possess a civilized language, life, and purpose. Transfer the infant white to the savage surroundings, he will grow to possess a savage language, superstition, and habit. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit."

Richard Henry Pratt wanted to ensure that Native Americans were not “left in the surroundings of savagery.” He instead wanted Native Americans to learn English and the ways of middle-class, white, Protestant Americans in order “to possess a civilized language, life and purpose.” His efforts to fulfill this goal took Pratt from the western plains, to St. Augustine, Florida, to Hampton, Virginia, and finally, to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he established the first off-reservation boarding school for Native Americans, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in 1879. Pratt left a lasting legacy in his Americanizing efforts of the Native Americans, and the consequences of his efforts are still evident today.

Educators have applied the term “Americanization” in different ways throughout the country’s history, but at the heart of “Americanization” has always been the principle that the “other” needs to be integrated into American society in particular ways. This integration has generally focused on language (learning to read, write, and speak English), and the “other’s” acceptance of mainstream cultural traditions and practices. When I use the term “mainstream” in this analysis I am referring to the accepted norms, actions, and beliefs of the majority of nineteenth-century, middle-class, white Protestant Americans. While it would be ignorant to say there was strictly one uniform American culture in the time period under consideration, it is nevertheless safe to say that to be part of the “mainstream” in America one spoke English, went to school and church, supported oneself and one’s family financially either through agriculture or other means, and one lived near other Americans like oneself.

From the perspective of nineteenth-century white Americanizers like Pratt, in order for these criteria to be met, all “others” – and here specifically the Native Americans – were forced to give up their languages, cultures, and heritage. Some modern historians believe that the treatment of Native Americans, especially in the way they were educated, amounted to cultural genocide. In this paper, this interpretation is juxtaposed with a discussion of good intentions Pratt and other educators had when they embarked on their educating efforts. When looking back on the efforts of Pratt and his predecessors in regards to “Americanizing” Native Americans, it is important to do so not only through a twenty-first-century lens. Reflecting on historical events can provide contemporary insight for understanding Pratt’s efforts. However, it is important to analyze the actions of Pratt in their historical context in order to better understand his motives. It is in this light that I aim to evaluate the intentions and legacy of Richard Henry Pratt. The ultimate question this thesis will investigate is, what was Pratt’s legacy in regards to Native American education and “Americanization” through education as a whole?

This paper has three sections. It begins with a brief general history of Americanization through education, in order to provide the context for the efforts at Carlisle. In this section I will also examine the Native American situation in the United States in the nineteenth century, as well as their earlier educational opportunities, in order to provide background for how Carlisle fits into the larger picture of Indian education. Next, I will introduce Richard Henry Pratt and the process of how the Carlisle Indian Industrial School emerged. I will also examine Pratt’s vision and the programs at Carlisle and their effectiveness. The third part of this thesis will examine the mixed memories of Pratt in order to determine his ultimate legacy.


Native Americans, American Indians, assimilation

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