In 1879, the United States government undertook a project aimed at assimilating Native American youth into mainstream American culture. Amid dire predictions of the “extinction” of Native Americans without complete and rapid integration, Civil War veteran Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt spearheaded the effort to create an off-reservation boarding school. Pratt instituted a system of forced “Americanization,” abandonment of Native languages, required conversion to Christianity, and harsh military discipline, and headed north to create the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.


After Pratt convinced several influential tribal leaders to send their children with him to Pennsylvania, The Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened its doors as the nation’s first non-reservation boarding school. Pratt maintained his belief that the only hope for Native American survival was to shed all native culture and customs – thus Pratt’s refrain, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

"Transfer the savage born infant to the surroundings of a civilization and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit."

from The Indian Industrial School : Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1879-1918. By Linda F. Witmer


The complex history of Carlisle is both tragic and uplifting. While Pratt and his supporters felt they were acting out of benevolence, their belief that the young Indians needed to be stripped of their “savage” customs and culture ultimately deprived the students of their heritage. Disease and harsh conditions took their toll, and hundreds of children died, with 186 still buried on the site today.


But along with that trauma and tragedy, Carlisle gave students an opportunity to explore the world outside of the reservations they called home. The school fielded many highly regarded athletic teams, including baseball and football teams with icon Jim Thorpe. The internationally acclaimed Carlisle band performed at the Presidential inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt, and every other inauguration held during its operation. From the ranks of Carlisle alumni rose many noted activists and advocates who championed the cause of cultural preservation.