An Uncertain Future for a Piece of Native American History

Posted on: September 28th, 2012 by David Robert Weible 6 Comments

To see it, you’d hardly ever know that the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., was once the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Established in 1879, it was the first government-funded, all-Native American off-reservation boarding school intended to assimilate Native American children into white American culture. Though other buildings still stand, the planned demolition of the school’s farmhouse would be a significant blow to the school’s memory.

Dr. Louellyn White, an assistant professor in First People’s Studies at Concordia University in Montreal whose grandfather was one of roughly 10,000 children who attended Carlisle and was likely taught in the farmhouse, says that the school was industrial in the sense that it taught the students specific skills. But “they weren’t being trained in becoming doctors or lawyers or politicians,” she says. “They were skills that would help them to partake in industrial America to keep native people as somewhat inferior as part of the working class.”

The Gothic Revival farmhouse was built in 1859 and was used by African-American soldiers Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Afterwards, the building and surrounding barracks stood vacant continued to be the residence of the civilian Parker family until the Industrial School was established. Perhaps best known as the alma mater of the famed athlete Jim Thorpe, the school was closed in 1918 and the building again served African-American soldiers, this time as a social club.

During its years as part of the school, the farmhouse was used for agricultural training. Students would often spend the night there before waking at 4:00 a.m. to milk the cows, which makes it one of the last buildings left where children slept and were instructed.

Many of the other buildings that were once a part of the school have been deemed National Landmarks and continue to be used by the War College, but the farmhouse, set farther away from the main campus, was described in a letter from the barracks’ commander as “not eligible for historic designation due to the lack of architectural merit and historical associations.” But separate research from Stone Fort Consulting, a historic preservation consulting firm from Kansas, disputes that claim, citing a 1918 publication by the school itself closely linking the building to the school’s activities and mission.

Since learning this summer of the Army Garrison’s plans to raze the building, White and her group, Carlisle Indian School Descendants, Family and Friends, have embarked on a campaign to create a discourse with the Army Garrison that runs the property, as well as reach out to Native American tribal leaders across the country in an effort to save the farmhouse and perhaps get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Though the building still stands, its future is uncertain.

“I think the bigger picture of this whole thing is that what the school itself represented,” White says. “Tearing down this kind of a building erases part of that memory that we hold on to as descendants. But also the public needs to be aware of that history of those forced assimilation policies that the government imposed on native peoples. We’re not preserving something that was all positive… because, as I said, it was part of a whole colonial system of oppression.”

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David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

Preservation Magazine

6 Responses

  1. fire restoration

    September 29, 2012

    I think you are right. We have to save our old buildings and places. These places can show you the old history about schools.We have to save it from all kind of damage.

  2. Scott Kroger

    September 29, 2012

    At a way, David. Play to win!!!!

  3. Carolyn Tolman

    September 29, 2012

    Thank you for bringing exposure to this important issue. The farmhouse is a significant place of memory, and I hope the Army comes to its senses and realizes what a mistake it would be to tear it down. As the farmhouse historian, I’d like to point out that it was a small group of Confederate Soldiers who visited the house in June 1863, just days before the Battle of Gettysburg, not African-American Soldiers. The African-American Soldiers did not use the house until 1920-1945.

  4. Carolyn Tolman

    September 29, 2012

    Additionally, the house was never vacant but continued to be the residence of the civilan, upper class Parker family until the Indian School purchased it in 1886.

  5. National Trust for Historic Preservation

    October 1, 2012

    Hi Carolyn — thank you for the corrections!

    Julia Rocchi
    Managing Editor

  6. Historic Preservation at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania | Stone Fort Consulting

    October 2, 2012

    [...] Fort Consulting played a small role in preservation efforts on behalf of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as featured in the [...]