WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels With the WPA State Guides: The Carlisle Indian Industrial School

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

Attitudes change over time. What once seemed “progressive,” can now be seen as truly repressive. This is certainly the case with the Carlisle Industrial School for Indians. The Carlisle School was founded by U.S. Army Colonel Richard Pratt in 1873. The Sioux Indian Wars had just ended with the complete defeat of the Plains Indians. The tribes were decimated, their leaders imprisoned and their members in dire poverty. Pratt proposed that the tribes send their children to a boarding to be “assimilated” into American culture. His most famous plea was to Chief Spotted Tail:

“Spotted Tail, you are a remarkable man. You are such an able man that you are the principal chief of these thousands of your people. But Spotted Tail, you cannot read or write. You claim that the government has tricked your people and placed the lines of your reservation a long way inside of where it was agreed that they should be […] You signed that paper, knowing only what the interpreter told you it said. If anything happened when the paper was being made up that changed its order, if you had been educated and could read and write, you could have known about it and refused to put your name on it. Do you intend to let your children remain in the same condition of ignorance in which you have lived, which will compel them always to meet the whiter man at a great disadvantage through an interpreter, as you have to do? […] As your friend, Spotted Tail, I urge you to send your children with me to this Carlisle School and I will do everything I can to advance them in intelligence and industry in order that they may come back and help you.”

Pratt convinced the US government to fund the school and, when attempts at persuasion largely failed, the government forcibly removed over 10,000 children from their homes and sent them to Carlisle. The school formally opened in 1879, with an enrollment of 147 students ranging in age from 6-18 from the Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee, and Apache tribes. Until it closed in 1918, children from 140 tribes were forced to attend.

Carlisle’s educational and social program was designed to wipe out any traces of Native American heritage. Upon arrival, the children were assigned American names and their hair was cut short. The boys were required to wear military-style uniforms; the girls had to wear long dresses. Students were forbidden to speak in their native languages and were deliberately assigned roommates from other tribes to force them to speak only English.

Although students were required to write home (in English!) letters from their parents were seldom delivered. The program for each student could last up to ten years and no visits home were permitted. Instead, students were assigned to work on local farms in the summer or were taken on school camping trips. The children were also required to attend Christian churches in the town and expected to give up their native spiritual beliefs.

Not surprisingly, graduates of the school found it very difficult if not impossible to return to their families and reservations. Many now spoke only English and were completely unacquainted with tribal traditions. Rejoining family and tribe was often too difficult to negotiate for both children and parents.

Tragically, several hundred children died at the school (mostly of diseases but some of assertedly harsh treatment) and their bodies were not returned to their families. They are buried to this day on the grounds of the school. (Very recently, a number of tribes have petitioned come to Carlisle to disinter the remains of their children and to return them to the reservations. In several cases, this has now been done.)

To be fair, the school’s legacy is not solely one of unmitigated tragedy. Many graduates of the school praised the education and found success (if not happiness) in the white world. A few went on to graduate from Dickinson College in Carlisle and to become journalists, lawyers, businessmen, etc. Some became artists, after studying with Native American teachers at the school who taught weaving, painting, and crafts. Sports were a highlight. The Carlisle school football team, coached by Pop Warner, became famous for defeating Harvard’s team and other Ivy League teams.

The best known graduate of Carlisle was Jim Thorpe, often called the best athlete of all time. He attended Carlisle from 1904 to 1905 and played football there. After winning gold medals in pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 summer Olympics in Sweden, he  played baseball for the New York Giants for six seasons in between 1913 and 1919 and, simultaneously, football for six teams in the NFL.

Visiting the Carlisle School is an emotional experience, not presaged by the limited entry in the Pennsylvania Guide. The Guide gives only the briefest hint of the troubled history of the school:

“In 1879 a young army officer, Lieutenant Richard H. Pratt, established here the Carlisle Indian School. Its football teams, coached by Glenn (‘Pop’) Warner, gained wide fame. ‘Jim’ Thorpe, football star and Olympic champion, was trained at the school. During the World War the Government distributed the pupils among the western schools and converted the plant into an army hospital. […]

The older barracks, of brick painted a light yellow, have long verandas on each floor. [T]he HESSIAN GUARD HOUSE, erected by prisoners captured in Washington’s surprise attack on Trenton in 1777, [is a] rectangular one-story structure of local limestone, with walls four feet thick and arched cells […] It was used as a magazine during the Revolution and as a guardhouse for unruly Indians after Lieutenant Pratt established his school.”

                   PA Guide 472-3

The school grounds now house the Army War College. Visitors need a security clearance to enter the grounds and the buildings are off-limits. But the children’s cemetery can be visited without entering the campus. It is a distressing site. The graves lie in rows of identical plain headstones. The deceased children are identified by their English first names, sometimes with their original name underneath, and their tribal affiliation. Some graves are marked merely as “unknown.” One needs no more than a visit to this cemetery to feel the pain of the tragic separation of families that occured here 140 years ago. 


                                                                               Fern L. Nesson

                                                                               March 2021