Native Americans and Colonial Colleges

The history of Native American higher education over the last 300 years was one of compulsory Western methods of learning, recurring attempts to eradicate tribal cultures, and high dropout rates by Native Americans at mainstream institutions (Boyer, 1997).  This was certainly true of higher education in the colonial era and it was also true at the time of this study.
Varied experiments in Indian education were widespread throughout colonial America.  The diversity of the individual colonies, as well as the different settlement patterns and governments of colonial regions, mirrored efforts to educate non-Indian children in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Thus, in New England where a strong tradition of formal education developed, the greatest number of Indian schools operated; conversely, in the deep south where the fewest number of schools operated and illiteracy rates were highest, there were few attempts to organize Indian schools.  (Indian Boarding Schools, n.d., para. 4)
In his doctoral thesis, Piety, Politics, and Profit: American Indian Missions in the Colonial Colleges, Wright (1985) reveals the little known fact that early colonial colleges were founded with the express purpose of the propagation of Christianity among the American Indians.  Wright goes on to say that throughout the colonial period, the English viewed "education as a primary means" (p. 7) to accomplish this pious mission.  The purpose of his study was to "investigate, detail, and interpret the higher education of American Indians during the colonial period" (p. 11).  Wright critically examined the educational Indian mission in four colonial colleges.  He examined institutional experiments at Henrico College, Harvard College, the College of William and Mary, and Dartmouth College.
Wright (1985) found that while the colonial educators professed their own piety as if this were their singular motivation, they capitalized on the charitable impulses of the pious English and on the opportunities the charity presented in furthering other political and economic interests.
Wright (1985) revealed how funds that had been collected for conducting early experiments in educating Native Americans were diverted from the intended purpose to fund other projects.  This was a primary cause for the ultimate failure of these early experiments in Indian education.  
The colonists' plans for formal Indian schooling centered around two beliefs: (a) Any schooling endeavor must Christianize and civilize Native peoples - thus, the primary teachers and promoters of Indian education were to be missionaries and pious laypersons; and (b) Indians must be persuaded to send their children to school (Szasz, 1988).

These two beliefs formed the foundations for many Indian education experiments.  Some of the best known include Harvard College, opened in 1636 partly for the "education of the English and Indian Youth . . . in knowledge: and Godliness" (Wright, 1988, p. 6); William and Mary College, founded in 1693 in part so that "the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians" (p. 8); and Dartmouth, opened in 1769, to offer "all parts of Learning which shall appear necessary and expedient for civilizing and christianizing Children of Pagans" (p. 11).  Clearly, the colonists sought to use education to destroy the "Indianness" of the Native peoples.  The reasons they failed become evident upon examining the colonial enrollment records at all three institutions.  Indeed, few Indians attended and even fewer graduated; only one Indian received a degree from Harvard, while an average of 8-10 Indian students were enrolled at William and Mary each year (Szasz, 1988).

Most Native Americans resisted sending their children to school; however, missionaries did manage to persuade a few families into believing the key to Indian survival in an increasingly hostile colonial environment was attending a white man's school.  These Indians reluctantly surrendered their children in the hopes that a Euro‑American education would help them survive in a world becoming increasingly hostile to Native Americans (Szasz, 1988).
Early colonial attempts to educate Native Americans failed for the same reasons educational attempts failed throughout the history of Indian education, up until the present.  Missionaries had no comprehension of the complexity and sophistication of traditional Native educational, social, and cultural systems, and they harbored deep prejudices against the Indians (Special Subcommittee on Indian Education, 1969).  This deep prejudice was the result of their religious zeal, and it prevented them from understanding why the Indians held onto their cultural values and spirituality with such tenacity (Wright, 1985).  Rather than live with such scorn, early Native American students often returned to their own people without completing their education (Szasz, 1988).  Although early colonial schools educated a very small percentage of Native American children, their supporters had successfully created the foundation upon which the future of Indian education would rest.  Thereafter, the majority of Native Americans would view education as an effort to stamp out their religion and culture by Christianizing and civilizing their children (Szasz, 1988).
Henrico College
The first proposal for organized education of any kind in the American colonies was Henrico College.  The history of attempting to impose European English style education on American Indians goes back to the establishment of the Henrico Proposal in 1618 (Stein, 1988).
In keeping with the prevailing ideology of colonial conquest that suggested a European obligation to "pacify" and "civilize" indigenous people, British Virginians petitioned the crown for funding to develop an Indian college within a decade of the first permanent settlement at Jamestown.  (Native American Colonial, n.d., para. 1)
"The Henrico settlement was the third attempt by the English, under the auspices of the Virginia Company of London, to establish a permanent settlement in close proximity to the mouth of the James River in Virginia" (Vacik & Miller, 1995, p. 6).  In 1610, the Virginia Company of London went on record stating the mission of the company was to educate and evangelize the Native Americans, "to preach and 
baptize . . . and by propogation of the gospell, to recover out of the arms of the divell, a number of poore and miserable soules, wrapt up unto death, in almost invincible ignorance" (Wertenbaker, 1914, p. 31).
As the settlement in Virginia grew, and as more contact with the Natives occurred, the education of the Native American became a company goal.  Edwin Sandy's ultimate plan was to institute a systematic scheme of education for Virginia, leading up from free school to college and, in further time, a university (McCabe, 1922).  In the early days of the settlement, an Englishman, Reverend Alexander Whitaker, succeeded in converting a number of Natives to the Christian faith.  Buoyed by his success, he urged the entire English nation to come to the salvation of the "naked slaves of the devill" (as cited in Vacik & Miller, 1995, p. 8).  In addition to saving their souls, Whitaker also envisioned cultural salvation for the Natives as well.  An excerpt from a company tract written in 1613 demonstrates the intent of the Virginia settlement to develop a university and make a place for educating Indian children.
We do therefore according to a former grant and order hereby ratifie [sic] confirm and ordain that a convinient [sic] place be chosen and set out for the planting of a university at the said Henrico in time to come and that in the mean time preparation be there made for the building of the said College for the Children of the Infidels according to such Instructions as we shall deliver And we will and ordain that ten thousand acres partly of the Lands they impaled and partly of other Land within the territory of the said Henrico be allotted and set for the endowing of the said Henrico University and College with convenient possessions.  (Kingsbury, 1933, p. 102)
However, the impetus for building a college at Henrico really emerged when Rebecca Rolfe, better known as Pocahontas, married a 29-year-old widower named John Rolfe and converted to Christianity (Burton, 1904; Hawke, 1966).  Rebecca carried herself with such poise and dignity that her untimely death in 1617 set into motion a national project, to establish a college at Henrico for the conversion and education of Virginia's Native Americans (Hawke, 1966).  Therefore, the mission of the college at Henrico was primarily to educate and evangelize the Native Americans (McCabe, 1922).  In turn, these educated Native Americans would return home and convert their fellow tribesmen to Christianity (Chitwood, 1948).  Henrico College may have been the first example of vocational education that "was to have been somewhat like an industrial school with the purpose of making Indians useful members of society" (Land, 1938, p. 487).

Though the plans for the proposed college in Henrico were officially endorsed both by the Virginia Company in 1618 and King James, the goal of establishing an institution to educate the "Children of the Infidels" . . . was to be ultimately frustrated by fraudulent money management.  (Native American Colonial, n.d., para. 1) 


Sir Edwin Sandy, the venerable treasurer of the Virginia Company, collected a net £2,043 for the express purpose of an Indian college at Henrico, but used the funds to ship indentured tenants to the colonies (Native American Colonial, n.d.).

With the establishment of a college for Native Americans at Henrico, a pattern emerged: fraudulent use of funds earmarked for Native American education.  This pattern was to persist throughout the colonial era.  "Dartmouth, like Harvard and the College of William and Mary, survived its first years by fraudulent use of moneys earmarked for Indian education" (Native American Colonial, n.d., para. 12).  Administrators at those first colonial colleges opportunistically capitalized on English fears of Native American uprisings to "appeal to charitable Britons' sense of pious duty to socialize the 'heathen' races of North America, and generally met with success irrespective of sectarian identity" (para. 12).

Harvard College
Shortly after its founding, Harvard's president, Henry Dunster, professed an interest in converting Indians into Christians in order to gain access to the free-flowing charitable funds that were available for that purpose.  Dunster's requests for funding coincided with the uneasy end of Connecticut's Pequot War.  Dunster's efforts were successful and, by 1653, an Indian college was built on Harvard's premises.  Dunster deceptively reported on the progress of his Indian students to benefactors in England; however, no Indian students entered Harvard until 1660, seven years after the college was founded (Native American Colonial, n.d.).
In the four decades of the Indian college's existence, it housed only four known Indian students out of its total capacity of forty.  Instead, administrators used the Indian school building to accommodate twenty English students capable of providing Harvard with sorely needed revenue.  (Native American Colonial, n.d., para. 4)

William and Mary

Just prior to the movement to found the Anglican school of William and Mary, Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy frontier planter and relative of the governor, organized a group of exploited laborers (indentured servants under contract to work for wealthy planters) and they attacked some peaceful Indians.  Bacon and his followers felt the Indians were being coddled by the government.  The colonists were angry about poor working conditions in the colonies and lack of farmland.  Some of them started farming on Indian land, ignoring treaties between the government and local Indians (Stuckey & Salvucci, 2003).

When the governor of Virginia tried to stop Bacon from attacking the Indians, Bacon and his followers attacked and burned Jamestown, a colony in Virginia.  After Bacon's rebellion, the colonists had an understandably difficult time making peace with the Indians (Stuckey & Salvucci, 2003).  The government recognized that there was a serious need to create a mechanism for socialization of the Native Americans in order to co-opt the constant threat they posed on the frontier.

In a direct reference to the troubles on the frontier, the Commissary of Virginia, James Blair, solicited funds from England [for a college] arguing that the purpose of the college was so that "the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians" (Wright, 1988, p. 8).  In 1693, Blair obtained a royal charter for the establishment of the College of William and Mary.  (Native American Colonial, n.d., para. 6)


However, for the funds he procured in England for the Indian college, Blair contrived other more expedient outlets: there was no known Native American enrollment in William and Mary prior to 1705 or after 1720.  J. E. Morpurgo, William and Mary's historian criticized Blair's enterprise as "an entry in the ledgers through which charitable funds could be funneled to extraneous activities" (Wright, 1988, p. 9).  Partly due to the reluctance of Native American students to abandon their own social matrix and partly because most of William and Mary's funding was diverted into reviving the financially strapped college, the scheme to create through education a class of Europeanized Native Americans to act as diplomats between Europeans and their tribes failed.  (Native American Colonial, n.d., para. 7)


Dartmouth College

The case of Dartmouth represents yet another appeal to pious English benefactors for Indian educational funds, rendered all the more powerful this time by British insecurities concerning Native Americans in the aftermath of the French and Indian War (1754-63).  The French and Indian War was fought between the French and the British over the right to settle North America.  Britain won the right to settle North America, then took over French forts in North America when the French withdrew.  British settlers refused to give supplies to Native Americans as the French had.  British colonists also moved across the Appalachian Mountains onto Native American land.  Native Americans retaliated by attacking settlers and destroying almost every British fort west of the Appalachians.  The British reacted with equal violence killing even Indians who had not attacked them (Garcia, Ogle, Risinger, Stevos, & Jordan, 2002).

The founder of Dartmouth College, Congregationalist Eleazar Wheelock, capitalized on this tension between the British and Native Americans by requesting funds to educate the Indians.  By educating Native Americans, Eleazar Wheelock hoped to keep them from starting wars with the colonists (Native American Colonial, n.d.). 

In 1763 Eleazar Wheelock advanced a proposal for establishing a college in New Hampshire for the purpose of "introducing religion, learning, agriculture, and manufacture among the Pagans in America" (Wright, 1988, p. 10). . . . Wheelock sent a former Indian student to England to solicit funds for his project.  The student, Samson Occum, raised £12,000 "in the mistaken belief that the funds were to be employed 'towards building and endowing an Indian academy'" (Wright, 1988, p. 10).  Yet, following a then familiar pattern, Wheelock had no intention of using the funds to build the said Indian academy.  Instead he exhausted all of Occum's collections in 15 years educating 160 students, a mere 40 of whom were Native American.  (Native American Colonial, n.d., para. 11)

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Erich Longie published on January 16, 2018 4:41 PM.

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