Carlisle Indian School

A group of female Carlisle Indian School students gather next to the Carlisle Barracks bandstand in this photograph from circa 1880. Capt. Richard Pratt, founder and first superintendent of the school, is pictured on the far right on the bandstand.

provided by the Cumberland County Historical Society

The majority of the Indian school students who are buried in the Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery are high school-aged males who died in the mid-1880s to early 1890s.

The Army Corps of Engineers recently released a detailed report of archival research gathered on the cemetery that is located next to the Claremont Road gate to the installation.

The report includes an inventory of the 229 burial plots, of which 180 are believed to contain the remains of Native American children and young adults who were enrolled at the first nonreservation boarding school in the country.

By compiling data from this inventory, some statistical patterns emerge on the gender, tribe, year of death and age at the time of death of most of the students buried there. The record is incomplete.

Ninety-six of the Indian school plots hold the remains of male students while 76 hold the remains of females. The rest are of an unknown gender but include such names on the burial markers as Young Eagle, a Sioux; Kawseh, a Pueblo; Cooking Look, an Alaskan Indian, and Tomicook, an Eskimo.

Most are Apache

Though people from about 50 tribes are buried in the cemetery, eight tribes or groupings account for 113 or 62 percent of the dead. Forty-nine of the students were from branches of the Apache nation.

Many of them were Chiricahua Apache prisoners of war associated with the capture of Geronimo, said Barbara Landis, archives and library specialist on the Carlisle Indian School for the Cumberland County Historical Society.

“Prior to their arrival at Carlisle, these Apache prisoners had been incarcerated at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, under the most devastating of circumstances,” Landis wrote in her essay “Death at Carlisle: Naming the Unknowns in the Cemetery.” “There were only two privies for over five hundred prisoners, sanitary conditions were horrendous and the fort was dark and dank.”

Eleven of these prisoners arrived at Carlisle in February 1884, Landis wrote. They were followed by 15 more in the winter of 1886 and 17 the following spring. “Most of the burials in the Indian cemetery are from this particular group. Almost all of these deaths were attributed to tuberculosis, although one child, Titus Deerhead … died of epilepsy.”

Rosebud losses

Twenty of those buried at Carlisle Barracks are Sioux Indians, according to information gleaned from the inventory. At least nine of these were children who came from the Rosebud Agency, Landis wrote. In her essay, she identified five of the children as being from the first group of Native youths to enroll at the school.

“They arrived together, around midnight on Oct. 5, 1879, and just fourteen months later, Maude [Swift Bear] and Ernest [White Thunder] passed away on the same day,” Landis wrote. “The school newspaper reported ‘It was a sad and mysterious coincidence by which two of our pupils were taken from us by death on the night of the 13th of December, both of them being from the same agency and the same band of Sioux.”

Both were the children of powerful and respected leaders, Swift Bear and White Thunder. Their deaths were of concern to the tribe back home, but researchers only have the word of school officials to provide clues on what happened, according to Landis.

“From this we learn that White Thunder’s only son, Ernest, had become depressed and staged a hunger strike a year after his arrival, and that he lingered for two months, before succumbing to death,” Landis wrote. As for Maude, a campus newspaper reported the girl had arrived at Carlisle “suffering from diseased lungs, and so had not strength to resist [the] pneumonia which seized her.”

The next to die were Dora Her Pipe and Rose, daughters of Brave Bull and Long Face. Both died in April 1881, three months after news reached the Rosebud Agency that Ernest and Maude had died. A fifth child in that first group died of an illness he contracted at Carlisle.

Dennis Strikes First was described as “a bright studious, ambitious boy, standing first in his class”, according to Landis. He died from typhoid pneumonia on Jan. 19, 1881.

Six other tribes have five or more dead buried at the cemetery. They include 13 Cheyenne, eight Alaskan, seven Chippewa, six Oneida and five each of Pueblo and Arapahoe.

Tuberculosis and pneumonia

Many Indian school students died of respiratory diseases, Landis said. She added conditions were made worse by the intermixing of individuals from a variety of tribes from all parts of the country into the close quarters of a boarding school.

The inventory included in the archival research mentioned a cause of death for 66 of the students buried in the post cemetery. Forty of them died of some form of tuberculosis while eight (including a student named Abe Lincoln) died of pneumonia.

Three students died of hemorrhaging, two of spinal meningitis and one each from such ailments as “lung fever”, “vaccine fever”, a cerebral lesion, appendicitis, diphtheria, malarial fever, inflammatory rheumatism, heart disease and inflammation of the bowels. Frank Green, an Oneida Indian, died on June 2, 1895, after being struck by a Pennsylvania Railroad train.

Ninety-three of those buried in the cemetery were of high school age at the time of death including 14 15-year-olds, 27 16-year-olds, 27 17-year-olds and 25 18-year-olds. The second largest group, at 37 individuals, was the college-aged students including 13 19-year-olds, 11 20-year-olds, eight 21-year-olds and five 22-year-olds.

The youngest Native American buried in the cemetery was 10 months old while the oldest was 28.

Some periods were more lethal than others. Eighty-nine students buried in the cemetery died from 1885 to 1894. The number of deaths doubled from six in 1886 to 12 in 1887 before peaking at 22 in 1888, the deadliest year.

All but 13 of the deaths occurred during the 25 years Indian school founder Richard Henry Pratt served as its superintendent. He was dismissed on June 30, 1904. Four students would die that year, Landis wrote. This was followed by five students in 1905 and four students in 1906, according to the archival research report.

More deaths

Over 10,000 native boys and girls attended the Indian school while it occupied the Carlisle Barracks campus for almost 40 years from 1879 to 1918.

The school was designed as a social experiment to remove youths from tribal influence, assimilate them into the white man’s culture and teach them a vocation. These goals traumatized many of the children and their families.

Anecdotal research suggests that as many as 1,000 students died and 1,000 others ran away in the years the school was in operation, Landis said. “A lot of that is based on conjecture.”

Only a portion of the dead are buried at Carlisle Barracks. To avoid the criticism of a high death rate, Pratt sent many of the sick and dying children back home to die in their communities, researcher Jacqueline Fear-Segal wrote in her essay “The History and Reclamation of a Sacred Space: The Indian School Cemetery”.

The school offered students off-campus opportunities to either work on a farm or learn a trade from a host family or individual, often during the summer. These assignments were known as outings.

“Although little research has been done on this topic, it seems likely that across Pennsylvania and beyond, small local cemeteries hold the remains of children from the Indian school,” Fear-Segal wrote.

Email Joseph Cress at


News Reporter

History and education reporter for The Sentinel.

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