1880s– Closing Frontier

Overview

As a young teacher at the Hampton Institute in the late 1870s and early 1880s, Booker T. Washington was responsible for helping to instruct and assimilate Native American or Indian men.  The complexity of this assignment –a black teacher trying to instruct red men in the ways of white culture– was not lost on Washington, who recalled his anxiety over the “experiment” in chapter 6 of his memoir, Up From Slavery

I knew that the average Indian felt himself above the white man, and, of course, he felt himself far above the Negro, largely on account of the fact of the Negro having submitted to slavery—a thing which the Indian would never do. The Indians, in the Indian Territory, owned a large number of slaves during the days of slavery. Aside from this, there was a general feeling that the attempt to educate and civilize the red men at Hampton would be a failure.

gast-hi-resThe decade of the 1880s marked what was later known as the “closing of the frontier” in American history –a period when homestead settlements and railroad lines across what had been considered the “Great American Desert” changed the landscape and culture of the western plains in what appeared at the time to be almost irrevocable ways.  For many white Americans of this era, this change was a triumph for civilization, a sign of “American Progress,” as the painter John Gast indicated in his famous allegorical image from 1872 (right), but for others, not only Indians, but also for many former slaves and reformers, it was a time of hypocrisy and diminished expectations.  Nothing better captures this dichotomy than the experiment in Indian vocational education that Washington described, which had begun at Hampton, but which then continued during the 1880s and 1890s most famously at the Carlisle Indian School headed by U.S. army officer Richard Henry Pratt.  Faculty, staff and students at Dickinson College are currently working to bring together many of the documents and images of the Carlisle Indian School, which existed until World War I, at a new digital resource center.  The materials help illustrate the complex tragedy of the project whose motto was “kill the Indian and save the man.”

Online Textbook Resources

Closing of the Frontier from Digital History (Mintz and McNeil)

Tragedy of the Plains Indians from Digital History (Mintz and McNeil)

Selected Timelines

The West in the 1880s (PBS)

1880s (Henry Ford Museum)

Featured Videos

Here is a typical, modern-day, textbook-style treatment of the concept of “manifest destiny” using the Gast painting (above) in this short video from the Kansas Historical Society.  The video mentions the Shawnee Indian Mission, which conducted one of the nation’s earliest experiments in vocational training for young Indians, during the years before the American Civil War in the Kansas territory.  Below you will also find a short 10-minute video clip from TNT’s “Into the West,” miniseries depicting Native American arrivals in the early days of the Carlisle Indian School (late 1870s-early 1880s).  It’s not exactly “historically accurate” in every respect, but it’s certainly vivid.


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