Choctaw Academy – The Great Experiment

From its inception in 1825, the Choctaw Academy was the great hope of the Choctaw leaders. It had never been done – creating a great school of learning for Native American children, by the tribes themselves, was a true visionary act on the part of the Choctaw leaders.  They could have asked for much material wealth with the proceeds of their Choctaw land sale. Instead, as grave concern grew for the great sovereign Choctaw Nation, thoughts turned to their future and to molding the next set of leaders.

At the close of the first school year, June 1827, the great leader Greenwood LeFlore made the long hot trip to the Academy to see if the education program was adequate and to judge for himself the progress of the students. Chief LeFlore’s words were sobering. “We are but a remnant of a numer­ous people of red men.” We will survive only by becoming an enlightened nation, or we will perish in the arms of the white man. His young protégés must have felt the weight of the Choctaw world on their young shoulders.

Here is an account of that eventful day,  as reported in the Argus of Western America (Frankfort, Kentucky), Weds, June 27, 1827.

THE CHOCTAW ACADEMY

Col. Greenwood Leflore, one of the Choctaw Chiefs, has just arrived at this School, situated at the Blue Spring, in Scott County. Upon his arrival the students received him with military honors and three of the Choctaw students made the speeches which will be found below. At this time the school constitutes one hundred students, viz. 64 Choctaws, 25 Creeks, and 11 Pottawatomies. The school is supported en­tirely by the funds of these nations, reserved in treaties for that object. Col. LeFlore gave the students a very interesting speech in English and Choctaw, much to the gratification of the ladies and, gentlemen of the neighborhood who were present. Col. LeFlore is a man of about 26 years of age, very interesting in his appearance and conversation, and appears to be intelligent, and a man of strong mind, good judgment, polite in his social intercourse, and of agreeable manners.

Speech of Capt. George Harkins

Col. G. LeFlore—Sir: In behalf of the students of the Choctaw Academy, I now feel great pleasure in giving you a hearty and cordial welcome. Credit and honor upon the Choctaw Nation, which has honored you as one of their chiefs. We rejoice to see so distinguished an individual whose merits have gained the applause of all honorable men, and raised him to his present eminent station. But we rejoice still more to see you here, as one of our chiefs, and one of our political fathers, to see for yourself, the progress of your Choctaw children. I hope and trust, that your fond expectations will be more than realized, when you come to see the progress which we have made in our studies, and the friends by whom we are surrounded. Honored as we have been by our own nation, we should be truly mortified, if your just and reasonable anticipations should be disappointed. It is not my intention to multiply words on this occasion; it would interrupt too long the indulgence of those feelings of joy which animate our bosoms at seeing our distinguished friend among us, in a distant land; which great pleasure was so little expected by us.

I shall conclude by wishing you the enjoyment of health and happiness while you remain among us; and I have no doubt but what our friend, Col. Johnson, will make your situation agreeable on your own account, as well as on account of our friendship and attachment for him.

Speech of Mr. Pierre Juzan

My respected friend and countryman: I am happy to see you at the spot where the chiefs and head men of our nation thought proper to locate an Academy for the instruction of their children. It reflects great honor upon the Choctaws, that they have been the very first to make a move in this important business which we have no doubt will elevate our nation to a high rank among the civilized nations of the earth, if persevered in. You are an example yourself, of what can be done for a nation, by an individual of good morals, upright conduct and enlightened mind. We hope that from your example, and many of our distinguished countrymen, we may hope to see our nation elevated to a high destiny by the influence of those who will return from this school, with that knowledge which adorns the human character. I am extremely happy to unite with my friend, Mr. Harkins, and all the students, in giving you a hearty welcome to the Blue Springs; and it is a subject of great joy and congratulation to us, that you find us all happy, and in perfect peace and friendship with each other, and with all the world; and in the enjoyment of perfect health. While some of us have had the melancholy news of the death of some of our friends in the nation, Heaven has been kind to the students of this school; and we wish to acknowledge our gratitude for these great blessings.

Speech of Capt. John Riddle

Sir: I should not do justice to my feelings, if I did not on this occasion express my great joy at the opportunity I have had of taking the hand of one of the chiefs of our nation. I hope, sir, upon a short examination you will find, that we have not spent our time in vain. It was our happy lot to be first selected to make the great experiment in favor of our nation, and I will express my strong hope that we shall not be disappointed in the revolt. I shall not take up time after what has been said by my two young friends, who have addressed you; but I will content myself by saying, that I join with them in expressing my sincere joy, that you have honored us with a visit.

Col. Greenwood Leflore’s Reply

My children — I return to you my sincere thanks for the very kind and affectionate feelings which you have expressed for me as your chief, and father, and friend. My joy is no less than yours at this happy meeting, and my heart has been full of gratitude for the military honors with which my children have welcomed me to the Choctaw Academy. My hands and my heart are both open to receive my young friends, consisting of three tribes, the Choctaws, Creeks and Pottawatomies. I feel great interest for these tribes; I know that our bad men did not do justice to our nations. Instead of giving our young men good advice, they gave some of us a tomahawk to raise against our white brethren. No good man will blame any of the young people of our nations for this; we were badly counseled.  But I can inform my white brethren around me, that day is past—and I am more than happy to tell you, that the Choctaws, as a nation, never did raise the tomahawk against their white brethren, but many of our warriors fought by their side.

It is now our wish to become like our white brethren and get a good education; and become civilized and live as all Christian nations. My children, I have come a long way to see you; and listen to my advice: As a father I will give it to you and think I know what will make you happy and respectable. I have not had a good chance to get an education; but I have enough to know its value, and to recommend you to persevere and not tire in your studies. You must always depend upon your own industry for a living and to support yourselves, and while you are young, it is your duty to fix a foundation for that. As one of your chiefs, I have done all I can for you; that is, to give you a chance of a good education. I tell you, my children, you must not only listen to my advice, but the advice of the Rev. Thomas Henderson, who is at the head of this school; and also to the advice of your great friend, Col. Johnson, who feels your interest and future welfare dear to his heart, from all I can learn. My children, you must never think you know more than your teacher. We sent you here to be taught by him and not to give him instruction. Some young people are too wise in their own opinions to be taught, but I hope none of my children at this school have ever acted in that way. I hope they have never rejected good advice. It is not clever for young people to refuse the advice and instruction of old people. Be thankful always for the good advice of your teacher and every other person who will give it, and never think them your enemies, because they speak plain and give you plain talk. If you do not make good use of your time when you are young, the loss can never be made up, and the time will come when you will know what you have lost. Now is the time with each —- your conduct, you will make distinguished men.

Do justice to all men; do what is right to your fellow citizens, as you wish they should do to you, and all the white people in this country, and particularly this neighborhood, will feel glad; their hearts will be filled with joy and with our prosperity. In this way the red people will become enlightened nations, not inferior to any other nation in the world. I hope our father, the President, and our white brethren in Congress, will not see us perish. We are but a remnant of a numer­ous people of red men. I put all my confidence in our father, the President, and Congress, a great and wise nation, that as Christians, they will not do us any wrong; but see that we enjoy our rights or we must perish in their arms. As far as I can judge, this school far surpasses my anticipations. My heart is too full to speak much now. I shall speak to you hereafter.

Facts about Choctaw Academy

  • An alphabetized, 12-page list of Choctaw students attending the Choctaw Academy at this link – List Choctaw Students-Choctaw Academy
  • Location: at Great Crossing, Kentucky, a historic community founded in 1783 where buffalo herds once crossed the nearby North Elkhorn River, two and one-half miles from current-day Georgetown, Scott County, Kentucky. The Johnson farm was known as Blue Spring Farm.

The Baptist Mission Society opened a residential school for Native American boys on Richard Mentor Johnson’s Scott County farm in 1819, but it closed after two years for lack of money.

The school was revived in 1825 after Choctaws in Mississippi asked that part of the price for their land go toward creating a school to educate boys for tribal leadership in the new white man’s world.

Johnson, a powerful politician, worked with the War Department to fund the school on his Blue Spring Farm. After West Point, Choctaw Academy became the second school funded by the U.S. War Department. Historians say Col. R. M. Johnson used the school to help get himself out of debt – what we today call a “win-win” situation, but he strongly supported the education of Native Americans.

  • Opening Semester: 3rd quarter 1826
  • Enrollment: The first year began with a class of 25 Choctaw boys.
  • Highest enrollment: 188 students, during 1st quarter 1835.
  • Tribes sending students to the school:
    • For the first five years, it was Choctaw, Creeks and Pottawatomi.
    • Then they were joined by the Osage, Miami, Quapaw, Seminole, Iowa, Sacs and Fox, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Chippewa & Ottawa.
  • Highest annual expense for tuition, boarding, clothing: $39,631 for the year 1837 (from an audit conducted May 17, 1842 by the War Dept. staff at the request of the U.S. House of Representatives. See full audit at this link – 1842 Audit .
  • Style of Education: A classical education: geography, practical surveying, astronomy, natural philosophy, history, moral philosophy and vocal music as well as the basics – English grammar, reading, writing, and arithmetic. At least one Native American student went on to study law at Transylvania University and another studied medicine. In mid-1830s, the curriculum was expanded to include “knowledge of agriculture and the mechanic arts.”
  • New Names: Like the practice at the mission schools in Mississippi, the Native American boys were asked to choose an English name for themselves.

English Names given to students

  • Inter-racial Setting: The academy was good enough that local white families sought permission for their sons to attend, making it one of the nation’s first interracial schools.
  • Sickness: While many Choctaws, struggling over the Trail of Tears, fell victim to the highly contagious disease of cholera, so did the students at the Choctaw Academy. At least 10 students died at the academy in 1833 and are buried there in unmarked graves.
  • What’s left: Today only one building is left. It is thought to have been one of the dormitories, but served as a barn after the academy was closed. Various groups have, at one-time or another, tried to organize restoration efforts. The current owner of the farm, Dr. William Richardson has been involved in raising awareness and funds to stabilize the remaining structures.

Choctaw Academy-new roof

Several years ago, the roof and part of one wall collapsed. In 2017 a grant from the Choctaw Nation was used to build a temporary roof to prevent further damage. See the page “Save the Choctaw Academy” on Facebook for current news.

  • Was Peter P. Pitchlynn a student at the academy? – NO – at least, not this newly-minted, Choctaw funded academy. In November 1825, Captain Peter P. Pitchlynn was a married man, no longer a school boy; he was 19 years old and already a promising leader of the Choctaws. He escorted the first 21 Choctaw boys to Mr. Johnson’s farm in Oct-Nov 1825.

William Ward, the Indian Agent for the Choctaw Nation, wrote Thomas L. McKenney, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, October 22, 1825, saying “The Boys (say 21) started on the 15th. Inst, under charge of Capt. P. Pitchlynn with directions to take them to Col. Richd. M. Johnson’s, Scott County, Kentucky.

“I have advised you . . . The school room is large and commodious, well furnished with maps, globes, books, etc. The lodging room is a large well-furnished three-story stone house furnished with good beds and every other accommodation for ease and comfort. The boys are called together every morning a little after sunrise, and school is opened by singing and prayer. A part of each Saturday is devoted in teaching the Indian boys vocal music, and on Sundays they are required to attend on public worship.”

He adds the following list of the 21 Choctaw boys together with their ages—Alfred Wade, 17; Jacob Folsom, 16; Lyman Collens, 16; John Riddle, 16; Peter King, 15; Silas Pitchlynn, 15; John Adams, 15; James M. King, 14; William Riddle, 14; John Everson, 14; Charles Jones, 13; Lewis McCan, 13; Daniel Folsom, 13; Hiram King, 13; Robert Nail, 13; Charles King, 13; Pickens Wade, 12; William McCan, 12; Allen Kearney, 10; Alexander Pope, 10; Morris Nail.”

Most likely at the insistence of District Chief Moshulatubbee, Peter Pitchlynn surprised everyone by delivering 21 students to the Johnson Farm in November 1825. Among the group of students were four sons of Chief Moshulatubbee: Peter King, James King, Hiram King and Charles King.

The following letter dated June 27th, 1826 from David Folsom to Thomas L. McKenney, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, shows the rest of the Choctaw leaders trying to sort out a response to what Peter Pitchlynn had done. Folsom implies that District Chief Moshulatubbee had unfairly selected all 21 students from his own district.

“Friend & Brother, Your friendly talk on paper dated 9th May was handed me a few days since by Col. Ward . . . Br. I will inform you I had nothing to do in sending the boys to Kentucky nor was it much known in the Nation until they were sent. . . Therefore it will not be in my power to follow your advice in all things, for I must consult my people about all publick business. But as soon as you will inform me where we are to procure funds for the support of 42 more scholars, I shall then know better what to say to my people. You will recollect that the 6000$ is already applied to the instruction of the children from this District, and the proceeds of the 54 sections of land I wish to have applied in teaching Chahta youth Mechanical arts as I stated in my last letter. . . I know it was very wrong to send the youths all from one District and without the knowledge of the people, and it was wrong for such an un-enlightened chief as M————to have the power to manage as he did. . .”

On August 20, 1826 in a letter marked private, the Superintendent Colonel Richard M. Johnson wrote to the Secretary of War James Barbour, who directed the Office of Indian Affairs in the early years before the Department of Interior had been formed. All three districts were now represented at the school.

“My friend: Col. Ward informs me that the chiefs of the Choctaw Nation had determined to avail themselves of the Privilege given them by Col. McKenney’s official letter, by sending from the two districts which have not sent heretofore, 18 scholars from each, making 36 which added to the 27 already here will make 62 (sic- 65) Choctaws in all. This shall be equal to any school in the U. States & I pledge myself that ample justice shall be done to every boy. It is in your power to do more to enlighten the Indians by encouraging this school than any man in the world—lose not the opportunity.”


…lose not the opportunity!


 

Captain Peter Pitchlynn might have pulled a fast one on the other Choctaw leaders. Certainly Mr. Johnson was surprised to find 21 young boys at his doorstep in the fall of 1825. Even four years later, as jealousies arose, the superintendent Rev. Thomas Henderson found it necessary to explain why the school was situated where it was and how the monies were being handled.

Portion of the Rev Henderson’s “statement” to the Lexington Observer dated June 14, 1831, reprinted in The Democrat (Huntsville, Alabama), July 21, 1831, page 1:

“The Chiefs of the Choctaw Nation, passed by the Great Crossing, when on their way to the City of Washington, at the time the treaty was made, setting apart six thousand dollars annually for educating their Children; and on their return home, they selected 25 boys to be sent to a school, to be located in the neighborhood of the Great Crossing. From the confidence manifested on the part of the Chiefs, in the integrity and friendship of Col. R. M. John son, they expressed great anxiety to have the school established on or near his farm, so that he might see that their children should be protected and treated with kindness, as well as under his influence and weight of character the progress in their education might be promoted. This was the management and entire arrangement of the Chiefs, who were first concerned in establishing this School. I have no doubt but it was wholly owing to the great solicitude on their part, & the expressions of such confidence in the character, that they had received of Col. Johnson, that the school ever happened to be located at his residence at all.

The first intimation that Col. Johnson received of this intention, was by letters from the Choctaw Nation, that the boys were on their way to Kentucky, conducted by Peter P. Pitchlynn, a very intelligent young man of that tribe; and shortly after the receipt of the letter Mr. Pitchlynn arrived with 21 youths.

As no previous arrangement had been made for their reception, it became a matter of consultation, to determine what was to be done. The difficulty in procuring a proper location, with suitable buildings for a school room, and other accommodations, was greater than had been anticipated; consequently, Col. Johnson agreed under all circumstances to take them to his residence, and requested me to take charge of them, until the will of the government should be known, and the plan of the school fixed by the Secretary of War.

It was certainly with much inconven­ience to the Colonel, on such short notice, to furnish all the necessary buildings for the accommodation of the school. Indeed it looked to me more like an act of charity and benevolence, than anything else.

To furnish at that crisis, under all the circumstances, and with such great inconvenience to himself, all the necessary buildings for the School, and for the accommodation of the Students and Teachers, together with their boarding for several months, was no small matter.

 As soon as the Secretary of War had fixed the plan and principles of the School, & it was approved by the President of the United States, the same was communicated to me, and, that I was appointed the Su­perintendent and Tutor of the Institution. ~~Thos. Henderson, Super’t”

All bickering aside, the success of the Choctaw Academy cannot be questioned. Many of those students represented their districts at the 1858 Skullyville Convention and at the Doaksville Constitutional Convention in 1860. They served as the district chiefs, the local judges and Council members. They became the School Trustees and Superintendents to direct the Choctaw education programs in their new nation. Principle Chiefs Alfred Wade, Basil LeFlore, Samuel Garland, and William Bryant all attended the Academy. Two students, William Smallwood and Noel Gardner, were fathers of future chiefs.

It is a shining legacy that argues vehemently for the preservation of the remnants of the Choctaw Academy at Blue Spring. This message appears several times and still is relevant: Lose not the opportunity!

50

***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***
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Sources

  • Greenwood LeFlore’s speech, The Argus of Western America (Frankfort, Kentucky), Weds, Jun 27, 1827, Page 2 .
  • 1842 War Dept. audit of the Choctaw Academy – from the University of Oklahoma, College of Law Digital Commons. H.R. Doc. No. 231, 27th Cong., 2nd Sess. (1842).
  • English names for Native American students – from Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut), Tuesday, Jul 15,1828, Page 2.
  • The names of the first 21 Choctaw students at the Choctaw academy from Carolyn Thomas Foreman, “The Choctaw Academy”, Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Fall 1928), page 453. She cites her source as: Indian Office, Retired Classified Files, 1825 Schools (Choctaw.)
  • Letter dated June 27th, 1826 from David Folsom to Thomas L. McKenney, Superintendent of Indian Affairs – also from above article by Carolyn Thomas Foreman, page 455-456.
  • Letter dated August 20, 1826 from Superintendent Col. Richard M. Johnson to Secretary of War James Barbour – also from above article by Carolyn Thomas Foreman, page 458.
  • List of Students extracted from an undated, unsourced 50-page document, “List of Choctaw Students Attending School in the States”, in the files of the Oklahoma Historical Society Research Division, Minor Collections 1981 (M1981.035 location 0915.09). From the comments within the document, I judge the date of the document to be about 1935-1936.

 

2 thoughts on “Choctaw Academy – The Great Experiment

  1. What an amazing achievement for the time. Not enough of these stories are known in the white mans world. Looking forward after so much suffering.

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