Not much remains of the many day and boarding schools that dotted the landscape around
Oklahoma's Red River Valley. Just like with everything else in our standardized world, education
has become a national, rather than a community, affair. The Choctaw and Chickasaw communities
in the middle 19th century, however, invested a great deal in localized education, knowing fully
well what could happen if they didn't.
Throughout American history, Indians were given two "options:" assimilate, or be annihilated.
While early tribes fought to the bitter end against the European invaders, other tribes learned
that the only way to preserve themselves was by becoming more like the whites. Churches
established missionary schools to teach Indians how to be more "Christian" and "American."
Often, schools were placed not within tribal communities, but in far off locations, thus forcing
children to live apart from their families. This strategy had an intended effect: the schools rid the
Indians of their culture, all under the guise of "education."
|Early Learning in the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations
This forced assimilation became a well-used tactic after the Plains Indian Wars of
the 1870s. Hundreds of children from the Sioux, Dakota, Blackfeet, and
Cheyenne tribes (the Comanches and Kiowas to a far lesser degree*) were sent
to boarding schools in far-away states like Pennsylvania, where they could be
"Americanized." However, while this idea gained wide acceptance in the late
19th century, these kinds of programs had already been initiated under British
colonial governments, and continued during the Early Republic.
That's why it became very important for the Five Civilized Tribes, who had been
forced to Indian Territory by the Jackson government, to initiate what I'd call a
"preemptive strike." They quickly established schools over which their nations
could maintain some control. They did this with the support of Presbyterian,
Methodist, and Baptist missionary groups, who worked in tandem with the
nations to ensure their education.
The Choctaw Nation's first school was established within a decade of their
forced ouster into today's Oklahoma. Wheelock Academy, founded in 1842 as a
joint effort by Choctaw leaders, Presbyterian missionaries, and Indian Bureau
agents, at first operated as a day school for both boys and girls. Religious
education was emphasized, though missionaries lamented that the Native
Americans were not very receptive to their "Americanization" efforts. Located
just east of Fort Towson, Wheelock later became a boarding school for girls,
with nearby Norwalk Academy serving boys.
Armstrong Academy, founded in 1845, became the premier Choctaw school. It
was self-sustaining, with corn fields and vegetable gardens. Adults attended the
school on Saturdays to learn how to read and write, and students learned
algebra, classical literature, and geography as well as mechanical and domestic
skills. In 1862, Armstrong Academy became the seat of the Choctaw confederacy,
and continued to serve as the Choctaw Nation capitol until the 1880s.
Other academies along the eastern Red River in Indian Territory included the
Spencer Academy for boys, founded in 1844 north of Doaksville, which served as
a Confederate hospital. The 1850's Bloomfield Academy for girls near the
Colbert's Ferry landing also became a hospital during the war. Wapanucka
Academy for girls (it was co-educational for a time) opened northeast of Boggy
These schools operated as day schools, with more local control, and boarding
schools, which fell under the governance and church boards and federal
agencies. Often, a school that had once been under local control would
gradually become a boarding school as population centers shifted away from the
schools. After the Chickasaws restored their nationhood in the 1850s, both
Bloomfield and Wapanucka Academies came under their sole jurisdiction.
The academies lasted well into the early 20th century. Lamentably, fire
consumed many of them. The wooden buildings of the Bloomfield Academy
burned down at least three times before the decision was made to abandon the
school. Armstrong Academy was mostly brick built, but it, too, experienced fires.
A young woman from Doaksville recounted her visits to the destroyed Armstrong
Academy in the 1930s, where she remembered "piles of bones" laying about in
what used to be the anatomy lab. Armstrong was never rebuilt, either. Spencer
Academy had a fiery death. An exception was the Wapanucka Academy, which
slowly crumbled away when it closed in 1911.
Two academies still exist along the Red River, however. Wheelock Academy is
now a National Historic Landmark, and the grounds are open every day. While
many of the outbuildings are in ruins, the wooden and white-washed
administration building, built in the 1880s, stands in the center. A free museum is
housed inside a wooden dormitory building. Nearby is the Wheelock
Presbyterian Church, built of solid stone and dedicated in 1847. The adjacent
graveyard includes many burials of children who succumbed to scarlett fever.
The most impressive of these academies is Goodland, but not because of its
architecture. Of all the academies I've mentioned (and a few I didn't), Goodland
is the only one still in operation. Established in the 1850s as a mission school for
orphaned Indians near Grant, Goodland is now a Presbyterian boarding school,
taking care of children regardless of religious, national, sexual, familial,
socio-economic, or racial affiliation.
Except for Goodland and Wheelock, these historic schools only exist as entries
in history books. Although the academies could be considered the heart and
soul of the nations' establishment in Indian Territory, often archaeological
surveys are needed just to pinpoint their locations. The only evidence of
Armstrong, Bloomfield, Wapanucka and Spencer Academies consist of
inaccessible cemeteries on private property. Other academies I did not mention
have not even received National Register status because nothing remains of
These school are, without a doubt, incredibly important to Oklahoma history.
Hopefully, they'll continue to be recognized by subsequent historians.
* Most Comanche and Kiowa children attended reservation schools, run by
missionaries, near Fort Sill.
|Wheelock Academy, now a National
Historic Site, was the first school
established in the Choctaw Nation.
Pictured above is the administration
building, which dates to the 1880s.
|Goodland Academy, established in the 1850s by Presbyterian missionaries as an orphanage for Indian boys,
is still a boarding school for children of any background. The WPA entry gate, built in 1932, is interesting
because of the two sun symbols that flank the school's name. While the National Socialists of Germany made
this symbol synonymous with evil, they actually co-opted this ancient, positive depiction of the sun from many
different cultures, including Native Americans.
|Above: Not much is left of Armstrong Academy save for road
signs indicating where this very important school, which for
20 years served as the seat of the Choctaw Nation, used to
be. A cemetery sits on private property and cannot be
|Like Armstrong Academy, the only
evidence of Bloomfield Academy,
established in the 1850s near today's
Durant, is a road sign. The intersecting
road is called "Bumpass," which makes
you wonder just in what kind of condition
the road used to be!
|Above: This photo of Wapanucka Academy in Johnston
County was taken in the 1930s by researchers for the
National Historic Register. Today, the academy consists of
nothing more than a few pieces of rubble in a remote
|Wheelock Academy's old buildings make for some interesting
photos. What's also cool is that the wooden buildings
survived for so long - most of the other academies, including
those made of stone, fell victims to fire.
|Wheelock Academy was founded in part by Presbyterian
missionaries, who helped to build the earliest stone church in
|Trivia - Because what else is education for?
- The famous and well-known gospel, "Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot," was first
sung and heard at the Spencer Academy.
- Many, if not all, of these academies were built using slave labor.
- Upon emancipation, black children whose families once belonged to the
Nations could attend the academies until Indian Territory established
segregated schools. White children could attend the academies if they
were "sponsored" by Indian families.
|I have a lot of opinions on schools.... if you want to
read more about them, come view my blog!