Those familiar with U.S. Indian policy know that few elements of it have generated as much controversy as education. Until recently, schools for Native Americans were almost exclusively run by whites, who sought to turn Indian children into Anglo children. Boarding schools like Carlisle Indian School, with their uniforms and short haircuts, their military-style drill and ban on Native languages, sought, in the words of Carlisle's founder, to “kill the Indian and save the man" - the normative man being, in this case, a white one. Earlier missionary-run academies had similar goals, though they pursued them without the same level of military discipline. Only a few Indian nations, like the Cherokees, maintained control over their own educational system prior to the late twentieth century.
The early years of American Indian educational policy have received less attention from scholars, though Margaret Szasz has written thoughtful monographs on colonial Indian education, Bernard Sheehan and William McLoughlin have noted the obvious cultural imperialism in early nineteenth-century “civilization” policy, and Christina Snyder is completing what will surely be an exciting and thought-provoking study of Richard Johnson's Choctaw Academy. Here I want to add just a small observation on the earliest years of U.S. Indian schooling, more specifically the era of the American Revolution and the quarter-century following it: even before it began paying missionaries to set up Indian schools, the federal government had been placing Native American leaders' sons with white families who took charge of their education. During the Revolutionary War Congress paid Indian agent George Morgan to board and train the sons of prominent Delaware chief White Eyes, and in the early 1790s Secretary of War Henry Knox placed about twenty Iroquois, Creek, and Cherokee children with Pennsylvanian Quaker families, who agreed to train the boys as farmers and the girls in home economics. While I have not been able to determine if all of these children came from prominent families, at least a few of them, including the nephews of Creek "Beloved Man" Alexander McGillivray, did. Knox's successors continued the practice into the early nineteenth century, when Secretary Dearborn, for instance, took charge of educating the sons of Chickasaw magnates William and George Colbert.
I want to suggest here that this policy grew not out of cultural imperialism (though there was some of that), nor benevolence, but rather out of an old imperial custom: taking the children of conquered peoples' leaders as hostages. Education allowed empires to impress their customs and values on those who would eventually grow up to govern subordinate nations, and it also gave them an excuse to hold children whose vulnerability would deter their parents from rebelling. Twenty-seven hundred years ago, the Assyrians took “aristocratic children” from conquered provinces to Ninevah for schooling, and the Romans and Byzantines educated elite youths, like Herod Agrippa (well known to fans of I, Claudius) and the Gothic princeling Theodoric*, in their capitals. I suspect medieval courts followed the Roman example, and when the English began colonizing Ireland in earnest, they on at least one occasion (1615) took hostages from the children of northern Irish landowners and brought them to England for indoctrination. The American Revolutionaries recognized the political value of the practice, and when the United States' demands for adult hostages from the Great Lakes Indians (1784-86) generated hostility, officials like Henry Knox switched to a subtler approach. The War Department never acknowledged it was essentially holding chiefs' children as hostages, but a Spanish observer in New York City suggested Knox was doing something of the kind when he took custody of Alexander McGillivray's nephews.
By the early nineteenth century missionaries were beginning to establish schools in Indian communities – at Springplace in the Cherokee nation, for example – and the War Department provided these schools with subsidies, at first sporadically and then to the amount of $10,000 a year under the Civilization Act (1819). I suspect that prominent Native American parents supported these schools because they taught some skills, like textile-making and English literacy, that they considered valuable. They also gave them more control over their children, whom they could more easily bring home than if they had moved to Pennsylvania. I also suspect many had come to recognize the implicit danger in allowing federal officials to take their children away, however willingly, for education and training, though some allowed their older children to attend boarding schools like Choctaw Academy and the ABCFM's Foreign Mission School. If the War Department no longer placed Indian children with white families in the east, it was because officials recognized the United States' growing power lessened the need for hostage taking, and because they now primarily valued the cultural-imperialist aspect of education. The militarized boarding-school era lay several decades in the future, but one could by the 1820s begin to perceive its outlines.
Sources: On Assyrian, Byzantine, and English education of hostages, see Simo Parpola, “Assyria's Expansion in the Eighth and Seventh Centuries and Its Long-Term Repercussion in the West,” in William Dever and Seymour Gitlin, eds., Symbiosis, Symbolism, and the Power of the Past (Eisenbrauns, 2003), 99-111, esp. 101-102**; Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders (Oxford UP, 2014), 471-475 of 9215 (Kindle); Tim Harris, Rebellion: Britain's First Stuart Kings, 1567-1642 (Oxford, 2014), p. 163. I discuss Knox's placement of Indian children with Quaker families in Red Gentlemen and White Savages (Virginia, 2008), pp. 122-123, 178. For the War Department's education of the Colbert brothers' children see Henry Dearborn to William Claiborne, 6 Dec. 1802, and Dearborn to George Colbert of 24 Sept. 1805 and 17 Sept. 1807, all in War Department, Letters Sent, Indian Affairs (Washington, DC: Natl. Archives Microfilm M-15), 1: 297, 2:110-111, and 2:307. Rowena McClinton has translated and published two volumes of diaries on the Moravian mission and school at Springplace: The Moravian Springplace Mission to the Cherokees (Nebraska, 2007).
* Theodoric's case also suggests one of the dangers of educating potential enemies: they might acquire technical skills that make them a potent threat in the future. As an adult Theodoric returned to Constantinople with an army and threatened the city's aqueducts, whose importance he had learned during his “internship.” The emperor became so eager to get rid of him that the Byzantines cleared the way for Theodoric to invade Italy and establish his kingdom there. (Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome, 985 of 9215.)
** My thanks to Corinna Nichols for this source.