"Civilizing" American Indians was a main objective of the U.S. government in the nineteenth century. This policy was supported by American churches, such as the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian, which desired to help Indians assimilate and become Christians. Churches accomplished this by sending missionaries to the tribes. As a result of this activity, several mission schools were started among the Choctaw in Mississippi beginning in 1818.
The Choctaw, one of the Five Tribes of the southeastern United States, wanted to have their children educated. In fact, they placed a high priority on education before they were removed to the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) from 1831 to 1834. They saw education as necessary to survive in the white world that was encroaching upon them. Choctaw principal chief Issac Garvin (1878–80) declared, "I say educate! Educate! Or we perish!"
The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, signed in Mississippi in 1830, stipulated that the Choctaw were to remove west of the Arkansas Territory and that this land would become their permanent home. The tribe struggled to survive after arrival, but by the mid-1830s missionaries were developing neighborhood schools for the Choctaw children. To further the work of educating their youth, in 1842 the Choctaw General Council enacted a law that established six boarding schools: Spencer Academy, Fort Coffee Academy, Koonaha (Kunaha or Sunsha) Female Seminary, Ianubbee (Ayanubbe) Female Seminary, Chuwahla (Chuwalla) Female Seminary, and Wheelock Female Seminary. Fort Coffee Academy was divided into a male and a female branch in 1845. The latter, located five miles southeast of Fort Coffee, was called New Hope Seminary. In addition, in 1845 Armstrong Academy was established near present Bokchito in Bryan County, and in 1846, near Wheelock Seminary, Norwalk Academy was opened as a boarding school for boys. Missionaries originally ran these institutions, but by the 1890s those that remained open were operated by educated Choctaws.
An initial purpose of the boarding schools was to teach boys agriculture and mechanical arts and to teach girls how to sew and make clothing and to do household chores. Another objective was to instruct children in business skills and in reading, writing, and spelling in the English language. Arithmetic, music, and geography were also taught, and in some schools pupils learned algebra, geometry, U.S. history, chemistry, philosophy, botany, astronomy, painting, drawing, and Latin grammar. Students were generally ten to sixteen years of age.
The number of students in each school varied from about twenty-five to more than one hundred. The total enrollment for all institutions combined appears to have never exceeded six hundred at any time during the boarding-school era. In 1860 there were five hundred Choctaw children attending neighborhood schools and four hundred in the boarding schools. By 1888 the number of students in neighborhood schools had grown to 3,427, while boarding school figures had dropped to 318.
The boarding schools had their share of problems. Sickness from whooping cough, measles, pneumonia, and cholera kept the schools closed for weeks and sometimes months at a time. Occasionally there were so many ailing students that a school served as a hospital, and deaths occurred. There were also natural disasters. In 1848 a tornado seriously damaged Chuwahla Seminary at Pine Ridge near Doaksville. Floods frequently kept children home. One of the biggest problems was fire. Spencer Academy burned in 1896 and again in 1900. New Hope Seminary caught fire in 1896, and flames destroyed Armstrong Academy in 1921.
The Civil War had a disastrous effect on the Choctaw boarding schools. All were closed for the duration of the conflict, and Fort Coffee Academy and Koonaha, Ianubbee, and Chuwahla were never reopened. Armstrong Academy served as the Choctaw capital for twenty years beginning in 1863, and Spencer Academy was used as a hospital. After the war the boarding schools were slowly reestablished. New Hope Seminary and Spencer Academy were revived in 1871. In 1884 Armstrong Academy was reopened as a school for orphan boys aged six to twelve, and Wheelock Academy was reestablished as a school for orphan girls of the same age. As more boarding schools were needed, the Choctaw General Council organized three additional facilities in December 1891. They were Jones Academy for boys, Tushkahoma Academy for girls, and Tushka Lusa (Tushkaloosa) Academy for African Americans.
The Curtis Act of 1898 put all Choctaw Nation schools under U.S. government control. The boarding schools continued to operate, but one by one they were closed. By 1930 only Jones Academy and Wheelock Seminary remained, and Wheelock was merged with Jones in 1955. Jones Academy is presently maintained under the direction of the Choctaw Nation as a residential care center for elementary and secondary age children. Youths residing there attend the Hartshorne public schools.
See also: AMERICAN INDIANS, AMERICAN INDIANS AND CHRISTIANITY, AMERICAN INDIANS AND EDUCATION, CHEROKEE MALE AND FEMALE SEMINARIES, CHICKASAW SCHOOLS, CHOCTAW, CREEK (MVSKOKE) SCHOOLS, SEMINOLE SCHOOLS
W. David Baird, "Spencer Academy, Choctaw Nation, 1842–1900," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 45 (Spring 1967).
Angie Debo, The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967).
Dennis Miles, "'Educate or We Perish': The Armstrong Academy's History as Part of the Choctaw Educational System," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 89 (Fall 2011).
Lona Eaton Miller, "Wheelock Mission," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 29 (Fall 1951).
James D. Morrison, Schools for the Choctaws (Durant, Okla.: Choctaw Bilingual Education Program, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, 1975).
James D. Morrison, The Social History of the Choctaw Nation, 1865–1907, ed. James C. Milligan and L. David Norris (Durant, Okla.: Creative Informatics, 1987).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Dennis B. Miles, “Choctaw Schools,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CH049.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.