Rector Responds to the Catholic Boarding School Proposal, 1862

In 1862 the Catholic Church of the United States made a proposal to open boarding schools to serve all of the Indian reservations primarily served by their own Catholic Missionaries. This proposal would then have the church build boarding school facilities on the reservations under their ministry and then satisfy any unmet needs of the Indian bureau, to begin the formal education of native youth. Most tribes at reservations had treaties with education annuities, and yet the promised schools would normally only open for a few months when the money ran out. Education on the reservations was seen by Indian agents, missionaries, and the federal government as the main means of assimilating the native people into a civilized lifestyle. That civilized lifestyle had to include, being Christian, giving up all parts of the culture of being Native, being productive to American society (mostly farming at this point), speaking English, dressing as Americans, and becoming American in all cultural ways.

But in 1862 many native peoples were not yet prepared to give up all that they were to become American. It did not help there was no easy path for native peoples to become citizens. Few native people were American citizens, treaties did not grant any citizenship or rights under US law except what they had been given on the reservations. But there was a steady progression of native people who were leaving the reservations to integrate with the new American society through taking jobs, marrying white Americans, or simply stop identifying as Native American- really only possible for mixed blooded natives whose skin color was lighter. A few native people found support for denouncing their tribal association and pledging to become American, and this apparently worked as well.

Into this situation stepped the Catholic Church, seeking to fulfill part of the policy of the US at this time to assimilate native youth, and to do so in a very capitalistic manner. The Church stood to make millions on the contracts for the perhaps hundreds of Catholic schools established nationally, as well as gain a wealth of Catholic converts which is what the immersive boarding school would produce, tens of thousands of well-institutionalized Catholic native people.

The administrator of this program for some two decades was Rev. J.B. Brouillet, who thought up and began the proposal process and when he was widely rebuffed in 1862, tried again in the late 1860s to the success of the program. The letter portions below illustrate Superintendent William Rector’s opinion about the notion of a Catholic Boarding school at Vancouver catering to the native students in Oregon and perhaps Washington. Rector appears dead set against the school for a couple of important reasons. First that the native parents will not give up their children to such a school and second, he seems suspicious of the Catholics and seems to favor instead the Manual Boarding School model, or that began by the Methodist Church of Oregon in the 1830s.

The negativity displayed by Rector leaves the reader to wonder if the natural animosity between Protestant Missionaries and Catholic Missionaries which had been on display in Oregon for some 30-40 years by the time of this letter, is not really what’s going on. I suspect so. It was Rector who moved the Indian office from Portland to Salem, a Methodist stronghold, by stating that Indian people who visited the office in Portland would get in trouble because of the many vices in Portland, while they would have less opportunity for trouble in Salem. (He also reasoned that Salem was closer to the western Oregon reservations so this would save travel expenses too.)

The last part of the letter to note is that Rector seems to be attuned to the feelings of the tribal people about their children. His statement suggests that he may have spoken with some of these tribal parents and gotten some negative feedback about putting children in a boarding school. Children at this time were extremely helpful to their parents and elders at the reservations. Many times they would be employed to scavenge to local coastal forests for food when times were lean and the federal government was slow to grant annuities of money due them from their treaties. In fact Rector, from his first days on the job, writes what must be dozens of monthly letters, about the extreme debt that is accruing by the Indian Office in Oregon because payments and annuities from treaties have not been given out. He began collating lists of vouchers and invoices and sending them to Washington, D.C. showing that the Oregon Superintendency owned tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of merchants, farmers, suppliers, boatmen, shipping companies, and the like. And he notes on many occasions that the vouchers and liabilities were all accrued before his tenure, by the two previous superintendents Sykes and Nesmith who ran up huge debts for just basic supplies, and that the government had yet to pay these bills for years.

Therefore, due to many of these factors, his own bias, and the fact that he could not imagine taking on more debt, it is no wonder that he would be dismissive towards this proposal. His counter-proposal, at this point not fully developed, to have a Manual training school at Grand Ronde, was actually implemented, to a horrible result. The school was a complete failure, children ended up dying in the school due to horrible living conditions, and parents began refusing to send their children to the school. the end result was to close the Methodist ran a school and then the Catholic proposal was then accepted. The Catholic Boarding School did last into the 1950s to some very real success, turning out hundreds of Catholic Native people ready to integrate with American society.

June 16, 1862

… I have no confidence whatever in the success of the proposed scheme for the education of the Indian children in Oregon. In the first place the Indians will never consent to have their children removed from them, and to use forcible means would certainly produce trouble. They now complain that we exercise more jurisdiction over them than we ought, or have any right, and insist on managing their own affairs in accordance with their own laws and time-honored usages. It requires a great deal of care and close divination to ascertain how far we may safely go in their advancement towards civilization, without giving offense and thereby destroying our influence with them. The nearest agency to Vancouver is about eighty miles, and all the others a much greater distance. (I don’t yet have their original letter which appears to propose a central location in Vancouver) Again the price proposed would give the benefit of the school fund to only a small proportion of the children, and leave the great mass wholly unprovided for. The education of the Indian is one of the most difficult things we have to encounter and the process must necessarily be slow and uniform. It is a great mistake to suppose that a few educated and thoroughly civilized Indians placed among those that are still enjoying their barbarous and superstitious customs with the hope and expectation that any benefits will result therefrom. I have witnessed the result in this country and it has always terminated in the predominance of the savage over the civilized Indian who … to relapse into the savage over the civilized state, with all the vices of the white man and none of his virtues. Hence I say that their education should be slow and uniform imperceptible to themselves. if the schools are kept on this reservation the influence will be felt throughout the entire population, instead of being confined to the few, that would be selected and made the recipients of the proposed benefits.

I am unable at this time to propose any better plan for the application of the school fund than that contemplated in the treaty. I have more confidence in the manual labor school than any other system that has yet been proposed. But for the want of suitable buildings. The system has never been put in practical operation.

William H Rector

(M234 R613)

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