ST. LOUIS – In the last two years, Canada and several U.S. states have begun to recognize their histories with Native American boarding schools, institutions that set out to “assimilate” Native American children into westernized U.S. ways of life by stripping them of Indigenous tradition and culture.
What would start with a small number of schools following the Indian Civilization Fund Act in 1819 would eventually grow to more than 350 “government-funded, and often church-run” schools across the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
But a key part of reconciling with the past is better understanding what happened in those schools, who survived and who didn’t, and documenting stories in a key period of the long history of trauma from governments and religious institutions on Native people — information that can be in some cases sparse and hard to find.
As legislation that would create a federal commission to explore the country’s history with boarding schools has stalled, efforts from others, such as the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, have continued. The Society of Jesus, widely known as the Jesuits , which ran a number of these schools, as well as local researchers are trying to provide a more complete picture of what life was like, before, during and after these schools existed.
In St. Louis, that means compiling an archive of documents and research that delve into the Midwest’s chapter of a long and painful yet important American story. It is a history that in many ways started with promises of better education but instead led to hours of forced labor and beatings documented by Jesuits themselves.
The local boarding school, St. Regis Seminary, opened May 11, 1824, in Florissant, Missouri. At its start, it housed two boys from the Sauk Tribe who were later joined by three from the Ioway Tribe. It was all a part of Bishop Louis Valentine William DuBourg’s vision to “familiarize” his young missionaries with “their manners and languages.” Over time, the school would take in 30 boys in all.
The PBS NewsHour reviewed letters and available historical records, and interviewed experts, researchers and several Jesuits to piece together what happened at St. Regis. However, researchers say there is far more to learn. Additional details are likely to emerge as they go deeper into other archives found across the country or Jesuit correspondence kept in Rome. In January, the Society of Jesus hired its own researcher based in St. Louis to look specifically at its history with boarding schools and to uncover details about their existence.
“Unquestionable amounts of children never had justice,” said Kent Blansett, associate professor of Indigenous studies and history at the University of Kansas — and for that there is a cost. These children could have gone on to be writers, Einsteins, leaders in their community, he said.
There is also the trauma and legacy of those who survived. Combined, this leads to a “real toll that doesn’t exist in just one generation,” Blansett said.
This is all the more reason to understand the history of boarding schools, said Kim Cary Warren, associate professor of history and associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Kansas — not only for what happened when they existed, but the consequences that persisted long after.
“It’s important for us to know our historical past, no matter how nuanced, no matter how diverse, no matter how tragic at times, no matter how triumphal,” Warren said.
In 1819, years before St. Regis erected its boarding school, Congress enacted the Civilization Fund Act. The law stated the president could “instruct” Native people “in every case where he shall judge improvement in the habits and condition of such Indians practicable” to “employ capable persons of good moral character.” It also called for “teaching their children in reading, writing, and arithmetic.” But as the Native American Rights Fund noted in its 2013 legal review, “the thrust of “civilization” of Native Americans was to strip them of their traditions and customs and teach them the ways of the majority culture in missionary schools.”
Native American boarding schools existed in the St. Louis area as early as 1824, when the Jesuits requested government funds to “civilize” Native children at a seminary minutes outside the city.
The original building, known as St. Regis Seminary, no longer exists on the same plot of land in the city of Florissant. In that spot today stands St. Stanislaus Seminary, what was once a foundational foothold for Jesuit work between the Allegheny and Rocky Mountains. The earliest surviving structure of the seminary, known as the Old Rock Building, is a limestone building built in 1840 by Black people enslaved by the Jesuits, as well as some of the Jesuit brothers. The boarding school opened a year after the seminary was founded in 1823. According to existing documents, the St. Regis Seminary lasted about seven years.
But the small trove of available archival materials contains little detail on what happened to the dozens of Native boys at the short-lived school, underscoring how the stories of the Native children at these boarding schools in Missouri in the early half of the 19th century have been lost or largely untold.
The plan for St. Regis began with one Catholic bishop’s reasoning that the “spiritual needs of the tribes had been neglected,” as described in a 1971 nomination for Old Rock and two other St. Stanislaus buildings to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Bishop Louis Valentine William DuBourg of Louisiana, the founder of St. Louis University, an institution with deep Jesuit history, made an in-person appeal to then-Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, a “staunch defender” of slavery. Initially, DuBourg wanted a few missionaries to settle among Native tribes in the area. Later, he expanded his request to the government, asking for funding to establish an “Indian School.” In a letter to his brother, DuBourg said he wanted the seminary to obtain a half-dozen Native children and prepare them “to become guides, interpreters and helpers to the missionaries.”
Calhoun replied that President James Monroe was on board, and the U.S. government would send $800 annually – around $20,000 in today’s dollars – once the school was up and running with a “suitable number” of students. Across the country, about $10,000 was allocated annually through the 1819 Civilization Fund Act, largely to mission schools, “to convert Indians from hunters to agriculturalists,” as documented in a 2016 congressional report. However, St. Regis did not always receive the full amount from that fund each year, according to the 1919 Catholic Historical Review, because the school did not keep a steady number of boys enrolled.
Researchers have found limited details on what life was like for the Native boys at St. Regis. However, as more people dive into the topic, more letters and documents are uncovered. Writings dated from 1867 from Peter De Meyer, a Jesuit, noted that the boys were taught to pray in English and worked in the cornfields. There is also a focus on assimilation tactics, from the clothes the boys were made to wear and instructions on how to eat. In at least one instance, parents of the boys visited the school.
Warren, who is also the author of “The Quest for Citizenship: African American and Native American Education in Kansas,”said these schools were started with what the Society of Jesus called a “benevolent mission in mind.”
“Their idea would have been: We want to help these children, we want to take them out of their Native American cultures and assimilate them and make them believe in Protestant Christianity, make them cut their hair, make them adopt white Christian names, adopt work styles that were considered appropriate and dominant for the time,” she said.
But underneath all of that, Warren emphasized, “was a really racialized agenda to erase Native culture and to try to make Native Americans and their culture and their identities disappear over several generations.”
Research conducted and compiled by Kelly Schmidt, postdoctoral research associate at Washington University in St. Louis, shows how unhappy the children were and how violent their conditions could be. Schmidt, who included some of this research in her dissertation, found an 1825 letter from Rev. Charles F. Van Quickenborne, who was in charge at the seminary, which noted that the Native American boys ”all wept when the hoe was put into their hands for the first time.”
Though the Jesuits often claimed the boys would be studying, Schmidt said documents indicate otherwise; the boys’ work increasingly became devoted to physical work. “Records show that they were frequently being made to do manual labor without compensation, being treated as enslaved people,” she said.
Letters collected in her research show the boys were not only forced into labor, working several hours a day, but also experienced violent, sometimes bloody beatings.
In one 1832 correspondence written to another Jesuit by Brother John O’Connor, who worked at the school, O’Connor described seeing Jesuit priests “tie the hands of the Indian scholars like so many felons and take them to be cruelly scourged on the naked back in the open air under his own eyes.” He adds that their hands “were stretched in the form of a cross fastened to a tree and a post.”
Two years earlier, Peter DeSmet, another Catholic priest and Jesuit, recounted that 12 of the boys left the school with “the stripes of cowhide on their back.” Several of them ran away because of the “horror” and “displeasure” of watching a “Priest of the Society beating to blood their companions,” the letter said.
By 1825, Van Quickenborne had his sights set on opening another boarding school in Kansas. At the direction of General William Clark, most known for his expedition with Meriwether Lewis, he laid out a plan for the school, asking the U.S. government for support. Quickenborne’s plan included the suggestion to take children, aged 8 to 12 years, to “habituate them more easily to the customs and industry of civil life, and impress more deeply on their hearts the principles of religion.”
He also laid out how the children should eventually be married and work with the missionaries to gain the trust of the tribes to which they returned. He estimated the total cost of carrying out this plan would amount to $2,500. His proposal never got any aid from the U.S. government.
The last Native boy left St. Regis Seminary on June 30, 1831 — seven years after opening.
Little is known about where the children came from and what happened to them after they left the school. What is known is that the idea of such schools did not end when St. Regis closed. The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair housed a “Model Indian School,” featuring “150 students from Chilocco, Haskell, Genoa, Fort Shaw and Sacaton Indian Schools” across the country, according to a Department of Anthropology report in the Missouri Historical Society’s Louisiana Purchase Company Records.
The exhibit included booths with “representative Indians from various tribes at work at their native industries.” It describes groups of students in different grades and specifically mentions that the kindergarten class was “one of the most popular exhibits,” though the class had to be sent home in August “on account of sickness.” In the list of students from that group, all from the Pima tribe, it notes one child, Mary Thomas, died.
These ideas stretch “back to the time of the ‘discovery of the Americas,’ as it is called. We were already here,” said Blansett, associate professor of Indigenous studies and history at the University of Kansas.
Blansett, a descendant of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Shawnee, and Potawatomi people, founded and serves as the executive director of the American Indian Digital History Project, an online cache for researchers to preserve rare Indigenous archives.
“For European peoples at that time, there was no mention of us in biblical terms, there was no mention of these lands,” Blansett said. The existence of Native people, then, “throws a wrench into the religion philosophy, the libraries of cultures that have been ingrained with the church, especially throughout Europe.”
As a result, Blansett said, Europeans decided the best way to attack Native American history, culture and livelihood was to “attack the next generation. Taking away our humanity, taking away our soul,” he added.
How the Jesuits are addressing the past
Over the last few years, the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has taken some steps toward addressing this history. In a Jan. 4 email sent from Father Ted Penton, SJ, a Jesuit priest and the secretary of the conference’s office of justice and ecology, he outlined some of that work, including hiring a researcher to work at the Jesuit Archives in St. Louis to compile “a complete list of these schools along with brief summaries of key data, along with notes that will help direct future researchers to relevant sources we hold.”
He also pointed to a statement the conference made in August 2021 after hundreds of unidentified graves of Indigenous children were found in Canada. “We grieve deeply the loss of human life and culture that took place at such schools, both in Canada and the United States, and we acknowledge that the Society of Jesus participated in that history,” the statement read.
The statement goes on to mention how the “structures and practices which forced Indigenous children to be separated from their families and prohibited these children from speaking their language and practicing their culture” were “fundamental” to their function and that the Society of Jesus regrets its participation “in the separation of families and the suppression of Native languages, cultures and sacred ways of life.”
The NewsHour also made several requests to St. Louis University for comment and was told St. Louis University referred inquiries about the Jesuits’ boarding schools to the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, but noted that its bicentennial book, “Always at the Frontier,” which was published in 2018, includes references to St. Regis.
The names of the religious leaders who facilitated the opening remain displayed on buildings at St. Louis University and private Catholic high schools in the region. The name of DuBourg, for instance, who signed the early letters requesting funds for St. Regis, lives on — through the university’s website, which notes his role as its founder but not in the boarding school, as well as one of its buildings.
‘They’re not nameless. They’re people’
Though the names of the 30 boys at St. Regis may never be known, for Blansett, whether it was a school of 30 or 300, this chapter of American history cannot go untold.
As an educator and as a father, Blansett said he works to put what happened and what continues to happen to Native American people at the forefront of the minds of his students and his children.
“It gets them to understand that they need to make a stand, that they need to speak up,” he said. “They can’t accept these systems as status quo or as norm or as a part of a true democracy.”
Penton, of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, said in an email the body has endorsed The Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act, which seeks to establish a federal commission that will examine the United State’s history of implementing Indian Boarding School Policy.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., introduced the bill in 2020. It was then reintroduced in September 2021 with bipartisan support and read before the Committee on Indian Affairs, however there has been no movement on the bill since.
In June 2021, Haaland also launched the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which the department called “a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.”
“The Interior Department will address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said. The investigation was compiled into a report and submitted to Haaland on April 1 but has not yet been released to the public.
Setting up a commission is “a crucial step towards acknowledging and responding to this difficult part of our shared history,” Blansett said.
However, for Blansett and Warren, a key part of telling the story of what happened in those boarding schools means also bringing attention to the Native students who survived the abuse from these institutions. After St. Regis had closed its doors, what were their lives like?
As Warren uncovered in her research, the history of these schools also included stories of Native children finding their families again and others of students organizing in protest against boarding school officials. It is these stories, she said, that have to be preserved, too.
They are not nameless, Warren said, adding that some of the children of government-sanctioned boarding schools had to live on without the aid of parents or allies or even, sometimes, without the aid of someone who spoke their Native language.
While details about the Native boys at St. Regis remain scant in the available archives, there is one name: Maximus.
In an 1825 letter, Van Quickenborne described some of the boys he had to expel from the school after his mistreatment of them reached a superior. Midway through the letter, he mentions a child called Maximus by name, but with little description. No age, no mannerisms, no greater hints about what happened to him next other than that he was the “son of an Ioway chief” who was now in St. Charles, located a county over from St. Louis County.
The rest of the Native boys had names, but were rendered nameless.
The PBS NewsHour’s Lynsey Jeffery, Eliot Barnhart and Lizz Bolaji contributed to this report.