The Army and American Indian Prisoners

More than a million people visit Alcatraz each year, but few know that for almost 80 years the island was the site of the first fortress and military prison on the west coast. Declared a military reservation in 1850, troops were permanently stationed on Alcatraz by 1859 to man over 100 cannons. From the very beginning the U.S. Army incarcerated some of their own in a dungeon near the dock; like every military post Alcatraz had a need to sometimes detain or punish soldiers. Less by design than by default Alcatraz soon expanded to four cellblocks and would be confining prisoners from around the West. While the fortifications would be obsolete by the turn of the century, the Army disciplinary barracks continued until 1933.

Most prisoners held on Alcatraz were U.S. military personnel. Notable exceptions included Southern sympathizers/supporters during the Civil War, conscientious objectors during WWI, and a number of Native Americans, beginning in 1873. On June 5 of that year the first Indian prisoner arrived. Paiute Tom was on a transfer from Camp McDermit in Nevada for reasons now unknown. Also unknown is the reason why a guard shot and killed him 2 days later. Some authors have speculated that he was shot while attempting to escape.

Later the same year Barncho and Sloluck (Modoc) were sent to the Rock. At Fort Klamath Oregon, along with 4 other Modocs, they had been sentenced to be hanged by the neck until they be dead for murder and assault with intention to kill in violation of the laws of war. Unknown to either Barncho or Sloluck at the time, President Ulysses S.Grant had commuted their (but not the other 4) sentences to life imprisonment on Alcatraz. On the last day of September a Colonel Wheaton at the District of the Lakes, Fort Klamath, wrote "Six graves for the burial of the condemned are dug near and in front of the Guardhouse just outside the parade ground fence." A scaffold was built to hang 6 men at a time. Colonel Wheaton had been ordered to let the two know of their commuted sentence just moments before the scheduled hanging. Only after meeting with their families, and after being escorted to the gallows, were Barncho and Sloluck made aware of the presidential order when they were returned to the stockade before the other 4 were simultaneously hung. All 4 of their heads were removed and shipped to the Army Medical Museum. Little of Barncho and Sloluck's stay on the island made the Army records. On May 28, 1875 Barncho died of scrofula, and was buried at Fort McDowell on nearby Angel Island. Around 1946 the cemetery on Angel Island was moved to the Golden Gate National Cemetery in Colma California, Section E, Lot 357. Sloluck was on Alcatraz until February 1878 (the longest stay of any of the Indian prisoners on Alcatraz) when he was sent to Fort Leavenworth and then on to join the remaining Modoc people now exiled in Indian Territory.

Sarah Winnemucca (Paiute) was an activist for Indian rights, speaker and author. Her brother Natchez spent two weeks on Alcatraz in early 1874. Two other Paiutes were next, Richard Dick from July 1881 to May 1882, and Pete who spent April 1882 in the lower prison. Two "Indian scouts" arrived on an unknown date for their participation in a mutiny in Arizona Territory, and were released in June 1884. Brig. Gen. George Crook's campaign against the Chiricachua Apaches led to the arrest of a young chief, Kaetena, in July 1884. After his release in March 1886 Crook wrote "His stay on Alcatraz has worked a complete reformation in his character." In 1889 Skolaskin tried to escape from Fort Huachuca, landing him on the island from November 1889 to July 1892. In 1887 five mutineers (also Indian scouts) from San Carlos were sent to Alcatraz, no record of their release has been discovered.
Hopi inmates near Alcatraz lighthouse
Hopi inmates near Alcatraz lighthouse

The largest group of Indian prisoners to be confined on Alcatraz were nineteen Hopi "hostiles." Their crimes may have been the most unique in the 140-year history of incarceration on the Rock, they wouldn't farm as the government instructed them to, and they opposed forced education in government boarding schools. Both "offenses" were part of widespread resistance to U.S. policies designed to erase Hopi language and religion. Contact with the outside world was rare at first, and generally repugnant (theft, murder and enslavement were some results of contact with outsiders) before the uneasy establishment of the "Moqui Indian Agency" in 1870.

Newspaper accounts talk about Hopi resistance to forced "education" (children were routinely beaten if they spoke Hopi or made any attempt to practice their religion), and of their refusal to farm the individual allotments of land established by a series of Indian agents (the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army once wrote home that "There has been no branch of the government so corrupt and disgraceful to the Republic as that which has had the management of our Indian affairs."). Government programs to impose culture and beliefs on the people of Hopi had gone on for years with little success. Allotment was designed to erase Hopi culture by moving the people off the mesas and onto individual allotments of land, weakening family and clan relations and traditional social structure.

Photo of Hopi prisoners on Alcatraz was sent back home to prove that none of them had died
Photo of Hopi prisoners on Alcatraz was sent back home to prove that none of them had died
This policy was strongly resisted by both "hostiles" and "friendlies" (terms used by Indian agents to incorrectly describe two groups thought to be marked by a growing rift over contact with the "white and bearded men" mentioned in prophecy). The best attempts to enforce allotment, including bribery and military force, were met by successful passive resistance. In response to a petition to discontinue the allotment policy, Acting Indian Agent 1st Lieutenant S.H. Plummer wrote Washington that "Owing to the shifting nature of their planting grounds, it would be almost impossible to maintain any allotment to individuals . . . the best interests of the tribe would be promoted by granting the petition (to end allotment)." Despite his recommendation, nineteen "ringleaders" were arrested by troops on November 25, 1894

Traveling by foot, horse, train and boat, Heevi'ima, Polingyawma, Masatiwa, Q'tsventiwa, Piphongva, Lomahongewma, Lomayestiwa, Yukiwma, Tuvehoyiwma, Patupha, Q'tsyawma, Sikyakeptiwa, Talagayniwa, Talasyawma, Nasingayniwa, Lomayawma, Tawalestiwa, Aqawsi, and Q'iwiso would arrive in San Francisco over a month later. On Alcatraz they were to be "held in confinement, at hard labor, until . . . they shall show . . . they fully realize the error of their evil ways . . . until they shall evince, in an unmistakable manner, a desire to cease interference with the plans of the government for the civilization and education of its indian wards." They would be held on the Rock from January 3 to August 7, 1895.

Lower Prison was their new "home". A post surgeon wrote about the prison in 1890 as "totally unequal to fulfill its legitimate purpose." Sanitation was deplorable, there was insufficient ventilation, and the building was considered a fire trap. A San Francisco newspaper, The Call, stated the Hopis "have been rudely snatched from the bosom of their families and are prisoners . . . until they have learned to appreciate the advantage of education. Field trips to local schools were meant to impress the prisoners "so that they can see the harmlessness of the multiplication table . . . They rise early, breakfast, go to work, if the weather is fine, eat their dinner at noon and then work all afternoon" wrote a local reporter.

Rumors of deaths of some of them were dispelled when photos taken by a San Francisco photographer (Taber) were sent to the Mennonite missionary H.R. Voth (who had earlier documented the arrest of the nineteen with an early hand held roll film camera). Wives of two of the prisoners gave birth to children who died during their incarceration. In August the nineteen were returned to Hopi after promises to obey all orders were extracted. But reports back to Washington indicate the people of Hopi continued to resist the policies of Washington.

Alcatraz Island

Last updated: April 28, 2020