Apache Incarceration

On April 16, 1886 a train arrived in St. Augustine. People from all around the area showed up to meet this train and catch a glimpse of those that it had carried from such a great distance away. On that morning the newest people to arrive in St. Augustine were a group of Apaches taken as prisoners in Arizona and transported for confinement in old Fort Marion, today the Castillo de San Marcos. When they walked off the train that early morning these people did not resemble the proud, fearless men and women who had evaded, fought, and struggled against the American Army. Onlookers undoubtedly had expected to see a spectacle of mighty warriors disembarking on that April day. What they saw instead, was a group of tired, weary, poorly clad people completely exhausted by their long years of fighting and hardship. Upon their arrival, a Florida Times-Union reporter described the scene as the Apache prisoners emerged from the train. “First came the men, each with shoulders and head wrapped in a blanket and all marching with expressionless faces and stately gait; then came the young bucks with less dignity and fewer blankets, as well as fewer clothes of any kind; then straggling along one by one, came the young women, girls, and children…” Their identities and reputations as Apache Indians, the last western tribe to ultimately surrender, had preceded them. But when they arrived in St. Augustine, they were forced to succumb to their new identity as prisoners of the US Army.

 

Imprisoned in St. Augustine

The prisoners that were brought to Fort Marion had fought with the great war chiefs Chihuahua, Naiche, and Geronimo. For years they had struggled against the efforts of the American Army, resisting plans to push them onto reservations. But after years of hardship and struggle, these people and their chiefs began to surrender one by one.

The Unites States Government, fearing that if left in the west these Apaches would go back on the war path, decided to imprison them in an eastern, remote location. General Sherman and President Grover Cleveland decided on the old Castillo in St. Augustine, Florida. Over 500 Apache would eventually see the inside of these walls.

 

Living Conditions at Fort Marion

Placed in charge of the fort and its prisoners was Colonel Langdon. He was responsible for their physical well-being. Attending to this task, Langdon arranged for the prisoner’s medical care, food distribution, and clothing. Their daily diet consisted of army rations and for living accommodations, some prisoners lived in the rooms of the fort but most of them were given tents on the gun deck.

 

Daily Life at the Fort

The conditions at Fort Marion were crowded, and there was a constant concern about illness. An Army physician was tasked with overseeing the prison. He would visit the fort every morning, tend to the sick, assess the living conditions, and make recommendations to promote a healthy living environment. To alleviate some of the concerns about crowded conditions, the prisoners were able to leave the Castillo, move freely around the grounds of the fort, and even go into town. But there was little for the prisoners to do besides tending to basic needs such as food preparation and caring for their children. Colonel Langdon noted that there was much idleness amongst the prisoners at the fort. Hoping to change this, he implemented a program aimed at assimilating the prisoners.

 

Assimilation

Colonel Langdon recruited the assistance of local women to teach some of the young men and teenagers. Those women came to the fort every weekday and conducted classes inside the old coquina rooms. The classes focused on how to read, write, and speak the English language. They also offered instruction on arithmetic, science, and social studies. The younger children, those 12 and under, attended classes in the town.

Every morning these young children walked to a local nunnery and were taught be the Sisters of St. Joseph. Inspired by the quick progress of the students, and desirous of decreasing the crowded conditions at Fort Marion, Colonel Langdon invited the Superintendent of the Carlisle School to visit St. Augustine, assess the students, and determine if they would make good pupils for his off-reservation boarding school.

 

Pratt visits Fort Marion

The Superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was Captain Richard Henry Pratt. Pratt had been a jailor for Native Americans at Fort Marion 10 years prior, and during his tenure as a jailor, he too had attempted to assimilate the prisoners. After leaving Florida, he opened the Carlisle School to educate Native American youth. Pratt visited St. Augustine in 1886 to assess the Apache students at the fort, and he selected 103 children to attend his institution. Those children were boarded on trains and taken to Pennsylvania where they were outfitted in uniforms, given Christian names, and learned how to integrate into mainstream, white society.

 

Florida to Oklahoma

The Apache prisoners were confined at the fort for just over one year. After one year, the group was moved to Alabama and then later moved to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. During their incarceration in Florida, one of the prisoners left a carving on the walls of the fort. Carefully etched into the coquina stone is a proud Apache Fire Dancer. That carving is still visible to the modern viewer and today it remains as a physical reminder 27 years of confinement.

Last updated: January 2, 2018

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