Plains Indian Incarceration

May 1875-April 1878

In 1875, a group of prisoners were brought to St. Augustine from Indian Territory. That group was comprised of 74 Native Americans selected from both the Darlington Agency and Fort Sill. There were 72 prisoners(71 male prisoners and one female prisoner named Mochi) and two family members of Black Horse(the family members were not classified as prisoners). Five different tribes were represented; the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, and Caddo.

The prisoners arrived in May of 1875 and they endured three years of confinement in St. Augustine. When the prisoners first arrived, they were housed inside the casemates, access to the gun deck was restricted, and they were guarded and kept within the confines of the fort. The rooms had dirt floors with leaky ceilings which contributed to unhealthy living conditions. Poor accommodations, confinement, and idleness prompted Captain Pratt to push for a big change at the Castillo.

Captain Richard Henry Pratt was an officer in the 10th Calvary assigned to oversee Indian Army Scouts. He had traveled with the prisoners from Indian Territory and remained in St. Augustine to oversee the prisoners, yet he was not the jailor at the fort. Captain Pratt begins writing letters to officials in Washington DC detailing the poor conditions at the fort and asking for control of the prison. He also shared with those officials his plans to assimilate the prisoners. He will initially encounter some opposition and he will combat a lot of skepticism, but within 6 months of the incarceration, he is named the jailer.

Captain Pratt will implement some radical changes at the Castillo in an effort to assimilate the younger men into white, Protestant society. To accomplish that objective, he will change the appearance of the prisoners. He will cut their hair and put them in army uniforms. He will form a guard unit, providing those guards with rifles, and they will guard themselves during the rest of their confinement. Local women will volunteer their time to teach classes at the Castillo. Classes will occur Monday thru Friday, in the casemates, and those classes will focus on different subjects such as English, arithmetic, science, and social studies. One famous teacher at the fort is Harriet Beecher Stowe. Ms. Stowe would spend her winters in Florida, and while visiting St. Augustine, she would often teach lessons to the prisoners.

Additionally, many of the prisoners will engage in activities to earn money. Some would work steady jobs, others completed odd jobs for hire, and many would sell objects to tourists. All of the income was retained by the prisoners and they could send that money home to family or use it to purchase items in the town. The prisoners were also allowed, and even encouraged, to leave the fort grounds. Captain Pratt viewed sojourns into the city as a means of teaching the prisoners more about white culture and society. The prisoners also engaged in recreational outings such as camping and sailing trips.

During the imprisonment, many of the young men were creating art. Those images today are known as Fort Marion Ledger Art. There were hundreds of drawings completed by many of the young men and those drawings give the modern viewer a glimpse into the world of these prisoners. Many of these drawings were sold to tourists or given away to dignitaries and politicians. Fort Marion ledger art can be found in museums, galleries, and private collections around the world.

The Plains Indian incarceration will last 3 years. In April of 1878 the prisoners are released and given the option of where to go next. The prisoners could choose to return to Indian Territory or they could continue their education in schools on the east coast. About 2/3 of the prisoners went back out west and 1/3 pursued further education. Many prisoners attended the Hampton Institute in Virginia and a few attended different institutions in the northeast. In 1879, one year after the imprisonment in Florida ended, Captain Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle PA. Some of the former prisoners went to Carlisle and helped Captain Pratt set up that school.

The experience of the prisoners in St. Augustine is a short chapter in the fort’s history but a very important one. And it’s a chapter that is not isolated to the pages of history. What happened in St. Augustine 140 years ago has had a direct impact on people living in our society today. The experience in St. Augustine inspires Captain Pratt to establish the Carlisle School, and the Carlisle School became a model for other off-reservation boarding schools that developed on the east coast. Off-reservation boarding school operated in the United States until the 1970’s. As a result, there are many people living today that attended one of those schools or who had close family members that attended. The Fort Marion imprisonment has had a long lasting impact on thousands of Native Americans throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

Last updated: January 19, 2017

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Saint Augustine , FL 32084


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