The Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Assimilation with Education after the Indian Wars

Cover of the Carlisle School lesson plan from TwHP

(Featured illustration courtesy NARA via Dickinson College)

Download Lesson Plan (PDF)


| Introduction
| Where it Fits Into the Curriculum (Objectives and Standards)
| Materials in the Lesson (Readings, Maps, Visual Evidence)
| Post-Lesson Activities
| More Resources
| About

How did the US Government try to erase American Indian cultures in the late 19th century? What role did education play in forced assimilation?

They came from the farthest corners of the United States and its territories: Tens of thousands of American Indian children, some barely teens, boarded trains, stagecoaches, and ships bound for Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in the wake of the 19th century's Indian Wars. Children from over 100 distinct cultures left home to live at an off-reservation school at Carlisle Barracks, an old military base.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened in 1879 and operated for nearly 30 years with a mission to “kill the Indian” to “save the Man.” This philosophy meant administrators forced students to speak English, wear Anglo-American clothing, and act according to U.S. values and culture. The Carlisle model spawned 24 more off-reservation schools. The Carlisle campus today is occupied by the U.S. Army War College, but it continues to be a place to study and reflect on those assimilation policies and to honor the memories of those students.

Where it Fits into the Curriculum

This lesson could be used in middle and high school units relating to American Indian and Native American history, 18th century frontier history, American Indian culture, the history of education in the U.S., and Pennsylvania state history.

Time Period: Late 19th century, Early 20th century, Gilded Age, Progressive Era


1. To describe the ways the U.S. Government tried to erase native culture after suppressing indigenous nations in the 1800s;
2. To explain the Indian Boarding School system’s goals and its methods for assimilating American Indian children;
3. To list ways Carlisle Industrial School was connected to military culture and the US military response to Native Americans;
4. To report on the preservation and recovery of Native American cultural heritage today.

National History and Social Studies Standards

This lesson relates to the UCLA National Center for History in the Schools National History Standards:

• Era 4: Standard 1B: The student understands federal and state Indian policy and the strategies for survival forged by Native Americans.
• Era 6: Standard 4A: The student understands various perspectives on federal Indian policy, westward expansion, and the resulting struggles.

This lesson relates to Thematic Strands from the National Council for the Social Studies' National Standards:

Theme I: Culture
Theme II: Time, Continuity, and Change
Theme III: People, Places, and Environments
Theme IV: Individual Development and Identity
Theme V: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
Theme VI: Power, Authority, and Governance
Theme IX: Global Connections
Theme X: Civic Ideals and Practices

See the Full Lesson (PDF) for details about how the these Standards and Themes relate to the lesson. Search our Lesson Plans by National History Standards or Lesson Plans by Social Studies Standards to identify lessons that correspond with the eras and themes you want to teach.

Materials Found in the Full Lesson

Accompanying Question Sets are paired with all materials in the Full Lesson (PDF).

• Setting the Stage: This short-essay with background information is intended for the teacher's reference, to use in a lecture or answer questions students might have during the lesson.

• Getting Started: This image and short question is intended to jump-start students' "inner historian."
Image: Two Photos of Tom Torlino, 18th century Navajo student at Carlisle in 1882 (JPG, TIF) and 1885 (JPG, TIF).

• Locating the Site: Maps orient the students and encourage them to think about how place affects culture and society.
Map 1: Indian Reservations and American Indian Boarding Schools of the United States, 1892 (JPG, TIF).
Map 2: Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, PA (JPG, TIF).

• Determining the Facts: Primary and secondary source readings for students.
Reading 1: Excerpts from “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man”.
Reading 2: Building the Carlisle School.
Reading 3: Excerpts from the Carlisle Student Newspaper.
• Visual Evidence: Photos and other documents for students to examine. Select JPG for standard size or TIF to download a larger file. Download the Full Lesson (PDF) to access the Question Sets for each image.

Photo 1: Indian School Band and Girls Quarters, Carlisle, PA, 1909.
Photo 2: Tom Torlino, Navajo student at Carlisle, in 1882.

(Source: National Archives and Records Admin., via Dickinson College Collection)


(Source: National Archives and Records Admin., via Dickinson College Collection)
Photo 3: Tom Torlino, Navajo student at Carlisle, in 1885.
Photo 4: Furniture Building Shop, 1901.

(Source: National Archives and Records Admin., via Dickinson College Collection)

(Source: Library of Congress, Frances Benjamin Johnson Collection)
Photo 5: Home Economics class, 1901.


(Source: Library of Congress, Frances Benjamin Johnson Collection)

"Putting it all Together" Activities

Download the Full Lesson (PDF) to access these post-lesson activities. These are intended to deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.

  • Activity 1: Controlling Culture, Controlling History: The Power in Telling History
  • Activity 2: Historic American Indian Boarding Schools Beyond Carlisle
  • Activity 3: Explore Disease at Carlisle with Science and Empathy
  • Activity 4: Preserving American Indian Past, Present, and Future
  • Activity 5: Making Global Connections at Carlisle
More Resources Online

National Park Service
The National Register of Historic Places lists Carlisle Indian Industrial School. These records describe the physical site of the former school and its surroundings as well as their historical significance.

Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, Dickinson College
This resource offers a searchable database of digitized school records from the US National Archives, Cumberland County Historical Society, and other repositories. It includes Carlisle student files, photographs, publications such as The Indian Helper and The Red Man, and class lists and rosters.

US Army Heritage & Education Center
The US Army Heritage & Education Center features multiple photograph collections of the school grounds, buildings, students, teachers, and visitors at Carlisle Indian School from 1879 to 1918.

Library of Congress
The Library of Congress features a collection of photographs and prints from the Carlisle Indian Schoo. It also offers a primary source set and teacher's guide entitled "Assimilation through Education". It features photographs, illustrations, newspapers, reports from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs about off-reservation boarding schools in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

TNT: Into the West
TNT produced a mini-series called "Into the West" about assimilation at off-reservation boarding schools, using Carlisle Indian School as the setting. A brief clip is available on YouTube.

Radio Lab
RadioLab features a podcast episode on the important role that Carlisle Indian School students played in the development of the modern sport of football in the United States. The hosts interviews local historians from the Cumberland County Historical Society, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, and Haskell Indian Nations University.

PBS offers an educational website and interactive map about the chronology of forced relocations, boarding schools, urban and reservation lives of American Indians today. The online resource is a supplement to the "Indian Country Diaries" documentary series.

Libraries and Archives of the Autry
The Libraries and Archives of the Autry and the Cante Sica Foundation of Boarding School Stories shares oral histories of former boarding school students. The collection features audiovisual recordings and time index of each person's memories of boarding school experiences.

About this lesson

This lesson is based on the National Register of Historic Places nomination file for the “Carlisle Indian Industrial School” (with photos) and resources from the Library of Congress, U.S. Army War College Library, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections, and National Archives and Records Administration. The lesson was written by Maria Lee, Historical Anthropologist, and Katie Orr, Historian and Education Coordinator at NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation & Education. Published in September 2016, with editing assistance from scholars and teachers, as well as federal preservationists, it is one in a series that brings the important stories of historic places into classrooms across the country.

Last updated: February 10, 2017


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