Not much remains of the many day and boarding schools that dotted the landscape around Oklahoma's Red River Valley. Just like with
everything else in our standardized world, education has become a national, rather than a community, affair. The Choctaw and Chickasaw
communities in the middle 19th century, however, invested a great deal in localized education, knowing fully well what could happen if they
Throughout American history, Indians were given two "options:" assimilate, or be annihilated. While early tribes fought to the bitter end
against the European invaders, other tribes learned that the only way to preserve themselves was by becoming more like the whites.
Churches established missionary schools to teach Indians how to be more "Christian" and "American." Often, schools were placed not
within tribal communities, but in far off locations, thus forcing children to live apart from their families. This strategy had an intended effect:
the schools rid the Indians of their culture, all under the guise of "education."
|Early Learning in the Choctaw and
Tactic of War?
This forced assimilation became a well-used tactic after the Plains Indian Wars of the 1870s. Hundreds of children from the Sioux, Dakota,
Blackfeet, and Cheyenne tribes (the Comanches and Kiowas to a far lesser degree*) were sent to boarding schools in far-away states like
Pennsylvania, where they could be "Americanized." However, while this idea gained wide acceptance in the late 19th century, these kinds
of programs had already been initiated under British colonial governments, and continued during the Early Republic.
That's why it became very important for the Five Civilized Tribes, who had been forced to Indian Territory by the Jackson government, to
initiate what I'd call a "preemptive strike." They quickly established schools over which their nations could maintain some control. They did
this with the support of Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist missionary groups, who worked in tandem with the nations to ensure their
The Choctaw Nation's first school was established within a decade of their forced ouster into today's Oklahoma. Wheelock Academy,
founded in 1842 as a joint effort by Choctaw leaders, Presbyterian missionaries, and Indian Bureau agents, at first operated as a day school
for both boys and girls. Religious education was emphasized, though missionaries lamented that the Native Americans were not very
receptive to their "Americanization" efforts. Located just east of Fort Towson, Wheelock later became a boarding school for girls, with
nearby Norwalk Academy serving boys. Armstrong Academy, founded in 1845, became the premier Choctaw school. It was self-sustaining,
with corn fields and vegetable gardens. Adults attended the school on Saturdays to learn how to read and write, and students learned
algebra, classical literature, and geography as well as mechanical and domestic skills. In 1862, Armstrong Academy became the seat of the
Choctaw confederacy, and continued to serve as the Choctaw Nation capitol until the 1880s.
Other academies along the eastern Red River in Indian Territory included the Spencer Academy for boys, founded in 1844 north of
Doaksville, which served as a Confederate hospital. The 1850's Bloomfield Academy for girls near the Colbert's Ferry landing also became a
hospital during the war. Wapanucka Academy for girls (it was co-educational for a time) opened northeast of Boggy Depot.
These schools operated as day schools, with more local control, and boarding schools, which fell under the governance and church boards
and federal agencies. Often, a school that had once been under local control would gradually become a boarding school as population
centers shifted away from the schools. After the Chickasaws restored their nationhood in the 1850s, both Bloomfield and Wapanucka
Academies came under their sole jurisdiction.
The academies lasted well into the early 20th century. Lamentably, fire consumed many of them. The wooden buildings of the Bloomfield
Academy burned down at least three times before the decision was made to abandon the school. Armstrong Academy was mostly brick
built, but it, too, experienced fires. A young woman from Doaksville recounted her visits to the destroyed Armstrong Academy in the 1930s,
where she remembered "piles of bones" laying about in what used to be the anatomy lab. Armstrong was never rebuilt, either. Spencer
Academy had a fiery death. An exception was the Wapanucka Academy, which slowly crumbled away when it closed in 1911.
Two academies still exist along the Red River, however. Wheelock Academy is now a National Historic Landmark, and the grounds are open
every day. While many of the outbuildings are in ruins, the wooden and white-washed administration building, built in the 1880s, stands in
the center. A free museum is housed inside a wooden dormitory building. Nearby is the Wheelock Presbyterian Church, built of solid stone
and dedicated in 1847. The adjacent graveyard includes many burials of children who succumbed to scarlett fever.
The most impressive of these academies is Goodland, but not because of its architecture. Of all the academies I've mentioned (and a few I
didn't), Goodland is the only one still in operation. Established in the 1850s as a mission school for orphaned Indians near Grant, Goodland
is now a Presbyterian boarding school, taking care of children regardless of religious, national, sexual, familial, socio-economic, or racial
Except for Goodland and Wheelock, these historic schools only exist as entries in history books. Although the academies could be
considered the heart and soul of the nations' establishment in Indian Territory, often archaeological surveys are needed just to pinpoint
their locations. The only evidence of Armstrong, Bloomfield, Wapanucka and Spencer Academies consist of inaccessible cemeteries on
private property. Other academies I did not mention have not even received National Register status because nothing remains of them.
These school are, without a doubt, incredibly important to Oklahoma history. Hopefully, they'll continue to be recognized by subsequent
|Wheelock Academy, now a National Historic Site, was the first
school established in the Choctaw Nation. Pictured above is the
administration building, which dates to the 1880s.
|Goodland Academy, established in the 1850s by Presbyterian missionaries as an orphanage for Indian boys, is still a boarding school for children
of any background. The WPA entry gate, built in 1932, is interesting because of the two sun symbols that flank the school's name. While the
National Socialists of Germany made this symbol synonymous with evil, they actually co-opted this ancient, positive depiction of the sun from
many different cultures, including Native Americans.
|Not much is left of Armstrong Academy,which for 20 years served as the seat of the Choctaw Nation. After destruction in a fire, the old building
was razed. A cemetery sits on private property and cannot be accessed. (Photo from Durant Daily Democrat)
|Above: This photo of Wapanucka Academy in Johnston County was taken in the 1930s by researchers for the National Historic Register. Today,
the academy consists of nothing more than a few pieces of rubble in a remote farmer's field.
|Wheelock Academy's old buildings make for some interesting photos.
What's also cool is that the wooden buildings survived for so long - most
of the other academies, including those made of stone, fell victims to fire.
|Wheelock Academy was founded in part by Presbyterian missionaries, who helped to build the earliest stone church in Oklahoma. The church
sits at the entrance to Wheelock.
|Spencer Academy was built in 1824 for Choctaw boys and led by Reverend Alexander Reid (Presbyterian). After the Civil War, the school
re-opened, and Reid opened nearby Oak Hill Industrial Academy to educate Choctaw freedmen. The famous and well-known gospel, "Swing Lo,
Sweet Chariot," was first sung and heard at the Spencer Academy by freed people "Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva." (OHS)
|I have a lot of opinions on schools.... if you want to read more about them, come view my blog!
|Bloomfield Academy was built in the 1850s near Colbert, Bryan County, Oklahoma. In its latter years, citizens of Ardmore enticed the
college-level academy to move to its city, but the experiment didn't last. (OHS)
|The map above is NOT comrehensive of all the Indian boarding schools along the Red River. Burney Institute is being restored by the
|The map above is NOT comrehensive of all the Indian boarding schools along the Red River. Goodland still exists as a children's home.
Wheelock is a National Historic Register property and can be toured. Oak Hill was built for freed slaves but is no longer extant.