The Choctaw Academy

What remains of the Choctaw Academy. Image from the Lexington Leader, 24 February 1963.

Kentucky politician and United States Vice President (1837-1841) founded a school which opened November 1, 1825, for Indian boys in the Blue Spring area of Scott County, Kentucky. In the early part of the 19th century, in communications between the U.S. government and Chief Hummingbird, Wishu-Washano, Nilega, and John Jones, the government agrees to help finance an Indian school. The Choctaw Treaty of the Dancy Rabbit Creek, which concluded in 1825, provided that $6,000 by supplied by the President of the U.S. for 20 years. Vice President Johnson, a native of Kentucky and born at Bryan Station in 1780, was a lawyer, legislator, and a member of the U.S. Congress between 1807-1819. The Choctaw Academy was established on Johnson’s farm at Blue Spring, near Great Crossing in Scott County. The Baptist Board of Missions submitted working plans to the government and were approved by Governor Barbour and the Secretary of War. The Indians were instructed at a cost of $120 each year, including board. An additional $80 was charged for clothing and medical care. The superintendent, Thomas Henderson, received a salary of $500 a year. The average charge for each of the 25 students was $226.80 a year.

By 1826, the Pottawatamies, a powerful Indian tribe, settled along the waters of the Wabash on lakes near the Canadian line agreed to supply $2,000 a year for as many of their tribe as that amount of money would support. The Choctaws also sent 22 boys over the original 43 and in 1827 the Creeks provided $5,000 for more boys. Over the next few years, the Academy increased in importance. As such, Miamis, Foxes, Sacs, Chicagos, Quapaws, Prairie du Chiens, Iowas, Ottawas, Chippewas, and Seminoles all send children to the school. The Choctaw Nation, for example, “desired that the flower of their young men should be educated far from the allurements and distractions of the plains and the wigwams, where they could not seek the protection of their parents in idleness, and where they would be surrounded by the customs and manners of civilized life.” A series of letters between Col. William Ward of the Indian Agency and Col. Johnson and Rev. Jacob Creath of the Baptist Missionary Society of Kentucky, the U.S. War Department finally approved the plan submitted by the Baptist board.

Col. Johnson would go on to describe the Rev. Thomas Johnson as a “preach of the gospel, eminent for his literary talent and attainments, a man of liberal education, broad sympathies and much executive ability.” He would be named as superintendent of the Academy shortly thereafter. According to records, Mr. Henderson was to report to the Baptist board every three months. Members named to a committee tasked with inspecting the school and making reports to the board included Mr. Creath of Franklin County, Dr. James Fishback or Lexington, John T. Johnson, Maj. Benjamin S. Chambers, and William Suggett of Scott County. Superintendent Henderson was informed by the War Department to “commence school at sunrise and finish at sundown, except on Saturday, when it would be proper to cease at noon.” Additionally, the superintendent was instructed that he must be willing to devote his entire time and personal attention to his students as “it is hard to delegate power and the principal must give his personal and constant attention to his trust in order to give it life and energy and make it operative and successful.” The Baptist board requested that Superintendent Henderson conduct reviews of the boys once a week to offer approbation or censure, to give frequent and affectionate lectures advocating temperance, mutual goodwill, respect for parents, and all matter of topics which an excellent morality could embrace with particular emphasis on truth and expediency of the Christian religion.

Inner Workings of the School

Henderson decided to establish a Lycurgus court with the primary purpose of promoting self-government. The court consisted of a judge, a jury, a sheriff, two lawyers, and a clerk. The grand jury was to take notice of all misdemeanors and to “make presentments” at the regular courts with each officer striving to emulate proceedings of the common courts of justice. Additionally, Henderson organized a Napoleon Society with the primary purpose of instructing the students “in all the peculiarities of etiquette observed in polite circles of society.” Singing societies and native bands were also formed early on as well. Textbooks of the curriculum included Emerson’s readers, Pike’s arithmetic, Kirkham’s grammar, the American spelling book, Olney’s geography, Tytler’s history, Blake’s philosophy, Colburn’s algebra, and Gibson’s surveying.

By 1833 the school added shops and introduced manual training. Early on, three shoe and boot makers, three blacksmiths, and two wagon makers were all employed to instruct the Indian boys in those various trades. In addition to all of those trades, the Academy’s board of inspectors made a recommendation to include a tailor’s shop, a cabinet maker’s shop, along with other shops as “the wisdom of the government should direct to be established.” Col. Johnson set aside additional land in which the boys could be instructed in agriculture as well. With a diverse and comprehensive curriculum, the Academy remained very popular among the students for a period. Chief John Ross of the Choctaw Nation wrote, “Richard Johnson was a popular man among the Southern Indians after he started his Indian School in Kentucky. He had a noble impulse; his heart was big and he called Indian boys to the paths of peace and learning. Returning to their Indian homes, they were stars in a dark night.” Ogden Bullock Gregg remarked that, “the most extensive institution for the benefit of the ‘red man’ was the Choctaw Academy, established in Kentucky, and supported by a common fund of several different tribes.”

At one point the Academy had as many as 200 students. The school was attended by boys from many of the Tribal Nations, in addition to the original Choctaw. Though the Academy often received glowing reviews, the issue of discipline was “the most perplexing problem faced by school officials.” On a number of occasions, it became necessary to expel boys for drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Among the incidences, they broke into Col. Johnson’s cellar to steal whiskey, they stole knives and forks from the table, and even sold their clothes to buy “firewater” from slaves who evaded “paternoles” to gain entrance to the plantations. It was also noted that some of the rogue Indian boys would raid the quarters of the slave girls, sometimes breaking down the door to gain entrance. According to newspaper reports, these incidences would involve the Indian boy getting expelled or the slave girl being “sold down the river.” Though there were some boys that went rogue, by most reports they were in the minority. Some of the boys would go on to become leaders in their nation and the early life of Oklahoma. Even more so, many of them received degrees from Yale, Dartmouth, Union, and other Eastern universities. In approximately 1831, the school was moved to White Sulphur where Col. Johnson had established a health resort. The buildings at Blue Spring were constructed of stone whereas the buildings at White Sulphur were constructed of logs.

As time progressed, however, issues began arising. Unrest among Indians and in Congress by Col. Johnson’s political foes resulted in a Congressional inquiry into the management of the Academy. The House Committee concluded, “that the charges were ‘not of a character and not sustained by sufficient evidence to warrant the definitive action of the committee,’ and that charges of abuses were not well-founded.” However, the Choctaws decided, in council, to not send any additional boys to the academy. They wanted the government to establish a school in their own country to teach their children the mechanical arts and agriculture. Despite the Choctaw Academy not meeting the expectations of the Indians, just having established a school for Indian boys was monumental in its own ways. On March 13, 1831, the U.S. War Department relieved Mr. Henderson as superintendent of the Choctaw Academy replacing him with Mr. Peter Pitchlynn. Pitchlynn’s goal was not to preserve the school but rather to regain the Choctaw annuity and thus apply it to a school in the Nation which he hoped to be superintendent of. Col. Johnson stated that, “I believe [Pitchlynn’s] objective has been to destroy the school… I believe he is deranged.” Forty-one Choctaws were removed in November and the remaining were removed the following year. Other tribes began reassessing the benefits and risks of the Choctaw Academy. However, Col. Johnson managed to keep the Academy open for several more years under the direction of superintendent Daniel Vanderslice. In 1848, the final thirteen students, Chickasaws, were among the last boys to leave the school.

Through 1842, Col. Johnson received in excess of $400,000, less costs, for the enrollment of the students. According to Ella Wells Drake, from 1818 to 1830, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions expended $140,000 in the Choctaw Nation for eight to ten mission stations–farms, churches, and schools. With the cost of educating the boys, the tribes expected, rightfully so, that there would be a notable improvement in academics and socially. The Choctaw had a few students to continue success beyond life at the Academy. Robert M. Jones, for example, was among the most successful graduates of the Choctaw Academy where he established a profitable trading company and dabbled with Choctaw politics. The Creeks, however, felt that not a single young man educated at the Choctaw Academy ever did any good upon returning home from the Academy but rather they became a nuisance and curse to the nation. Alarmingly, a number of the Indian boys, upon returning home, found it difficult to cope with their experience at the Academy. Many “during their stay in Kentucky, forgot customs, relatives, and attachments.” Unable to cope with the changes, many of these young men would go on to commit suicide.

“The young men of Choctaw Academy, like other Native peoples who embraced the tenets of white “civilization,” often found themselves caught between Native cultures which did not wholly understand them and a white culture which would not accept them on equal terms but demanded their removal and isolation.” -Ella Wells Drake.

Contributed by Shawn Logan |

⁘ Works Cited ⁘

  1. The Lexington Leader, 9 December 1949
  2. The Lexington Leader, 12 December 1952

  1. Correspondence from Jacob Folsom Daniels to Peter P. Pitchlynn, 20 October 1841, Box 1, Folder 69, Native American Manuscripts, Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries, Norman, Oklahoma, United States.
  2. Report and Student Listing of the Choctaw School at Blue Spring, Scott County, Kentucky, 11 November 1825, Box 5, Folder 3, Native American Manuscripts, Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries, Norman, Oklahoma, United States.
  3. Drake, Ella Wells. “Choctaw Academy: Richard M. Johnson and the Business of Indian Education.” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society vol. 91, no. 3, (1993): 260-297.
  4. Drake, Ella Wells. “A Choctaw Academy Education: The Apalachicola Experience, 1830-1833.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 78, no. 3 (2000): 289-308.
  5. The Lexington Leader, Lexington, Kentucky, 17 May 1936.

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