Choctaw Indian Academy

Historical Marker #135 in Scott County notes the location of the Choctaw Academy. Established in 1825, the academy was the first federally controlled residential/boarding school for Native Americas in US history. It was created in response to growing dissatisfaction with missionary schools located within Choctaw territory.

In 1825, the Choctaw leadership travelled to Washington D.C. in order to negotiate a treaty with the US government. As a part of the treaty, the US government agreed to pay the Choctaw’s $6,000 a year forever for education. Through their Indian agent, William Ward, the Choctaw’s were introduced to the idea of using their new educational annuity to establish a Choctaw school located on Kentucky politician Richard M. Johnson’s farm in Scott County, Ky. Johnson was Ward’s brother-in-law and he had previously had an Indian missionary school on his farm between 1818-1821.

The Choctaw Academy officially began in November 1825 when 21 Choctaw students arrived at Johnson’s farm. The school’s management was coordinated by the War Department via the Office of Indian Affairs. The school’s first and longest serving superintendent was local Baptist minister and close friend of Johnson, Thomas Henderson. While Johnson had no official role with the school, he became Henderson’s power of attorney, giving Johnson the ability to conduct the school’s business on behalf of Henderson. The arrangement between Henderson and Johnson also allowed Johnson and later administrators to spend as little of the federal funding on the school and its students as possible so they could pocket the majority of the funds. Johnson once instructed Thomas Henderson to “…let everything you do be upon a frugal scale. Save me all you can—I’ am hard pressed…” (Drake, 270).

In the early years of the school, the curriculum consisted of reading, writing, math, history, geography, surveying, astronomy, nature and moral philosophy, and music. Later, against the wishes of the Choctaws and other tribal leaders, the school also began teaching trade skills such as blacksmithing. In 1828, in a bid to lessen the need for more teachers, Johnson introduced the Lancasterian plan (which was a “strictly regulated model of instruction in which more advanced students monitored elementary grades” (Drake, 278).

Over the course of the school’s history, the student body consisted of Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole/Apalachicola, Creek, Dakota, Iowa, Menominee, Miami, Omaha, Osage, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Quapaw, and Shawnee students. Once at the school, students were given anglicized names that were often taken from friends of Johnson or well-known US political or military figures. At various times the student body included students named: Thomas McKenny, Zachary Taylor, and of course Richard M. Johnson. In the early years, “…whites comprised 20 to 30 percent of the student body” (Synder, 94) and these students tended to be from local families. Native students, particularly in the early years, tended to come from elite families and expected level of treatment that matched their status.

Throughout the school’s history, Johnson’s political career was at its peak; in 1825, Johnson was serving in the US Senate and in 1837 he was elected Vice President. Johnson used his political connections in the War Department to counter any complaint lodged by students or their tribal leaders. In 1829 and again in 1833, “the Choctaws…tried, without success, to sever their relationship with the Choctaw Academy and to regain [control] of their annuity” (Drake, 282). In part, tensions at the school stemmed from the diversity of people that attended or worked in and around the school. In addition to the school, Johnson’s property also included a plantation where he enslaved at least sixty people including his two daughters, Adaline and Imogene, and their mother Julia Chinn. Several of the people Johnson enslaved were forced to work at the school, including his daughters and Chinn (primarily as cooks, maids, laborers, etc.). All of this meant that class and racial tensions amongst the students and the enslaved ran high.

In one incident, two students forced their way into Johnson’s house where his two young daughters and Chinn lived. The men were stopped before getting to the women, but the incident increased the tension. In 1830, in part in response to the tension between students and the enslaved population, Johnson relocated the academy from his Blue Springs property to his White Sulphur Springs property (all located near Great Crossings in Scott County).

In 1829 the election of pro-removal President Andrew Jackson represented major shift at the Choctaw Academy. Jackson not only advocated for the removal of all Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River, but he also ended the government’s attempts to respect Native Americans wishes when it came to educating their youth or their general participation in or integration into US society. The passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830 was particularly devastating for the Choctaws who had been long time allies of the US and had strong historical ties to Jackson himself. The Choctaws were the first to be removed; their removal treaty, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, was signed in 1830. The majority of Choctaws, fearing attack, discrimination and harassment by Mississippians and others eager to take their land, moved to their designated area of Indian Territory in present day Oklahoma between the fall of 1831 and 1833. The Choctaws relationship with the US changed dramatically once they were removed. In a bid to establish their independence and to lessen their reliance on the US government, the Choctaws wanted to create their own educational system within their new territory.

At the tail end of the Choctaws removal, in June 1833, a cholera outbreak occurred at the school. “The epidemic lasted three weeks and the death toll reached twenty-four: fourteen [enslaved], one white man, and nine students, including six Choctaws, one Miami, and two ‘Seminoles’” (Drake 300-301). As news of the students’ death reached the Apalachicola Chief John Blunt, who had already sent a request to unenroll his son, Billy, from the academy in response to their communities impending removal, requested that Billy and any other boys from his area return home.
Neither Johnson or Henderson responded to Blunt, so he sent his request to the War Department officials, including Lewis Cass and Elbert Herring, in hopes of pushing the issue. As pressure to send Billy home mounted Johnson, finally decided to question all “Seminole” students to identify Billy. At the time, Johnson feared that Billy was one of the two “Seminole” students that died during the cholera outbreak. Through interviews Johnson deduced that Billy had in fact died in the aforementioned outbreak; but his evidence was weak and the War department decided to bring the student, George W. Hord, to D.C. to be interviewed by Herring. Hord ended up being Jack Vacca, son of the Apalachicola Chief Mulatto King (Vacca Pachassie), and it was his brother, Orsler (known at the academy as William Ficklin) and an orphan named Aaron that died from Cholera, not John Blunt’s son Billy (then known as Charles Phillips).

In 1840, Peter Pitchlynn, Superintendent of Choctaw schools, conducted an extensive inspection of the Choctaw Academy. The resulting report confirmed the many complaints of poor living conditions, inadequate education, food, and clothing, as well as forced manual labor that had been written off in previous years. In 1841, the War Department replaced Thomas Henderson and named Pitchlynn superintendent of the school. Realizing that he wasn’t going to be able to close the school (the school had already grown beyond the control of the Choctaws with students from several other tribes also enrolled at the school), Pitchlynn severed all ties between the Choctaws and the school and removed all their students in 1842.

The final nail in the school’s coffin came in 1848 when the final 13 Chickasaw students left the school. While the Choctaw Academy was primarily a success in the eyes of those who didn’t attend the school, former students and various leaders from the Creeks, Choctaw, Miami, Potawatomi, Chickasaw, Seminole, and other tribes came to view their experience and the school as a disappointment. Instead of educating native youth to become productive leaders of their communities, one former alumna of the school, Israel Folsom, said of students who returned from the school, “…they make bad Indians and bad white men” (Synder, 231).

The marker reads:
Choctaw Indian Academy 1825-1843--2 Miles
The U.S. Government established at Blue Springs Farm, home of Vice President R.M. Johnson, it's first Indian school for sons of Indian Chiefs. Future leaders of many tribes were educated here.

It was erected in 1955.