Three Onondaga brothers Willis, Abel and Albert Pierce, all survived after escaping the Thomas Asylum of Orphan and Destitute Indian Children on the Seneca Nation’s Cattaraugus Territory.

They all arrived a year after its opening in October 1856. That institution, later renamed the Thomas Indian School, tore their family asunder nonetheless. Willis, the oldest, got out in August 1858. Abel followed, departing five years later, while Albert escaped a decade after his arrival.

“They came together, and all left separately,” said Keith Burich, a retired professor at Canisius College who profiled the Pierce brothers in his book, The Thomas Indian School and the ‘Irredeemable’ Children of New York. “That was a way of separating families from each other.”

These names are only three among some 2,740 Native children, many of whom were bused from across the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and forced to attend New York’s largest and longest-running residential boarding school between 1855 and 1957.

Founded as the Thomas Asylum for Orphan and Destitute Indian Children remained in operation for more than a century. (Courtesy of TornJersey Media)

It’s still unclear how many, like the Pierce brothers, fled from the Thomas Indian School, and actually got away. Recordkeeping was often incomplete, according to Burich. Some runaways were rounded up, caught and returned, but not all of them.

“From that Pennsylvania border all the way across to Canada and Vermont, down through Long Island, if anyone was Indigenous, they could be sent to Thomas, and their kids did go through that school,” said Dr. Joe Stahlman, director of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum-Onohsagwe:de’ Culture Center.

Presbyterian Rev. Asher and his wife Laura Wright, who operated a mission house on the Buffalo Creek Territory since 1831, sought to help their Native neighbors by establishing a makeshift orphanage at their home after a deadly outbreak of typhoid fever left many children parentless.

That incident inspired them to start a school, so much that the reverend personally ventured to lobby for that fledgling idea’s future in Albany. He even convinced J.V.H. Clark, of Onondaga, chairman of the state’s Committee on Indian Affairs, to see his vision.

And before that trip, his wife garnered support from Nathaniel J. Strong, a Seneca Nation councilor, who initiated a resolution to erect “an orphan asylum for the benefit of destitute orphan children.”

Soon after, the New York State Assembly passed an act incorporating the orphanage-turned-boarding school as a private institution receiving state aid in 1855. 

The state Legislature initially shelled out $2,000 for its construction on 15 acres of purchased land, with additional funding disbursements in the years that followed. It also allotted $10 for the maintenance of each child under the custody of the state’s Department of Instruction.

An exterior view of the Thomas Indian School, including the dormitories, administration building and Stewart Hall. (Courtesy of New York State Archives)

Once the state assumed full control of the boarding school two decades later, the conditions worsened at that time until its closure in 1957. Students were solely permitted to speak English and required to attend weekly Sunday masses. Children were also subject to corporal punishment, including routine beatings.

Young girls inside a dormitory at the Thomas Indian School in 1938. (Courtesy of New York State Archives)

One of only three federally-funded New York boarding schools, all of which were run by missions, the Thomas Indian School predominantly operated with state funding. It did, however, obtain $500 from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Although the Thomas Indian School was relatively far removed from the federal government and its oversight, that institution, among hundreds more nationwide, still followed a colonial agenda.

The Civilization Fund Act passed as an act of Congress on March 3, 1817, authorizing the president to spend up to $10,000 annually, or the equivalent of more than $253,000 today. It sought to “employ capable persons of good moral character to instruct them in the mode of agriculture suited to their situation.”

Young boys are harvesting crops in a field with an overseer watching by a wooden cart at the Thomas Indian School around 1900. (Courtesy of New York State Archives)

The federal government essentially subsidized missionaries. Virtually all of that earmarked money specifically meant to finance Christian missions, much like the Wrights, fiscally ushered in an era of boarding schools.

A footnote in the federal assimilation of Native children

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill explicitly authored the legislation to prevent “the further decline and final extinction of the Indian tribes” by introducing Indigenous children to “the habits and arts of civilization.”

Reading, writing and arithmetic were taught, but agriculture was another essential tenet behind that ‘civilizing’ process to convert hunter-gatherer societies into sedentary farmers.

“Education was almost an afterthought. Discipline was at the heart of it all. This is why the Civilization Fund Act irks and bothers me so much,” Burich elaborated. “They never really believed that Indian children could be educated or anything more than farmers, housewives and servants.”

Boys and girls are sitting at their desks inside a classroom at the Thomas Indian School around 1910. (Courtesy of New York State Archives)

Institutional classroom instruction, coupled with menial and industrial schooling, served as mechanisms to coercively assert an assimilative agenda upon the Haudenosaunee. 

The National Congress of the American Indian, also known as NCAI, is a Washington-based nonprofit organization that has united the political interests of Indian Country since 1944. Its leadership has insisted that this policy is culpable for Indigenous communities continuing to “live with the traumatic consequences.”

“The traumatic legacy of federal Indian boarding school policies can, in many ways, trace its horrific roots to the Civilization Fund Act of 1819,” NCAI President Fawn Sharp told Central Current. “Native people were abused, neglected, assimilated and even killed due to the policies growing out of this, and similar, acts.”

The War Department had been tasked with recruiting and encouraging missionaries to take advantage of the new federal fund, which was managed by Thomas Lorraine McKenney, the key lobbyist behind the Civilization Fund Act.

Thomas Lorraine McKenney lobbied for the Civilization Fund Act in Congress and became the first Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1824. (Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery)

Appointed by then-Secretary of War John Calhoun, McKenney created the Office of Indian Affairs and became its inaugural commissioner in 1824, later evolving into the modern-day Bureau of Indian Affairs. In that role, he was responsible for overseeing all federal Indian affairs, including the expenditure and appropriation of funds. 

Ultimately, the Civilization Fund Act was repealed in 1873 while the federal government shifted from the treaty-making tradition.

A recently updated count indicates at least 509 schools have been found by the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, compared to the 408 residential schools identified across 37 states since last April by the U.S. Department of Interior.

Although the Civilization Fund Act is not prominently percolating in the American public consciousness, Sharp pledged NCAI shall continue striving to “facilitate the healing, justice, and reconciliation all of our communities need to move forward” in the nation’s capital.

Addressing the fund’s lingering legacy, two centuries later

In Central New York, a concerted effort among grassroots organizers and academics has emerged to critically address residential boarding schools locally, partly due to the close proximity of the Onondaga Nation, or the People of the Hills. 

The Syracuse Peace Council, Skä•noñh–Great Law of Peace Center located in Liverpool, alongside the Indigenous Values Initiative and American Indian Law Alliance, both based in DeWitt, immediately come to mind.

Philip Arnold, associate professor and chair of the Department of Religion at Syracuse University, explained that missions dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their lands and traditions — whereas the fund “authoritatively created a mechanism” for Christian institutions to capitalize upon in forcibly spreading their faith.

An elementary class of girls and their teacher stand in front of a campus building at the Thomas Indian School around 1900. (Courtesy of New York State Archives)

“This notion that we’re civilizing, or we’re Christianizing the continent, those ideas have persisted, and that’s why we need to reexamine these frameworks,” said Arnold, “because they’re just not working out for us.”

The ‘Every Child Matters March: Walk for Justice for Our Ancestors’ from the Onondaga Nation Arena to Columbus Circle in downtown Syracuse crystallized the pervasiveness of the residential school problem among generations of Onondagas.

“I think every family at Onondaga has a boarding school story,” said Joe Health, general counsel for the Onondaga Nation. “For people who came back from the boarding schools, they were damaged emotionally, culturally, and those harms are still there generations later.” 

Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets and marched some six miles. Most wore orange shirts, standing in solidarity with residential school survivors and their families in late July 2021. A rally followed after the walk in front of the statue paying homage to Christopher Columbus.

Members of the Onondaga Nation and supporters march to Columbus Circle in downtown Syracuse to mourn and commemorate Native American children who were forced into residential schools, July 31, 2021. Photo by Mike Greenlar.

“This is not a happiness gathering. This is just a time when there’s more knowledge of it happening,” said Jeanne Shenandoah, a long-time midwife and member of the Onondaga Nation. “There have always been stories told about these lost children, very sad stories, told by the people who survived them.”

Shenandoah has been troubled with those spirits that were damaged and traumatized by the boarding schools, causing her to grow a “heavy dark spot in her heart.”

“Maybe we can’t do a whole lot about what happened in the past but we can help each other to heal from the pain,” she added, “the intergenerational pain that’s happening to whole nations of people all over this continent.” 

A woman approaches a makeshift casket of orange flowers with children’s shoes below.  Earlier, members of the Onondaga Nation and supporters marched to Columbus Circle in downtown Syracuse to mourn and commemorate Native American children who were forced into residential schools. Photo by Mike Greenlar.

Despite this recent residential boarding school reckoning, its legacy remains shrouded today. 

Less than two months after that demonstration, federal lawmakers introduced a resolution seeking to acknowledge Sept. 30 as the National Day of Remembrance for Indian Boarding Schools, honoring all of the Native children who died while attending these institutions. 

The Civilization Fund Act “provided for the unjust belief of many that Native people needed to be ‘civilized’ and that education would be the appropriate vehicle to enact assimilationist policies,” according to the resolution.

That piece of legislation passed the Senate but failed to gain support in the House, thus killing the bill, which hasn’t been reintroduced since the last session of Congress.

Despite that shortcoming, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is trying to confront this federal policy’s lingering legacy, which deeply touches all of Indian Country. Boarding schools trouble and burden them. 

Institutions, including the Thomas Indian School, have cost these communities their lands, identities, languages, cultures and most of all, the lives of their children.

A memorial marker is located at the former site of the Thomas Indian School’s administration building on the Cattaraugus Territory. (Courtesy of Frank Ireland)

While the Civilization Fund Act is widely touted as the beginning of the boarding school era, Stahlman expressed that this chapter remains unfinished, even 150 years removed from the fund’s expiration.

Acknowledging that harmful history is essential, but never easy. He likened this arduous task to a responsibility that has been abrogated by Americans — a responsibility for the federal government to “fix those wrongs.”

“No one talks about the responsibility that the U.S. has in reconciling that [history] because the damage is still ongoing, stemming from this ‘civilizing’ act,” said Stahlman. “More than a Haudenosaunee issue, it’s actually a responsibility of everyone. And I keep going back to that responsibility.”


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