NOVEMBER 1, 2001

by Ron Parks

The Operation of the Kaw Mission School

This year the Kaw Mission State Historic Site celebrates the 150th birthday of the historic Kaw Mission. This is the twelfth in a series of articles describing themes, events, and personalities associated with the Kaw Mission 150 years ago.

In November 1851 the operation of the school in the Kaw Mission was beset with problems.

Superintendent of the Methodist Missions in Kansas, Thomas Johnson, wrote a dismal report about the Kaw Mission to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:

You will perceive from accounts that the number of scholars was only fifteen. The number might have been much larger but . . . everyone of the Mission family was sick & they could not take a large number & many of the Indian children were sick also, & their relations insisted on taking them with them on their buffalo hunt.

At this time the "Mission family" consisted of the young teacher, Thomas Huffaker; the farmer, W. H. Webster, and his family; and the housekeeper, Mrs. Baker and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Eliza. Initially, the Methodists planned to educate fifty Kaw children at the Mission, although thirty appears to be the maximum number ever to attend school there at any one time.

The buffalo hunts were semi-annual treks to a region north of the Arkansas River in present-day McPherson, Rice, and Barton counties. Ordinarily, after harvesting their crops in early October, the entire Kaw tribe would journey west to their hunting grounds. Here they would spend several weeks killing bison and processing the meat, then return to their Council Grove Reservation by late December.

In the spring the Kaws would repeat the cycle: plant their crops in early May, then travel west en masse to hunt buffalo, returning by late June or early July. Ordinarily these hunts were happy occasions for the Kaw people because food was usually plentiful and they could roam largely unencumbered by their white overseers.

Methodists, then later Quakers, operated schools sporadically for Kaw children from the 1830s until the tribe’s removal from Kansas in 1873. Frequently the churchmen’s reports refer to the incompatibility of these seasonal buffalo hunts and the successful schooling of their Indian charges.

Thomas Huffaker’s description of the actual operations of the Kaw Mission school is characteristically terse: "The branches taught were Spelling, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. None of them received instructions in the trades. The boys worked well on the farm."

"The Indians did not receive any religious instructions at this time. I mean the tribe as such. Religious observance was kept in the School and families."

The pupils were described as "generally orphans and dependents of the tribe and were all boys." Huffaker was assisted by an interpreter, a Kaw full-blood named William Johnson. Kaw historian George P. Morehouse described him as ". . . fine looking, intelligent, alert and a good man."

Four rooms upstairs served as a dormitory. The classrooms and living quarters for the instructors and their families were located downstairs. The boys worked in fields across the Neosho.

Although a detailed description of the Kaw Mission school is lacking, the section below describes the 1855 operations of the Shawnee Mission, the Kaw Mission’s parent institution and place where Huffaker received his schoolmaster training shortly before coming to Council Grove.

"At five a.m. they [the Indian students] are awakened by the ringing of a bell, . . . they do light work around the farm until seven, when they breakfast.

"At nine, the school bell summons them to their studies, which are kept up, with a short interval for recess, until twelve, M. They dine between twelve and one o’clock, and then resume their mental pursuits until four.

"Their tea-hour is six, p.m., and their evenings are spent in the preparation of lessons for the ensuing day until eight o’clock; they are then allowed to indulge themselves in indoor recreation, until half-past eight sends them to their dormitories for the night.

"The only religious services which are held during the week are the reading of a chapter in the Bible, followed by prayer, just previous to the morning and evening meals. Saturday . . . evening is spent in the bathroom in ‘cleaning up for Sunday.’ The Sabbath is devoted to devotional services . . . .

"They speak, as a general thing, no language but their own upon entering the school; the first care of their instructor is, therefore, to teach them English; this they soon learn to speak well, though a slight, yet not unpleasant accent.

"If they misbehave, the system of discipline is nearly the same as formerly in vogue in New England. They do not, however, care much for any species of punishment, save that of the rod."

Most Indians, including the Kaws, were shocked at the missionaries’ frequent thrashing of their students as a mean of discipline. The Indians regarded the firmly-entrenched practice of corporal punishment as abhorrent and degrading.

This was one of many cultural dislocations compounding the difficulties faced by both the Kaws and their white supervisors at the Kaw Mission. The weight of these difficulties is reflected in Thomas Johnson’s January 1852 Kaw Mission report:"But I hope in the future we may be able to do better; though I am compelled to acknowledge that the prospect is not very encouraging."











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