Tag Archives: commissioner of Indian affairs

More Odd Decisions

Law West of the Pecos Judged Horse Thiefs Harshly, photo taken of Langtry, Texas in 1900, courtesy National Archives

Law West of the Pecos Judged Horse Thieves Harshly, photo taken of Langtry, Texas in 1900, courtesy National Archives

After being accused of horse theft, Peter Thompson Good Boy met an Insanity Commission in South Dakota and was adjudged insane. Oddly, he was sent to the government hospital in Washington, DC instead of the much closer Canton Asylum in SD. (See last post.) Good Boy asserted that because he pleaded “not guilty” to the theft charge, he was sent to an insane asylum far away. He accused a neighbor of instigating the maneuver, because Good Boy knew something about the neighbor’s criminal behavior.

St. Elizabeths' Center Building, circa 1900, courtesy National Archives

Center Building, circa 1900, courtesy National Archives

No one in authority quite believed Good Boy, but two congressmen made inquiries on his behalf, as did a chaplain. Apparently, the authorities at St. Elizabeths had told one of the congressmen (Congressman McGuire) that if someone would take responsibility for Good Boy and give him proper attention, he could probably be released. The chaplain wrote to say that a former employer of Good Boy’s had offered him employment in Nebraska.

Patient Room at St. Elizabeths, circa 1905

Patient Room at St. Elizabeths, circa 1905

Additional inquiries were made on behalf of Good Boy, so that whoever wrote Good Boy’s case summary concluded: “In view of the various conflicting statements (some not included in this post) which we have regarding this man, it is quite impossible for us to definitely decide as to what should be done in this case. His past conduct here has been exemplary, and aside from his ideas concerning, Whipple [the neighbor], he has manifested no signs of psychosis.”

The writer said that he would write to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs about the whole matter, and urged that Good Boy at least go to an institution nearer his home.

Good Boy was transferred to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians on May 3, 1916. My next post will discuss this asylum superintendent’s take on Good Boy’s insanity.


Importance of Asylum Gardens

Vermont Asylum for the Insane, circa 1880 to 1890

Vermont Asylum for the Insane, circa 1880 to 1890

Asylum gardens provided occupational therapy of a sort for patients who were physically able to work in them. Some patients truly enjoyed working in a small flower garden perhaps, or even an hour or two in a vegetable garden.

However, because some superintendents reported having to “force” patients to work outside, this so-called therapy obviously did not appeal to everyone. Vegetable gardens certainly helped the bottom line, though, and provided fresh food that sometimes miserly public funds might not have covered.

Eastern Lunatic Asylum, West and East Views, circa 1855

astern Lunatic Asylum, West and East Views, circa 1855

In May, 1910, Dr. Harry Hummer, superintendent of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, pleaded with the commissioner of Indian Affairs to retain the subsistence allowance for employees.

He told the commissioner that he had a very desirable staff of employees at that time, and: “am very desirous of keeping this force intact, which I believe, will not be possible if the contemplated change (to take away asylum-provided meals) is put into operation.”

Nurses at Georgia State Lunatic Asylum, 1894

Nurses at Georgia State Lunatic Asylum, 1894

Dr. Hummer then went on to make a case for the continued subsistence by noting that the entire cost of subsistence supplies for the year had been $4,470.47. Divided by 75 (60 patients and 15 employees), this sum provided food for a month at a cost of only $5.00 per person.

Hummer pointed out that it would cost employees $10 a month to pay for their own meals, so that they would be losing money even if their salaries were raised by the $5.00/month the government saved. With this point and several others he raised, Hummer managed to save this perk for his staff. Whether the food itself was good, bad, or indifferent, affordable meals meant a lot to employees.


Fear of Dancing

Hopi Clowns Next to a Line of Dancers in the Long Hair Dance, 1912, courtesy Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation

Hopi Clowns Next to a Line of Dancers in the Long Hair Dance, 1912, courtesy Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation

Though the federal government wanted to suppress anything that kept Native Americans from assimilating into white culture, dancing seemed to be of special concern. Dances were central to many traditional rituals and ceremonies, and therefore, suspect. Even worse, Native American dances were not restrained and constrained like the sedate waltzes of polite white society, but instead, exhibited considerable movement and exhibition. The Bureau of Indian Affairs gathered testimony from (white) eyewitnesses of Native American dancing into a Secret Dance File which was considered obscene because of the graphic descriptions it contained. Here is a quote concerning a Hopi dance: “Two clowns dressed as women came into the court. Their skirts were very short, not over eleven inches long. The men clowns would go up to them and try to pull the skirts down a little.”

The passage went on, describing how the clowns appeared to peek under the skirts and so on, without underscoring that all the participants were men.  Other witnesses did describe scenes that seemed to simulate intercourse, which were disturbing to the officials who thought these dances would promote immoral behavior. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles Burke eventually signed Circular 1665, banning these types of dances as well as “any disorderly or plainly excessive performance.”

My next few posts will discuss the BIA’s dance controversy in more depth.

Zuni Clowns, courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Zuni Clowns, courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Kwakiutl Noo'nlemala or Fool Dancers, Franz Boaz, 1895, courtesy Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives

Kwakiutl Noo’nlemala or Fool Dancers, Franz Boaz, 1895, courtesy Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives


A Run for Freedom

Escape of Keosoht

Patients were often brought to insane asylums against their wills, and then stayed in them against their wills. Many were heartbroken to think that relatives or spouses would commit them to treatment in such places, and some patients discovered to their horror that there would be little chance of returning to their homes. Patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians faced even more trauma, because a stay at this asylum meant leaving their own culture to come into an unfamiliar one. Language barriers made even common problems worse. Patients sometimes acted on their desire to return home and left the asylum. Most were caught and returned, because the staff at the asylum and lawmen knew patients would generally head for their home reservations. Still, escapes were embarrassing for the asylum’s superintendents and had to be duly reported to Washington, D.C.

In a few instances, patients who made an escape were allowed to return to their reservations without pursuit–perhaps giving hope to others considering escape.

Escape of Alfred One Feather




Agency Report

Chiefs of the Yankton Sioux With Their Indian Agents, courtesy W. H. Over Museum, University of S. Dak.

It is fascinating to read period reports from agents of the federal government (see last post) for insight into conditions and attitudes of the time. In a 1904 report to the commissioner of Indian Affairs, R. J. Taylor, United States Indian Agent, discusses his (S. Dak.) agency. He begins: “They [Indians] make little or no effort to improve insanitary home conditions or to better provide themselves with the healthful necessaries of life. The vice of idleness and the social customs of visiting, drinking, feasting, and dancing are most potent factors in their deterioration.”

Though these words are negative, the agent’s following words show more compassion than might have been expected: “Some room should be provided to care for the sick, especially so that infectious cases could be isolated and others saved needless suffering. The Indians could be saved much expense and needless suffering . . . in many cases if needed medicines were supplied [by] agency physicians. When medicine is needed nothing but the best should be supplied; nothing else would be tolerated for a moment by the whites when they need a doctor or medicines.”

Rosebud Indian Agency, courtesy South Dakota State Historical Society

Man in a Medical Supply Room at an Indian Boarding School, location unknown, circa 1900, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society




Reports on Many Subjects

St. Vincent's Institution for the Insane, near St. Louis, Mo., circa 1910

Many people involved with “Indian Affairs” made reports to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, who then consolidated them into a report to the Secretary of the Interior. These people might be inspectors, superintendents of schools, reservation superintendents, Indian agents, and so on. Though my own research was largely confined to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, I found interesting material adjacent to the entries I actually needed to see. A 1907 report from the Indian Inspector for the Indian Territory provided this information:

The act of April 28, 1904 . . . provided that insane Indians should be sent to the Government asylum at Canton, S. Dak. In accordance with this act a contract was entered into with St. Vincent’s Institution for the Insane at St. Louis County, Mo., . . . providing for the care, maintenance, and support of insane persons from Indian Territory, not Indians, at the rate of $300 per annum, which includes all necessary medical attendance, nursing, treatment, medicines, clothing, washing, and board and care for the insane persons in a proper and humane manner.”

Per annum cost at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was $366 in 1907, and an extraordinary $394 in 1908. This may not seem like much today, but the overage was almost 20-25 percent higher than the government allowance for non-Indians at St. Vincent’s. In 1910, the average annual cost for the institutionalized insane throughout the country was $175–which makes the figures from Canton seem especially high. Dr. Hummer, Canton Asylum’s superintendent, knew his figures were high and struggled constantly to get them down.

Three Shoshone Women and A. Fred Caldwell, Superintendent of the Fort Hall Agency, courtesy Idaho State Historical Society

Indian Agent Heinlein Issues Blankets, Tents, and Clothing to the Paiutes in Exchange for their Land, courtesy Benton County Museum, Oregon



Agriculture at the Asylum

Herd Pasturing on Wild Hay, 1910, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians did not depend on its gardens and livestock for survival, but the dairy products, fresh meat, and fresh produce they produced made meals more bountiful and nourishing. Dr. Harry Hummer depended upon them to keep his costs down, and failures were disappointing to both his self-esteem and his goal of running a tight (economic) ship. Hummer was a micromanager, though, and his interference probably added to whatever problems the site had due to weather and soil conditions.

Dr. Hummer’s unreasonableness was well-known, and a farmer on staff complained once that the doctor expected him to get a spring garden in (sow seed) while the field for it was under a foot of water. A few years later, the asylum lost its potato and corn crops due to drought and excessive heat, an unpreventable loss that has regrettably always been part of the farmer’s lot. Despite these setbacks, Hummer embraced farming and raising livestock wholeheartedly. Many of his letters to various commissioners of Indian Affairs requested more buildings and equipment to expand these operations, and he was generally praised for his efforts in these areas. Either Hummer concentrated on farming because it was more rewarding than trying to cure his patients, or because he was so concerned about economy that he was willing to neglect his patients to spend time on these non-patient concerns.

Wheat Field, Kearney Nebraska, 1908, courtesy Library of Congress

Effects of Drought on Corn near Russelville, Arkansas, 1936, by Dorothea Lange, courtesy Library of Congress



Another Patient’s Fate

Admission Notes Showing Insane and Epileptics Co-Mingled

Susan Wishecoby was sent to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians probably because of her epilepsy. She apparently did not know exactly what was wrong with her, and erroneously thought she was going to a hospital. She wrote many letters to the commissioners of Indian Affairs in office during her confinement, but they always referred her requests for discharge to Dr. Harry Hummer.

Wishecoby obviously got better, and worked with the attendants keeping the wards clean. After Commissioner Burke forwarded a letter of Wishecoby’s to Hummer, he replied: “She suffered from epileptic seizures, upon admission, but has not had one, so far as we have observed, for more than three years.” Hummer went on to say that Wishecoby had had delusions which were also in abeyance, and that her “irascible nature” was probably permanent. Hummer added that “her actions here are all that could be desired.”

After making such a case for her recovery, Hummer hastened to add: “…that she is endeavoring to convince us that she should be returned, and, when the restraints of this institution are removed, she may give way.” Then he got to the heart of the matter–she was of childbearing age. “If we are concerned only in treating this individual, we should probably discharge her. If we are concerned also in treating the future generations and preventing the increase of the number of cases of mental disease, we should pause and give this matter deep consideration.”

Records are incomplete, but the letters that remain show that Hummer wrote these words to the commissioner in July, 1925, and that Susan Wishecoby was returned home on September 14, 1925. The intervention of her brother and the reservation superintendent probably came into play, since references are made to them in additional letters around that same time.

An Epileptic Asylum in Abilene, Texas

One Treatment for Epilepsy



Released for Convenience

Fort Totten Agency, Dakota Territory, courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota

Dr. Harry Hummer did not release patients from the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians very often. Though he was willingly to release a few people to their families over the years, Hummer often refused to do so on the grounds that someone who was doing well at the asylum might relapse. However, when he found one or two of his patients extremely inconvenient, he had no problem reversing his usual philosophy. Jerome Court was such a case.

Court was a violent patient who probably had a problem with alcohol and went on drunken sprees that landed him in jail. When he was taken to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians from the Fort Totten, North Dakota reservation, Court quickly engineered an escape. He was captured and returned to the asylum and escaped once more with the help of an employee who had fallen in love with him. Court was troublesome and dangerous, and Hummer decided he wasn’t insane. “After having held Jerome C. Court since July 12, 1923 to date, and after many mental examinations, I am forced to conclude that he is either “not insane” or that he had practically recovered from any psychotic symptoms by the time he reached here,” Hummer wrote to the Ft. Totten superintendent.

Hummer’s diagnosis is suspect because he had a history of not examining patients, and was faulted for it on many occasions. However, after bickering back and forth with the Fort Totten superintendent and the commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hummer won the day and released Court.

Indian Girls at the Grey Nuns' School at Fort Totten, courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota

Fort Totten, North Dakota



Who Stayed at Canton Asylum?

Cato Sells, Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1921

Admissions to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians were routed through reservation Indian agents (later superintendents), who performed much of the administrative and supervisory functions concerned with running these population centers. The asylum usually had several dozen applications on file, and tried to fill vacancies with patients who had been waiting the longest. Sometimes urgent or acute cases took precedence, but there were always more applications than room at the asylum. Dr. Harry Hummer was often accused of poor record-keeping, but he was apparently required to take a “census” of patients at the end of each fiscal year (June 30). Not all of these survive, but those that do at least give a snapshot of the asylum population. In 1921:

There were 45 male and 45 female patients. Since opening, there had been 146 male and 114 female patients, so the patient population tended to skew male.

There were 28 tribes represented. Since opening, 50 tribes were represented. The greatest numbers of patients came from the Chippewa, Menominee, and Sioux, with the latter being highest. This undoubtedly resulted because the asylum was located near Sioux reservations; studies had always shown that asylums served more people in close geographic range than farther out. States that tried to locate asylums centrally to be fair to an entire region were frustrated in these attempts because of this natural pattern.

Since opening, 62 patients had died of respiratory diseases, mainly tuberculosis (45) and croupous pneumonia (9). From 1903 to 1921, 115 patients had died.

TB Sanitorium Buildings, Phoenix Indian School circa 1890 to 1910, courtesy National Archives

Alaskan TB Patients, courtesy Indian Health Service