Tag Archives: commissioner of Indian affairs

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Living Quarters in an Insane Asylum

Living Quarters in an Insane Asylum

Nearly every patient in an insane asylum wanted out. Asylum superintendents often put up roadblocks to this when they didn’t feel a patient was well enough to go home; there are many accounts of clashes between the asylum’s medical staff advising against removal, and patients’ families who thought they looked or seemed well enough to come home. Continue reading


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. Continue reading


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. Continue reading


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. Continue reading


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. Continue reading


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