Tag Archives: Senator Richard Pettigrew

Spinning . . . and Spinning

Carnegie Library in Canton, South Dakota, Built With a 1904 Grant

Carnegie Library in Canton, South Dakota, Built With a 1904 Grant

The editor of the Canton, South Dakota newspaper, The Sioux Valley News, was like many people everywhere and during any time period, a great supporter of his community. The paper printed almost nothing of a negative nature about the city and its projects, and generally had glowing accolades for whatever event or institution it discussed. In an article about the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians (“Asylum Needs Larger Quarters”) from 1926, the paper’s writer gave a sanitized and spectacularly positive spin to the creation and ongoing administration of the facility.

Following a summary concerning the asylum’s creation after Senator Pettigrew became aware of the need for it, the writer briefly described its early years under Oscar Gifford’s leadership. Then he discussed the arrival of its first patients:

“A queer particular about the early admissions was that in-as-much as an asylum was a new experience for the untutored Indian, and there lurked in his mind some misgivings as to the treatment their afflicted ones might receive in an asylum, the whole family, in some cases, came along with the patient to satisfy themselves that everything was honest and above board.

Canton, S.D. Railroad Depot

Canton, S.D. Railroad Depot

“This suspicious attitude gradually gave place to an air of confidence in the good intentions of the government. Those whose fears had been thus allayed, no doubt spread the word of their satisfaction among their brethren, and of late years, these family accompanyings have about entirely disappeared.”

Young Oglala Girl In Front of Tipi, Probably On or Near Pine Ridge Reservation, courtesy Library of Congress

Young Oglala Girl In Front of Tipi, Probably On or Near Pine Ridge Reservation, courtesy Library of Congress

These latter statements are difficult to believe, since there is no evidence whatsoever that Canton Asylum held a good reputation within the Native community. It is only slightly less difficult to believe that many families had the money to accompany their loved one to the asylum unless they lived nearby.

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Pettigrew Was Right

Richard F. Pettigrew, courtesy University of Minnesota Law Library

Senator Richard Pettigrew wanted a federalĀ  insane asylum for Indians placed in South Dakota, the state he represented. Via the Committee on Indian Affairs, he pushed for information that would justify his project. The committee sent a query to Indian agents on reservations, asking among other things, how many insane Indians were in their jurisdiction, and what facilities or programs they had for dealing with insanity if it occurred. The forty agents who responded were somewhat disheartening (see last post), since most had only one or two insane Indians–if any–on the reservations they supervised, and most did not seem to require any special care. However, Pettigrew could make his point with the next part of the questionnaire, concerning facilities for helping or caring for insane Indians on reservations. Most replies were similar:

“We have no special course of treatment for mentally diseased Indians. When they become violent we place them in charge of the Indian police until such time as they can be transferred to an asylum for treatment.” Chas. E.McChesny

“We have no special course of treatment for mentally diseased Indians.” John W. Cramer

“As we have no hospital to keep insane in, we are unable to give any special treatment to this class of cases.” J. R. Finney, agency physician on behalf of agent Thomas Richards

“They are cared for by their relatives.” Robert M. Allen

One agent’s reply is representative of several others: “Have never known of an insane Indian. There is no necessity for such (special course of treatment for insane Indians) on this reservation.” H. B. Freeman

Senator Pettigrew at least had the satisfaction of proving that reservations had no facilities or programs to care for Indians who became insane. His real challenge was to convince Congress to build an asylum for the exclusive use of the fifty to sixty Indians who might need its services.

Dr. W. P. Whitted Examines the Eyes of a Trachoma Patient, 1941, courtesy National Archives

Members of the Three Affiliated Tribes on the Banks of the Missouri River

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Indian Agents Weigh in on Insanity

Utes, Indian Agent and Others at Ft. Duchesne in 1886, courtesy U.S. Signal Corps

In 1898, forty Indian agents answered an inquiry from the Committee on Indian Affairs concerning the presence of insane Indians within their areas of supervision. Among all forty agents, they found only fifty-five insane Indians and perhaps fifteen to twenty who were “idiotic.” The agents’ replies were very similar:

“I would state that there is now but one insane Indian on this reservation. We have, however, two Indians from this reserve now inmates of the Government Asylum for the Insane at Washington, D. C. I do not think that insanity is any more common among Indians than among whites.” Chas. E. McChesney

“There is only one hopelessly insane Indian on this reservation at present time. One died last winter. There are others more or less weak-minded, but they are not so insane that they can not be cared for in some way by their relatives or Indian friends.” J. W. Watson

“I have about 8,000 Indians under this agency; there is no insanity among them.” J. Roe Young

“I have to advise you that there are 1,283 Indians under my charge at this agency, none of whom are insane, and it is my observation that this affliction is much less common among the Indians than whites.” Luke C. Hays

Senator Pettigrew (who pushed for an Indian insane asylum) was not getting the overwhelming numbers he doubtlessly desired, but he would have been pleased by the agents’ answers to another question that had been put to them. My next post will discuss the latter.

J. George Wright, Indian Agent at Rosebud Reservation, 1889, courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society

Shiprock Agency Building, New Mexico, circa 1908, courtesy Library of Congress

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Prominent Voices

Oscar Sherman Gifford

Oscar Sherman Gifford

Though it would be impossible to name all the prominent citizens who supported the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians at at the turn of the century, a few stand out.

Among the town’s early professionals was Oscar Sherman Gifford. Settling in Lincoln County in 1871 after passing the bar, Gifford was a practicing attorney, district attorney, merchant, and surveyor before he established a law office with partner Mark Bailey in 1875. Continue reading

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