Federal Indian boarding schools were established, beginning in the late 1800s, based on assimilationist principles and regimented schedules. One of these schools was located at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, established by General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who became its first principal. The school educated blacks and Indians separately. Its first Indian students, in 1878, were not Virginia Indian youths but Cheyenne, Kiowa and Arapaho men—newly released military hostages from Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida.
The federal policy toward American Indians at that time was articulated in 1899 by a high-ranking Indian affairs official:
"The settled policy of the government is to break up the reservations, destroy tribal relations, settle Indians upon their own homesteads, incorporate them into the national life, and deal with them not as nations and tribes or bands, but as individual citizens. The American Indian is to become the Indian American."
Indian students eventually came from 65 other northern and western tribes: Dakota, Lakota, Mandan, Oneida, Menominee, and others. Some were orphans; others were the children of Indian leaders. The first Virginia Indian student to attend a federal Indian boarding school, Clarence Branham, Monacan, was enrolled there, but only a few Virginia Indians ever attended at Hampton. Students followed a military schedule, and wore uniforms. Initially they received instruction in the English language using methods employed for teaching the deaf; they were prohibited from speaking their Native languages, and those who did so were punished. They then moved on to the Normal School, where they learned reading, writing and recitation along with religious instruction, and to programs emphasizing trades, agriculture, and teacher training. The school operated a greenhouse, an oystering business, and a lumber mill. During the summer, students were sent to work with families in New England while the school was closed, the first instances of what came to be called the “outing” program.
The school’s roster includes some who achieved remarkable success considering the racism of the times. George Bushotter (Lakota) attended the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, returned to Hampton as a teacher, and worked at the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology under noted anthropologist James Owen Dorsey. Thomas L. Sloan (Omaha) was admitted to the Nebraska bar, was the first Indian attorney to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and was selected as a member of the Harding administration’s committee that published the 1928 Meriam Report, a comprehensive survey of federal Indian programs and problems that resulted in the American Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Thomas Wildcat Alford, great-grandson of Tecumseh, chaired the Absentee Shawnee Committee, representing the tribe in Washington D.C., and he authored an important account of his tribe and his life. Susan La Flesche Picotte became a physician to both Natives and whites after studying at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Angel DeCora Dietz became the first instructor of Native American art at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania and distinguished herself as a national spokesperson for the preservation of Native art. However, of the more than 1,300 Indian students who attended Hampton Institute between 1878 and 1923, only 160 graduated. Again, officials complained that many students refused to accept American ways and returned to their own cultural practices when they went home.