Published on November 22, 2013 by Amy
The Morris Industrial School for Indians (1887–1909) was an Native American boarding school in Morris, Minnesota. The school was founded and run by Roman Catholic nuns of the Sisters of Mercy order from 1887 until 1896. After that, the school was run by the Office of Indian Affairs of the United States Federal Government from 1898 until 1909.
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When the government took over operation of the school in 1898, they instituted a “progressive education,” including music programs, a literary society, and a baseball team. In 1910, the school was transferred to the state and adapted for use as a boarding school for the University of Minnesota; it was named the University of Minnesota Morris in 1960.
The Morris Industrial School for Indians was founded in 1887 by a group of nuns from the Sisters of Mercy order under the leadership of Mary Joseph Lynch. Lynch had served with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War before starting industrial schools for youth in the United States. The parish priest of Morris, Minnesota invited the order led by Lynch to start a parochial school for girls in the town. The order wanted to focus on education for Native Americans and in 1886, they received a contract by the U.S. to staff a school to those ends. They named the new school the Sacred Heart Indian Mission and built the first buildings themselves.
Recruiting students from the Indian reservations was difficult for Lynch until she developed connections with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, which had a high percentage of members converted to Catholicism. The number of students, instructors, and buildings slowly increased for the first few years of the school. By 1895, the staff size was 25 (24 nuns and 1 male supervisor) and the enrollment was 103 students (the largest Indian boarding school in Minnesota). Lynch maintained traditional practices and curriculum of a largely parochial education; however, unlike some other Catholic boarding schools, she did not allow corporal punishment.
A gradual change in contract policy at the Office of Indian Affairs (now Bureau of Indian Affairs), essentially ending contracts to parochial schools, resulted in a gradual decrease in resources for the school. The government ended its contract on July 1, 1896. Lynch was highly disappointed, writing that year: “I am so disappointed words cannot express it…I meant to live till I die working for the Indians….But God, I suppose, wills otherwise.” The Office of Indian Affairs agreed to purchase the school, as it intended to take over operations from the Sisters of Mercy, but paid only half the price they asked. The Commissioner Daniel M. Browning offered the job of transitional superintendent to Lynch, but withdrew it and appointed William H. Johnson. The new school opened in 1898.
Johnson continued to expand the school and introduced “progressive education” under new federal recommendations. Academic instruction at the school included education from kindergarten until the eighth grade. The school integrated music programs, increased athletics, and started a literary society. Brick buildings replaced the wood ones constructed by the Sisters. A physical plant and sewage system were constructed, and the government acquired significant farmland for agricultural education at the school. Although Turtle Mountain Chippewa remained prominent, other Ojibwe reservations supplied a majority of the students.
Under pressure to maintain enrollment numbers, Johnson took extraordinary measures to keep students at the school. He extended the length of terms, refused to release students for vacation, and used school staff to forcibly bring students back who had left the institution (sometimes for other boarding schools). Complaints from tribes and other educators were regular as a result of these practices. Johnson also recruited students without verifying Native American ancestry; he accepted some whites who were trying to get a free education. Johnson was fired in 1901 and replaced by John B. Brown.
Brown had a similar progressive curriculum but did not keep as tight control. Average attendance stood at around 160 students for most of Brown’s term. On April 30, 1908, Congress authorized the Indian Appropriations Act, which reduced the number of federal Indian boarding schools in favor of schools located on Native American reservations. Native Americans had asked for this to keep their families and communities together.
The Morris Industrial School for Indians was selected as one of five schools to be transferred to state governments for education of whites as long as the state would offer free education to Native Americans. The school was transferred from federal to state control on December 9, 1908 and was authorized by legislation of Congress in March the next year. The Morris Industrial School for Indians closed in June 1909.
With the “progressive education” efforts of Johnson and Brown, athletics and sports were integrated into the curriculum for all students. As was common around the country at the time, the main organized athletics was baseball. A quickly organized team played similar aged opponents from the town of Morris in the late 1890s. Starting in 1901, they began to play a number of high school baseball teams from the area and gained some notice in the local newspapers (which hesitantly covered the team’s play). However, because of budget constraints, the team did not have coaches and learned most of their skills from one another.
They became a prominent regional team from 1905 until 1907 stringing together victories against many of the high schools in the region. The 1908 season though saw them defeat many of the best teams in the area. The team won a four-team tournament to start the season and then defeated the Wahpeton High School team, labelled the “champions among the high school teams of North Dakota.” That season they went 11-1 beating Wahpeton twice and the Morris High School team, leading to the newspapers anointing the team as “champions of this part of the state.”
Many players went on to careers in barnstorming baseball teams or various minor league teams. The player to have the most prominent career in baseball was 1904 graduate Charles Robert Roy (a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe). After graduating from Morris, Charlie Roy went to pitch for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School for two years and then signed a professional contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. Roy pitched eight games for the Phillies during the 1906 season and then played for a number of minor league teams.
The State of Minnesota renamed the facility as the West Central School of Agriculture in 1910. It operated as a boarding school under the University of Minnesota system. In 1960, as part of a reorganization of the University of Minnesota, the school became the University of Minnesota Morris. Today the boys dormitory and the superintendent’s house of the Morris Industrial School still stand. The dormitory was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984; both buildings today are used for administrative functions of the University of Minnesota Morris. The dormitory is now the Multi-Ethnic Resource Center.