Fort Lewis Indian School, 1892-1910, Dr. Majel Boxer

Fort Lewis Indian School, 1892-1910
Dr. Majel Boxer

In a publication titled, “Inculcation of Patriotism in Indian Schools” issued by the Office of Indian Affairs on December 10, 1889, Commissioner T.J. Morgan reminded Indian Agents and Superintendents of Indian schools that, “The great purpose which the Government has in view in providing an ample system of common school education for all Indian youth of school age, is the preparation of them for American Citizenship. The Indians are destined to become absorbed into the national life, not as Indians, but as Americans.”1  [emphasis in original] Morgan urges school personnel to pay “special attention” on American history, civics, the American flag, singing of patriotic songs and celebrating national holidays—including February 8 which marked the anniversary of the “Dawes bill.”2  While Fort Lewis Indian School was not operational at the time of Morgan’s publication nonetheless the Indian school opened a few short years later in 1892 amidst this patriotic educational landscape.  Prior to opening its doors to Indian pupils in 1892, Fort Lewis existed as an army post established in 1878 first in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, before relocating to Hesperus, Colorado, two years later—a move of 70 miles—but one that placed the fort closer to both of the Ute communities located at Navajo Springs, present-day Ute Mountain Ute,and Southern Ute Indian agencies.  In 1891, Fort Lewis was decommissioned and a year later it opened its doors as Fort Lewis Indian School. Almost immediately Fort Lewis Indian School had a difficult time in convincing Ute parents to send their children to this school.  On August 3, 1892, Commissioner T.J. Morgan wrote the Indian Agent Charles Bartholomew at the Southern Ute Agency that “Referring to your letter dated the 18th ultimo, in which you request authority to expend $1,350.00 in the purchase of three grade stallions, for the benefits of your Indians, I have to state that your request will receive favorable consideration when the Indians consent to send their children to school at Fort Lewis.”3  And again the following summer when Superintendent of Indian School Service, Louis Morgan, responded in a letter to Indian Agent Bartholomew on June 27, 1893 about the concern that “the Utes say that they will not send a child to this school as long as it is under its present management or until a new superintendent is appointed.”4  The Utes would continue to resist the Indian agent and Fort Lewis Superintendent’s efforts to send their children to school.  The relationship between Fort Lewis Indian School and the Southern Utes did not improve but would continue to sour until 1904 when a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs sent by William Peterson, Fort Lewis Superintendent stated “relative to the securing of the attendance at school of a number of Southern Ute children, I beg to say that I had told the Utes that I shall be obliged to withhold their annuity payment until they have placed a number of the children in Fort Lewis. I expect to meet them at Navajo Springs on next ration day, November 1, and have a talk with them. I do not believe they are going to make any great objections, although they will put off sending the children as long as possible.”5  So, it was quite a surprise for Superintendent Peterson that a month later Chief Ignacio, sent six children to Fort Lewis.6  Peterson seemed quite puzzled that Ignacio “refused utterly to allow the children to return to Ignacio at all, and I could bring no persuasion to bear that would change his mind.” Indeed, it is quite astonishing at Chief Ignacio would send children already attending Day school at the Southern Ute agency to Fort Lewis.  The incident becomes more clear as later in the correspondence Superintendent Peterson writes, “I wish to say further, in the matter of getting the Utes into school that I did not, as I said would do in my letter of the 24th withhold the annuity payments of such as did not put their children in school, as I found that the Utes did not care at all if they were paid or not, since they owed all they would get and a good deal more, to the trader, and that he would be the loser, not the Indians.  I did, however, furnish the trader, Mr. Noland, with a list of [families] and the number of children each could send without any [difficulty], and asked him to refuse credit to such as did not send”7  The full impact of withholding store credit from Ute families was not lost on Peterson as he ended his letter with this sentence, “the Indians would be obliged to bring their children in in order to live.”8  And so, while it seemed all of a sudden that Chief Ignacio finally relented and let six children attend Fort Lewis—it was accomplished through the cutting off of credit at the trading post. 

Dakota scholar and historian, Waziyatawin contributes another understanding of violence, she writes, “[t]he term violence …not only encompasses the physical assaults but all injurious abuses perpetrated upon a people, their way of life, and their land.”9  Fort Lewis Indian School was not immune from children getting sick and eventually dying as a result of illness. From November 1904 to January 1906, thirty-six Indian children died while attending school.  In a correspondence from Superintendent Peterson Charles Duff from Cortez, Colorado, listed the names of these school children and the month and year in which they died. But it is in the last lines of the correspondence that the Superintendent writes about the weather, “we have been having a world of snow” and “by-the-way, Anito Brice died.  Jan. 8. 1906, of tuberculosis. She has been dying for three months.”  It is the tone of these parting lines that the violence of boarding school life had become normalized. 

In 1911, Fort Lewis Indian School closed its doors as an Indian boarding school and the 6,000 acres and various buildings were acquired by the state of Colorado.  This was accomplished through the April 4, 1910 Indian Appropriations Bill (36 Stat., 269) which conveyed the land and property to the State with the following provision.  This provision also provides the basis for the current Native American tuition waiver. 

There is hereby granted to the State of Colorado, upon the terms and conditions hereinafter named, the property known as the Fort Lewis School, including the lands, buildings, and fixtures pertaining to said school; Provided, That said lands and buildings shall be held and maintained by the State of Colorado as an institution of learning, and that Indian pupils shall at all times be admitted to such school free of charge for tuition and on terms of equality with white pupils…. 

Here, the intent of the Federal government was to provide a way for Indian pupils continued access to Fort Lewis as it immediately transitioned into a high school in 1911, a junior Agriculture and Mechanics school in 1927,  and then in 1962 becoming a 4 year public liberal arts college.10  The Native American student population fluctuated during these years upon the closing of the Indian School; however, by 1971 the Native American student population stood at 168.11  It was in this same year that the Colorado State Legislature introduced House Joint Resolution No. 1029.  The intent of this legislative act was to restrict the tuition waiver to Native students residing within the state. The act reads in part:

“The state board of agriculture shall fix tuition, in accordance with the level of appropriations set by the general assembly for the college, subject to the restriction that all qualified Indian pupils whose domicile lies within the geographic boundaries of the state of Colorado, who qualify for in-state tuition […] and who are not otherwise able to pay tuition, shall at all times be admitted to such school free of charge for tuition and on terms of equality with other pupils.”12  This joint resolution came as a result of the state of Colorado’s desire to seek both federal, other state, and private funding for the Native American tuition waiver. In addition, House Bill 1452 classified Native American students as either resident or non-resident students.  Prior to 1452, all Native American students were given resident student status.  This change represented a difference in a resident tuition rate of $276 and non-resident tuition rate of $1,106 for the 1971-1972 academic year. As the resolution became known as House Bill 1452, the state of Colorado set up a special committee tasked with finding financial aid for the newly classified “non-resident” Native students as well as contacting area Bureau of Indian Affairs offices to contribute to non-resident tuitions.  In order to carry out the provisions of House Bill 1452, this special committee adopted these policies:    1. That continuing Indian students should be classified as Colorado residents with full resident tuition waivers; 2. That new Indian students should be classified as residents or non-residents according to domicile; and 3. That the Commission on Higher Education will be asked to provide sufficient grant funds to provide tuition waivers for up to 65 new non-resident Indian students this year.14  Needless to say, this caused confusion for newly entering “non-resident” students who were now unsure of their ability to attend the College as only 65 waivers were available. Through College estimates—the College could only support 40 of the 65 non-resident tuition waivers through the state financial aid allocation done for all students.15  Student protest erupted that school year, with several students traveling to the Old Fort site at Hesperus to make their dissatisfaction known.  One unknown student being interviewed at Hesperus stated, “Now here in 1971, we face the dilemma that the Indian people have been facing for many years […] where Indian people benefit from an agreement or a treaty, then the great white society comes back […] and says ‘It’s not feasible, and we shouldn’t have to live up to it.’ So we, as the Indian students, say if this is the case, then we must have the land [Old Fort site] reverted back to Indian ownership.16  Another unknown male student stated, “And now, here we are, wanting to take it ourselves from there because we have enough educated Indians who’ve seen how it has worked within the white structure-and it has not worked for Indians. And so, to work and to be able to participate in the dominant society, we have to act as Indians and BE Indians when we participate…” [emphasis added].17  A third female student pointed out “Now we’re sick and tired of having broken promises. And there has been many times when we can-we could have taken a flaming arrow into any of these buildings. But we want PEACE. We want to do this in a quiet and dignified manner and we’ll keep on stressing this.”18  Body politics was not the only form of student protest to House Bill 1452; In July of 1971 before the student protest at the Old Fort Site, two students, Cornell Tahdooahnippah and Physillis Culbertson, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver against the State Board of Agriculture, Fort Lewis College, and their respective presidents.19  At issue was whether a contract existed between the state of Colorado and the United States upon that granting of the Hesperus site. The U.S. District Court agreed that indeed a contract existed and that all Indian students eligible be admitted tuition-free.20  The case was appealed but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Courts ruling.  The 1971 tumult and subsequent student protest is a rare and important victory in which the Courts reinforced that a contractual agreement was created upon Colorado’s acceptance of 6,000 acres with the aforementioned tuition provision from the Federal government. Today, Fort Lewis College, is considered a “Native American Serving Non-tribal ” institution. 


1 Morgan, T. J. “Inculcation of Patriotism in Indian Schools” Department of the Interior, Office of Indian Affairs. 10 December 1889. Record Group 75, Records of Southern Agency, 1877 to 1952. National Archives Rocky Mountain Region.

2 Ibid. 

3 T.J. Morgan, personal communication 3 August 1892,  Record Group 75, Records of Southern Agency, 1877 to 1952. National Archives Rocky Mountain Region.

4 Louis Morgan. Record Group 75, Records of Southern Agency, 1877 to 1952. National Archives Rocky Mountain Region.

5 William Peterson. Letter to Comissionaer of Indian Affairs. Oct 24, 1904.

6 William Peterson. Letter to Commissioner of Indian Affairs. November 28, 1904.

7 Letter from William Peterson, Fort Lewis Superintendent to Commissioner of Indian Affairs. 28 November 1904

8 Ibid.

9 Wilson, Waziyatawin Angela. “Decolonizing the 1862 Death Marches.” American Indian Quarterly (Volume 28, Number 1 & 2, Winter/Spring 2004. p. 186

10 Grabiel, Maria Christina. “Native American Appropriation to Fund Tuition Waiver: State of Colorado Contractual Obligation.”

11 “Fort Lewis College Indian Tuition Grants, Part II: Report to the Colorado General Assembly.” Colorado Legislative Council. Research Publication No. 178, December 1971, p 22.

12 “Fort Lewis College Indian Tuition Grants, Part II: Report to the Colorado General Assembly.” Colorado Legislative Council. Research Publication No. 178, December 1971, 37. 

12 “Fort Lewis College Indian Tuition Grants, Part II: Report to the Colorado General Assembly.” Colorado Legislative Council. Research Publication No. 178, December 1971, 37. 

13 Ibid., 17

14 Ibid., 18 

15 “Fort Lewis College Indian Tuition Grants, Part II: Report to the Colorado General Assembly.” Colorado Legislative Council. Research Publication No. 178, December 1971, 18

16 Unknown. Interview. “Native American Movement Hesperus, CO, 1971, Portelli” Unknown date. 

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid. 

19 “Fort Lewis College Indian Tuition Grants, Part II: Report to the Colorado General Assembly.” Colorado Legislative Council. Research Publication No. 178, December 1971, 14

20 Cornell tahdooahnippah et. Al., Plaintiffs-appellees, v. John W. Thimmig et. Al., Defendants-appellants; United States of America, Plaintiff-appellee, v. State of Colorado, defendant-appellant. [481 F.2d 438, 1973).



Fort Lewis Indian School, 1892-1910, Dr. Majel Boxer Copyright © 2023 by Elise Boulanger; Shenay Atene; Kirbie Bennett; Paige Brown; Keo Crank; Ana Henry; Hannah Jacks; AJ Lopez; Camela Manheimer; Sam McCullar; Destiny Morgan; Desirae Bernice Rambler; Andrea L. Rogers; Eugene Rogers; Maddie Sanders; Kaitlyn Sebwenna-Painter; and Rexine Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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