Richard Henry Pratt, army officer and founder of Carlisle Indian School, the oldest of three sons of Richard and Mary (Herrick) Pratt, was born on December 6, 1840, at Rushford, New York. He had smallpox as a child and carried the scars on his face for the rest of his life. In 1846 the family moved to Logansport, Indiana, where Richard grew up near the banks of the Wabash River. In 1849 his father successfully searched for California gold but was robbed and murdered by another prospector. Thus Richard, at age thirteen, left school in 1853 to help support his family. For five years he worked as a printer's devil and earned extra income by splitting rails. Then he apprenticed himself to a tinsmith in Delphi for three years. With the outbreak of the Civil War Pratt enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Infantry and was elected corporal. He took part in the early Union campaigns in West Virginia. After three months he reenlisted as a sergeant in the Second Indiana Cavalry, serving under generals William S. Rosecrans and George H. Thomas. Pratt thus saw action in several major engagements in the West. In the battle of Chickamauga, a stray cannonball missed killing him by inches when his horse, on seeing the missile, stopped in time. Back in Indiana on recruiting duty in the winter of 1863–64, Pratt met Anna Laura Mason of Jamestown, New York, whom he married on April 12, 1864. They eventually had a son and three daughters. Eight days after his marriage, Pratt was commissioned first lieutenant in the Eleventh Indiana Cavalry. After further wartime service in Alabama, including a stint as inspector and judge-advocate of the Fifth Division, he was mustered out of the army, on May 29, 1865, with the rank of captain of volunteers.
Back in Logansport, Pratt operated a hardware store, but with little success. He applied for a commission in the regular army and on March 7, 1867, was appointed second lieutenant in the newly organized Tenth United States Cavalry, composed of Black enlisted men with White officers. At Fort Arbuckle, Indian Territory, Pratt was promoted to first lieutenant on July 31. He began his long association with the American Indian when Lt. Col. John W. Davidson, the district commander, placed him in charge of the regiment's Indian scouts. Pratt took part in the Washita campaign of 1868 and over the next several years saw duty at Fort Sill and Camp Supply, as his unit sought to maintain order on the government Indian reservations. In the spring of 1873 he was transferred to Fort Griffin, in Texas, where he was given command of the Tonkawa scouts in addition to his Tenth Cavalry troop. Even as he participated in efforts to curb Comanche and Kiowa depredations and stop the illicit whiskey trade, his interest in and understanding of the Indians deepened. When the Red River War broke out, Pratt and his Tonkawa contingent accompanied Davidson's column into the Texas Panhandle in September and October 1874. In early November he was among those who pursued Grey Beard's scattered Cheyenne warriors for ninety-six miles to the Canadian River in what is now Potter County with Capt. Charles D. Vielé's command before weary mounts and icy weather forced the column back to Fort Sill.
As more recalcitrant Indian leaders surrendered to federal authorities, Pratt was assigned the task of drawing up a list of the bands that came in and singling out individuals accused of specific crimes. With the friendship and cooperation of such chiefs as Kicking Bird, Horseback, Dangerous Eagle, and Big Bow, that task was accomplished; in May 1875 Pratt was detailed to escort seventy-two leading Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, and Arapaho prisoners to Fort Marion, the old Spanish fortress at St. Augustine, Florida, for a period of exile. There he began experimenting with his ideas of bringing his charges into the White man's world through education, financial aid, and teaching assistance from local residents. By the time the army had the Indians released in 1878, Pratt was encouraged by their rapid progress and sought to continue the schooling of the best students in the East. Though he was at first denied federal support, he persuaded Gen. S. C. Armstrong to admit seventeen Indians into the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, an all-Black school in Virginia, with himself as an instructor. The progress of these Indian students soon brought praise from officials in Washington, including President Rutherford B. Hayes, but the success did not deter Pratt's superiors from demanding his return to military duty. Threatened by recall, Pratt appealed to Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz for permission to establish a government Indian school at the abandoned army barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The support of Schurz and Secretary of War George McCrary led to the opening of the Carlisle Indian School in October 1879, with eighty-two Sioux pupils recruited from the Upper Missouri agencies in Dakota Territory.
For the next twenty-five years Pratt served as superintendent of the school, which received official recognition from Congress in 1882. After promotion to captain in February 1883, he diligently applied the principles of his Methodist upbringing to the school curriculum and revived public confidence in the belief that Indians could be assimilated into the mainstream of American life. To achieve that goal, Pratt felt that the Indian should be isolated from his old tribal environment and put in touch with educated Whites. The course at Carlisle combined academic studies, eventually extending through the first two years of high school, with vocational training in various fields and the "outing" system, which placed students in White homes and schools or jobs for a year to further their assimilation. The institution grew steadily over the years, and throughout his superintendency Pratt had charge of some 5,000 Indian pupils from over seventy tribes. Four of Quanah Parker's children received their high-school education there, as did the offspring of other one-time nomads who had hunted and raided on the West Texas plains. Though Pratt's idea of an eastern location for future Indian schools was never adopted, Carlisle was the model for the boarding schools that were later established on or near reservations throughout the West.
It was the location issue that gradually brought Pratt into conflict with the Indian Bureau and humanitarian organizations concerned with the Indians' welfare. Contrary to his argument for assimilation, federal policy served to continue the segregation of Indians on the increasingly squalid reservations. Pratt's forceful personality and frank opinions caused some to label him an "honest lunatic" and finally led to his forced retirement from the army on February 17, 1903, and his dismissal from Carlisle for insubordination on June 30, 1904. Pratt was promoted to major in July 1898, lieutenant colonel in February 1901, colonel in January 1903, and brigadier general on the retired list in April 1904, mainly on the basis of his Civil War record. His Carlisle Indian School continued for over a decade and was famous for its formidable football teams coached by Glenn S. (Pop) Warner. Jim Thorpe, All-American and Olympic gold medalist in 1912, was its most famous athlete. However, the Indian Bureau closed the school in 1918, when the army reactivated Carlisle Barracks as a hospital. From his home in Rochester, New York, during his retirement years, Pratt continued to lecture and argue his viewpoints, but without great success. He died on April 23, 1924, at the army hospital in San Francisco and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Not even his biographer, Elaine Goodale Eastman, was totally in agreement with Pratt's educational philosophy toward Indians. His papers were carefully preserved for many years by his daughter, Nana Pratt Hawkins, and later donated by her heirs to the Yale University Library. In 1964 Robert M. Utley edited and published Battlefield and Classroom: Four Decades with the American Indian, 1867–1904, Pratt's memoirs recounting his frontier experiences in Texas and Oklahoma, his guardianship of the Indian prisoners in Florida, and the founding of the Carlisle School.