The Beginnings of a Cultural Genocide – The Civilization Fund Act of 1819

The Beginnings of a Cultural Genocide – The Civilization Fund Act of 1819

Last summer, I wrote a blog about The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report. The report revealed that “between 1819 and 1969, the United States operated or supported 408 boarding schools across 37 states, including 21 schools in Alaska and 7 schools in Hawaii.” Sadly, these schools caused immense and irreparable damage to Native American peoples and cultures, something future investigation seeks to more fully illuminate. But what happened in 1819 that established Indian boarding schools, allowing for such harm? 

On March 3, 1819, the United States Congress passed the An Act making provision for the civilization of the Indian tribes adjoining the frontier settlements, better known as the Civilization Fund Act of 1819. Its purpose was to provide against the further decline and final extinction of the Indian tribes by supporting religious mission schools in Native communities. It wasn’t until much later in the century that the U.S. used the wording of the Act to establish numerous Native American boarding schools.   

A late 19th century Native American Boarding School where Native students are required to adopt white, euro-American styles of dress and speech. Image from the MNHS Collections.

The Act gave the President “in every case where he shall judge improvement in the habits and condition of such Indians practicable” the authority to “employ capable persons of good moral character” to teach Native people the “arts of civilization.” The Act was championed by Thomas Lorraine McKenney, a Quaker who headed the Office of Indian Trade from 1816–1822. Then, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established in 1824, McKenney was appointed as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, a position he held until 1830. During his time as Superintendent, McKenney advocated the American Indian “civilization” program, and he was in favor of removing Native people to areas west of the Mississippi River. 

From 1819 to 1830, fifty-two federally-funded Indian schools opened. These schools were primarily designed to promote religious conversion to Christianity but they also sought to remove the cultural ties of Native children and to assimilate them into white, Euro-American society. This form of cultural genocide continued for more than 150 years and was made all the more damning after the establishment of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879 whose motto was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Today, Native people are still grappling with the suffering, trauma, and loss of cultural genocide, while the United States is confronting its legacy.


Hope MacDonald LoneTree, “Healing from the Trauma of Federal Residential Indian Boarding Schools,” Administration for Children & Families, Accessed April 15, 2023, Published November 24, 2021, https://www.acf.hhs.gov/blog/2021/11/healing-trauma-federal-residential-indian-boarding-schools

“Civilization Fund Act,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Accessed April 15, 2023, Last Updated February 5, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization_Fund_Act 

“Thomas L. McKenney,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Accessed April 15, 2023, Last Updated March 16, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_L._McKenney 

“Congress Creates Fund to “Civilize” Native American People,” EJI: A History of Racial Injustice, Accessed April 15, 2023, https://calendar.eji.org/racial-injustice/mar/3

“Let All That Is Indian Within You Die!,” NARF Legal Review, 38, No. 2 (Spring/Fall 2013), 1–11, https://narf.org/nill/documents/nlr/nlr38-2.pdf 

Lcrawfor, “James Monroe’s Trail of Tears,” The James Monroe Museum, Accessed April 15, 2023, Published November 28, 2022, https://jamesmonroemuseum.umw.edu/2022/11/28/james-monroes-trail-of-tears/ 

Colin Mustful is an independent historian, author, and publisher. His work, which includes five historical novels, focuses on the tumultuous and complicated periods of settler-colonialism and Native displacement in American history. He has a Master of Arts degree in history and a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. He is the founder and editor of History Through Fiction, an independent press that publishes compelling historical novels that are based on real events and people. As a traditional publisher, he works with authors who want to share important historical stories with the world. Mustful is an avid runner and soccer player who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He believes that learning history is vital to understanding our world today and finding just, long-lasting solutions for the future.

One thought on “The Beginnings of a Cultural Genocide – The Civilization Fund Act of 1819

  1. Although maybe some had good intentions, (& many didn’t) – the Indian Residential Boarding Schools left many with what tribes refer to as Historical Intergenerational Trauma. Many struggle with the negative generational patterns & cycles that were passed down from the Boarding Schools.

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