Saturday, February 7, 2015

Historic Carlisle

My oldest and dearest friend, Marjorie lives in this Pennsylvania town, which is home to Dickinson College and the U.S. Army War College, an institution that prepares high-level military personnel for leadership positions. Carlisle Barracks ranks among the oldest of military installations and the War College is the oldest military education institution in America.

Hmmm... reading over that introduction, there seems to be a lot of 'old' in Carlisle. There is plenty of 'new' too: Dickinson has a new gym, and there are new stores and new roads being built, but they are just like roads and shops anywhere else: a facet of the new, genericized America, where everywhere, everything looks the same. That is why the 'old' is so much more fascinating to me: things in Carlisle are unique in their purpose and appearance.

Like Dickinson College, the 16th oldest learning institution in America, and the oldest law school in Pennsylvania. Located in the heart of downtown, it started out as a grammar school in 1773, but soon James Wilson and John Montgomery, two of Carlisle's elite citizens pushed for it to become a 'frontier college', a place where young men could get educated before tackling the Wild West, at that time just beyond the city's borders. It was chartered in 1763, just days after the Industrial Revolution. Many of the original buildings still stand, like this one:

There is another school in Carlisle that has a less illustrious history: The Carlisle Indian School.

A bit of background: as America settled further into the west, people encroached upon what traditionally had been hunting grounds and settlements of the native people. First rounding the natives  up and then relocating them to less fertile land, settlers from the east claimed rich plains, built homes and eventually towns. The natives, having been displaced and not being able to hunt, routinely raided those new towns.

It was thought that, if the natives could be 'civilized' (verb), they would respect the town rules and everything the settlers were trying to achieve. Richard Henry Pratt, who had spent 8 years on the plains with an army cavalry division moved back east and founded the Carlisle Indian School. Thus, one of the darkest chapters of American history began.

Children from Indian tribes, no matter if those tribes were warring or at peace, were forcefully taken from their clans, had their hair cut, their tribal markings washed off and were dressed in 'proper' clothing and sent far from their homes. They were housed at the school and taught how to read, write and be 'civilized'. Among other  indignities, they were forbidden to speak their own language. In the summer months, instead of returning to their families, these children were hired out to non-Indian families. It was thought that, once natives tasted the goodness of 'civilized' life, they would reject their undesirable ways and join mainstream society. Much to the despair of the school's founder, once graduated, many students returned to their tribes and resumed their 'savage' ways.

In all, more than ten thousand children attended the Indian school. One hundred ninety-two died there, and are buried in the cemetary attached to the school. That was perhaps the greatest insult: that their bodies were not returned to their tribes for proper ceremonial interment. The school's buildings are long gone, but a tribute remains to them on the grounds of Carlisle Barracks, the military post still operating today.

This is just a very brief summary of that dark time. For more in-depth reading, please visit:

What a tragic slice of history! Let Molly Pitcher brighten things up. 

It is unknown whether Molly Pitcher is an actual woman or a combination of many women's battlefield stories. During the Civil War, it was common for wives to follow their husbands to battle and bring them water – to wash with, to drink, or to cool the cannons down after repeated firing. “Molly! Pitcher!” one soldier or another would shout, meaning 'please bring a pitcher of water'.

NOTE: 'Molly' is an affectionate form of 'Mary', a very common name at the time.

Legend has it that this particular Molly, having just brought her husband some water, watched as he was killed. Forgetting grief and horror for the moment, it is said that she then armed his cannon, repeatedly loading and firing it, until the battle was over.

When Marjorie's husband, Chuck, also a history buff told me this story, immediately I thought of Hua Mu Lan 花木兰, who took her father's place in battle and refused any compensation or award. Isn't it strange, how history seems to repeat itself, across cultures even?

This is a picture of Molly Pitcher, buried at the historic Carlisle cemetary.  

Understanding society through history is fascinating to me, but I would be a dull girl indeed if I were only looking back, right? Living in the past is not good. Fortunately, I have my good friend Marjorie to keep me grounded in the present. In our next installment, I'll tell you about the fun we had. 


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