Ute Indian boarding schools saw nearly 60 student deaths

The number of student deaths documented by The Salt Lake Tribune is likely an undercount, as no official tally was kept.

(Utah Digital Newspapers) Headlines from the Uintah Basin Farmer in 1927, top left, and from The Salt Lake Tribune in 1900, top right and bottom, reported the deaths of Ute students at the federal Indian boarding schools in Whiterocks and Randlett.

Editor’s note • This story includes descriptions of abuse and the death of Indigenous children. For support, learn about outpatient mental health services from the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake at uicsl.org, or visit tribalresourcetool.org.

Ute father Waro didn’t want to send his son to the federal Indian boarding school in Randlett.

From the time the Ouray Boarding School had opened seven years earlier, built for students from the Uncompahgre band, Ute parents had seen it as a place where their children “would sicken and die,” Indian Agent James F. Randlett had complained.

But in February 1900, “after much persuasion and entreaty,” Waro enrolled his young son, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Within days, the boy was dead.

There was no water system at the school, and Ute boys were routinely required to haul water from the nearby Uinta River. When Waro’s son went down to the river to skate with other students, The Tribune reported, the boy fell through the hole that had been cut in the ice to collect water and disappeared.

The fatal fall is one of at least 57 Ute student deaths, from a devastating measles outbreak, accidents and other causes, documented by The Tribune through federal reports and coverage by Utah newspapers. The total is likely an undercount, as no official tally was kept for the two boarding schools in the Uinta Basin: the Ouray school at Randlett and the Uintah school at Whiterocks.

Last year, the Interior Department released a first-of-its-kind federal study that identified more than 500 student deaths at Indian boarding schools across the country, a number that officials expect to grow exponentially as research continues.

Forrest Cuch, a former education director for the Ute Indian Tribe in the 1970s, said he believes there are student graves on the site of the Whiterocks school, which is now an empty field with few signs of the several buildings that once stood there. It opened before the school in Randlett, and stayed open for decades after the second school was abandoned, taking in students for a total of 71 years.

(Uintah County Regional History Center) The Uintah Boarding school in Whiterocks is seen in this photo from about 1912.

Shaun Chapoose, who recently finished his term as chairman, said the tribe has a strong oral history of deaths at the school, but people generally stay away from the former grounds.

“We’ve gone up there to look and surveyed we didn’t see anything ... that would give indication of graves,” said Betsy Chapoose, the current cultural rights and protection director for the Ute Tribe. Some individual tribal members may be interested in further investigation, she said, but generally, “I haven’t heard people say, hey, we need to do that.”

In southern Utah, the bodies of 12 children are now confirmed to have been buried at the site of the Panguitch Boarding School, which was open from 1904 to 1909. Leaders of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and its five sovereign bands recently announced that ground-penetrating radar used by Utah State University verified the burials.

Here are the student deaths at the Uinta Basin boarding schools documented by The Tribune.

1891: 5 schoolchildren die from illnesses at Uintah Boarding School

Although the Uintah Boarding School opened in Whiterocks in 1881, Indian agents and superintendents didn’t record any deaths in their reports until 10 years later.

“This has been a year of much sickness from a variety of diseases; diphtheria and kindred ailments prevailed. Thirty-two deaths (5 of them school children) are reported by agency physician and 15 births,” Indian Agent Robert Waugh wrote in his annual report.

The next year, Waugh complained that Ute parents were “bitterly opposed to sending their children off the reservation to any school. To any and all appeals of that kind they have the ready answer, ‘We don’t want to send our children to some distant school to die.’”

Winter 1895-96: A girl dies at Uintah

“The health of both employees and children has been excellent with but one exception. One little Indian girl died during the winter with consumption,” Whiterocks Superintendent G. S. Binford wrote.

1896: One child died at the new Ouray Boarding School

”The health of the school has always been good. Sickness among the pupils has been almost an unknown quantity, and what little there has been has resulted mostly from careless habits while at home. But one child has died at the school since its erection three years ago,” Ouray Superintendent Charles A. Walker wrote, without further explanation

(Uintah Basin Standard) This is a 1997 reprint of a photo of the Ouray Boarding School in Randlett, which was open from 1893 until 1905.

1897: Three children die at the Ouray school

Immediately after complaining that the Uncompahgre band believed that the Ouray boarding school was a place where children “would sicken and die,” Agent James F. Randlett acknowledged in his 1897 report: “Their superstition has been increased during the past year, occasioned by three deaths in the school.”

One death was unexplained in the reports; Ouray School Superintendent Charles A. Walker blamed the other two students’ deaths on inherited tuberculosis.

1898: “8 of the school children have died” at Uintah

Since January, Superintendent G. V. Goshorn said in his 1898 report, “8 of the school children have died and 3 others are sick at present.”

Most of the children who died, new acting Indian Agent George A. Cornish said, “were sick children permitted to return to their homes, but the Indians seem to hold the school accountable for their deaths.”

“The facilities at the schools are inadequate for the proper care of the sick,” he acknowledged. “To remedy this I would suggest a hospital in connection with the schools at which other patients might be treated in addition to the scholars,” a recommendation Goshorn echoed in his own report.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) This sketch of the Uintah Boarding School at Whiterocks was published in The Salt Lake Tribune on Jan. 1, 1898.

1900: Three Ouray Boarding School students die

At the Ouray school, “two pupils were discharged on account of poor health, both of whom subsequently died,” Superintendent John M. Commons wrote in his annual report. “One boy was drowned by breaking through the ice into the Uinta River.”

In one story, The Tribune reported the Ute boy’s father had been persuaded to enroll his son. But in an interview in Salt Lake City, Indian Agent H.P. Myton said he had taken the child away.

”This youth I had removed from his parental tepee and put to school at the reservation headquarters, but he fell through the ice some time afterward and was drowned,” Myton told The Tribune. “His parents kicked up a big row, and his father gathered up his friends and came over to headquarters.”

The group proposed taking Myton’s son in return, but after learning the son was in Salt Lake City, “they gave up and with some difficulty were pacified,” he said.

1900-1901: “Catastrophe”

At the start of the school year, said Uintah Superintendent E. O. Hughes, he and other school employees drove for days to try to collect children. He complained: “I have squatted in their filthy wickiups and counseled with the stubborn savages, only to be told that they had no children, or that their children always died when they went to school, or that they would not let them go.”

Then children gathered up to live at the school did die, in what Hughes called a “catastrophe” — an outbreak of measles among the students that began in December.

First, “one patient, suffering also with tonsillitis, died,” he wrote. “Doubtless this deplorable accident would have been avoided had the employee in charge of this patient exercised ordinary good judgment and obeyed orders.

“However, the following morning nearly all the patients were taken from their beds and carried away by their parents, and placed in the hands of the Indian medicine men, and it was found necessary to call for a troop of cavalry to protect the buildings from being burned, as that determination had been reported to the agent by one loyal Indian policeman.”

Ute leader Black Hawk went to the school, The Salt Lake Tribune reported, and initially denied permission to take his children home, threw a teacher over a bannister.

Of 65 Whiterocks students who caught the measles, 17 died, graduate student Joseph Gilbert Jorgensen later wrote in his 1965 doctoral thesis for Indiana University. He lived and worked with youths on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation for months at a time between 1958 and 1964 to research his thesis, “The ethnohistory and acculturation of the Northern Ute.”

At the Ouray school, Superintendent John M. Commons first complained in his 1901 report that the measles outbreak at his school had interfered with work. He then noted five students had died.

“During October and November we had an epidemic of measles among the pupils, which seriously interfered with the work in all departments,” he wrote. “At one time all the girls and most of the boys were sick and it was necessary to omit schoolroom work for three weeks.”

Then he added: “One pupil died at the school with tuberculosis, while four others, who were discharged, subsequently died with the same disease.”

Myton, the Indian agent at the time, essentially blamed the Utes, Jorgensen noted.

”The health of the Indians has been very good the past year, except that there was considerable measles and chicken pox among the children, and some deaths occurred because the Indian medicine men did not give them proper treatment,” Myton wrote.

Describing Myton’s report, Jorgenson wrote that the children’s deaths “hardly could have been taken so lightly by the Ute parents.”

Months later, under the headline “Indians Are Sulky,” which also minimized Utes’ grief, The Tribune reported that Interior Department Inspector James McLaughlin was at Whiterocks in March 1901 to discuss “the failure of the tribe” to send children to school.

There was “an effort being made” to get Myton removed as agent, The Tribune reported, and McLaughlin would conduct a “thorough investigation into all conditions.”

About two weeks later, McLaughlin told The Tribune he had gone “out among the tepees at the White Rocks agency, and visited them in their homes. It was six hours before I could make any headway, but finally made a friend of old Sowawick, and finally forty of the leading Indians dropped into the tepee to talk.”

In a separate story, The Tribune reported that Chief Red Moon of Ouray, a member of the White River band, agreed with Sowawick “that under the present management the Indian schools are a failure, and children ought not to be compelled to attend them.”

But McLaughlin said that after he “managed” the leaders with “diplomacy and kindness,” they agreed to send children to school.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) This sketch of the girls' dormitory at the Ouray Boarding School in Randlett was published in The Salt Lake Tribune on Dec. 30, 1900.

1902: A student who fell ill at Ouray Boarding School dies

At the Ouray School, Teacher in Charge John M. Commons acknowledged that one student, “discharged on account of poor health, has died since the close of school.”

A few sentences later, he concluded: “I have no recommendations to make, except that something be done to induce these people to send their children to school.”

1903: Seven students die at the two schools

There was one death at the Uinta School, Superintendent William W. Ewing said in his report, attributing it to “serious sickness.”

Six students had died at the Ouray School, wrote Superintendent John F. Mackey, adding in his report below that “considerable sickness prevailed among the pupils during the winter months.”

He claimed: “This can not be traced to any unsanitary conditions of the school plant, unless it be the unclean water of the Uinta River which it is necessary to use during that season of the year.”

1904: Five deaths at Uintah

Uintah Superintendent William W. Ewing reported that three girls and two boys had died during the year, without further explanation.

A few sentences later, he said: “The health of the pupils was good, and those that were sick were well cared for by the employees, assisted by the two missionary ladies.”

A new hospital had been built on the school grounds and opened in August, managed by Episcopal Church missionaries Lucy N. Carter and Catherine Murray, he noted.

(Uintah County Regional History Center) Episcopalian missionary Lucy Carter is shown with two Ute boys she adopted, Wabun (or Waban) and Ruben, in Whiterocks in the early 1900s.

Ewing also tallied the number of children he had transferred elsewhere, including eight students sent to Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the flagship of the Indian boarding school system. The Pennsylvania school was founded by Richard H. Pratt, infamous for his slogan, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

One of the Ute children, 12-year-old Lottie Sireech, would become one of the more than 180 students who died at Carlisle.

Noting the transfers and the deaths, Jorgenson wrote: “A similar story is repeated through 1910: students died, some students were sent away to Indian boarding schools, and local teachers lectured to empty class rooms.

“It is evident,” Jorgenson continued, “that the government education system was having little of its intended effects on most Utes.

“Rather, the Ute were hostile towards the teachers and the agents who tried to make Ute children attend schools, who let the children die when they got there (as seen from the Ute point of view), who accused Ute shamans of malpractice, as if they had brought about the deaths of Ute children, and who, at the same time, coerced the Utes against their wishes to accept severalty allotments of land.”

1906: “Freedom from sickness”

For years, superintendents had claimed the schools were not to blame for student deaths, pointing instead to Ute parents of sick children sent or taken home.

The Randlett school closed in 1905, with its students sent to Whiterocks. The next year, Uintah Superintendent Oscar M. Waddell said he had allowed only “absolutely healthy pupils” to stay at school, “which resulted in a record of no deaths and but very little sickness during the whole year.”

But he seemed to acknowledge that conditions at the school, which had a new water and sewer system, could have played a role: “The plant was put in thoroughly sanitary condition before school work was begun last September, which, perhaps, together with the exclusion of unhealthy children, gave us our freedom from sickness.”

For years, before the water system was installed, school leaders had been reporting the grounds were becoming saturated with waste.

(G. E. E. Lindquist via Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University) Students are photographed at the Uintah Boarding school in Whiterocks, June 8, 1920.

Later deaths

After 1906, the federal government reduced what it published from Indian agents to, generally, statistics and employee lists, which leaves it unclear how many deaths occurred at the school from that point on.

Henry Harrris Jr. remembered student deaths from influenza in an oral history interview in 1967.

“It was wicked. A lot of them died up at Whiterocks,” he said. “No disease took them as fast as that old flu,” he added. " … I had it, 1920. … Yes, I was sick for a long time. Still deaf in one ear from it.”

Attendance records from the 1930s, obtained by The Tribune from the National Archives at Denver, show multiple students died in some years, but no explanations are included.

At least one student death in that time period made headlines. Dr. George McClellan Hamilton, a former school physician at Whiterocks, accused the boarding school of neglect after a boy was fatally injured there in 1927.

An improperly secured swing — which the school had been warned about — fell to the ground when Tilford Denver climbed on it, fracturing the 11-year-old’s skull and killing him. Tilford was buried in the Randlett cemetery.

Hamilton testified in 1928 to a U.S. Senate subcommittee that met in Salt Lake City, as part of a national investigation into conditions at boarding schools and reservations.

Ute Tribe member Roy Smith said he saw Tilford fall, picked the boy up “and took him upstairs and tried to make his life come back,” he testified, “but it failed.” After an inquest, Smith added, “I destroyed the rest of that swing myself.”

During the subcommittee hearing, Hamilton was asked, “You think the death of this pupil was caused through the negligence of some of the Indian Bureau officials, do you not?”

“Some of the officials of the reservation; yes, sir,” Dr. Hamilton answered. “Because this swing never had been secured.”

Reporters wrote that Tilford’s mother, Dulcia Denver, was there listening to the testimony, “with tear-filled eyes.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The St. Elizabeth Episcopal Church in Whiterocks, Utah, is the last standing piece of the Uintah Boarding School campus that was once here.

The family of Episcopalian Rev. Quentin France Kolb, he said in an oral history interview, partly blamed the Whiterocks boarding school for the death of his older brother, Devon, in 1934.

Kolb went to the school at age 8. Discipline for older boys was harsh, he said. “My brother for instance, was caught one time looking across the aisle in church and had to run the gauntlet.” Kolb explained: “He had to take his shirt off, be bare from the waist up, and the other boys would all take their belts and take him through this line.”

His brother also “had to stand out on the porch without his shirt on. It was cold weather and he got sick.” Devon got pneumonia from that, and “had had rheumatic fever the year before, so he was in very bad shape,” Kolb said. " … He was in the hospital a lot of the time.”

During a surgery to remove his tonsils, in the hopes of preventing further infections, Devon was given too much chloroform and soon died from an injury to his brain, Kolb said.

Of his own time in the boarding school, Kolb said, “It was an experience probably that I would not give up, but I certainly would not wish it on anyone.”


This story is part of an investigation supported with funding from the Data-Driven Reporting Project. The Data-Driven Reporting Project is funded by the Google News Initiative in partnership with Northwestern University | Medill.