Today’s post comes from Susan Burch of Middlebury College, with special thanks to the colleagues at NARA-Fort Worth and to the National Archives Regional Residency Fellowship.
Stories matter. As an historian of disability, race, ethnicity, and gender in the United States, I’ve been drawn to stories at the margins, perhaps more fittingly described as “the locked wards” of our past. My current book project explores the history of the people institutionalized at the Canton Asylum in South Dakota, the only federal psychiatric institution in the United States specifically for American Indians. Its first inmate entered Canton in 1902, and before it closed amid scandal in 1934, nearly 400 men, women, and children from 17 states and nearly 50 tribes inhabited its wards. To date, relatively few people know about the Canton Asylum or its community. In admittedly limited ways, my work attempts to restore those removed from their communities, and our historical frameworks, to the American story.
This black and white panoramic photograph shows the front of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians (1899-1934). Narrow windows dot the four-story stone and brick building. A metal swing set stands in the front yard area; several people appear to be standing near the top steps of the front porch.
The history of the Canton Asylum is inextricably tied to larger stories of forced removals; the rise of Indian boarding schools as well as penal, medical, and disability institutions; eugenics; and contests over citizenship and American identity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s also a deeply human story, marking generations of people on the inside and outside of the institution’s walls.
While incompleteness travels with histories of removal and dislocation, the individuals who lived these experiences were not themselves incomplete, or—and I use this term intentionally—invalid, because of their state of being removed. The in-between spaces of marginalized lived experiences, of dubious belongings, of sometimes difficult sources and historical repositories are locations of opportunity from which scholars can reconsider the past, the present, and our tellings of them.
These realities help illustrate why historical archives are so important.
Historians depend on tangible sources, which makes projects about institutionalized Native Americans additionally challenging. But the Canton Asylum presents a unique—and complicated—learning opportunity; thousands of documents specifically about and by Asylum members, as well as materials generally related to the institution, are held at the National Archives. With generous support through the National Archives Regional Residency Fellowship, I was able to visit Fort Worth’s site, which yielded fascinating stories and thorny new questions. For example, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) records about several men and women who were removed to Canton shed light on their family relations and economic changes on the reservations, and sometimes revealed glimmers of their personalities. Other records described people whom BIA agents considered, but ultimately decided against, removing to Canton. Recognizing that many—but not all—paths led to Canton invites critical reflection. Why did some people get taken to Canton, but not others? Who decided this? And how did individuals’ forced removals impact their families’ lives?
Realizing that the Canton Asylum was but one location in a vast constellation of forced removals, I was particularly interested in visiting the Fort Worth NARA because of its unique location and sources. It houses records on the U.S. Public Service Hospital (later renamed the U.S. Narcotic Farm), which was located in Fort Worth. When Canton closed in 1934, some men and women were sent to Saint Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC. Eight years later, in 1942, fifty-three members from this group were transferred to Fort Worth. How Fort Worth’s institution emerged, what it was like, and how it contributes to the longer story of the Canton community are questions I hope to answer.
United States Narcotic Farm, Fort Worth, TX; National Archives Identifier: 278157
Spending time in archives
I love spending time in archives. There’s an electric anticipation: what details, questions, and surprises await release from the stacks? Several times a day, NARA colleagues rolled out carts with my requested materials. Rows of boxes, some packed to capacity with onionskin paper sheets, held remnants of lifetimes, places, and cultures. Simultaneously daunting and enticing, the collection at Fort Worth took over my daily life for the week. Thankfully, helpful staff helped steer me towards materials I wouldn’t have located on my own, and shared in the excitement when I discovered those “aha” sources—the gems that answer a troubling question or that breathe humanity into a shadowed past. Recommendations for tasty places to eat and visit while in Fort Worth, in addition to a terrific tour of the facility, underscored the value of community that sustains this regional archive, and our broader work in history.
Many thanks to all the folks at NARA-Fort Worth for a great and productive experience.