Dennis Cassinelli: Local history rooted in Stewart Indian School
The Pyramid Lake Indian War of 1860 marked the beginning of an extremely difficult time for the American Indian population of the Great Basin area. Until this time, the Indians and the European emigrants were able to tolerate each other with just a few exceptions. When silver was discovered on the Comstock Lode in 1859, there was a sudden increase in the white population of the Nevada Territory. With this increase in population came an increase in demand for resources, including food, water, land and timber. The white emigrants took over the traditional lands where the native population had hunted and gathered for their subsistence for centuries.
Farms, mines and mills took over the places where Indians had hunted and fished for food. The pine forests were cut for firewood and lumber where the Indians had once gathered pine nuts to help them survive the winters. Since the Native Americans had few skills useful in a more modern world, and few could speak English, jobs were near impossible for them to find. Discrimination following the Indian wars made matters even worse. Some Indian families camped on the outskirts of Virginia City, Dayton and Carson so they could scavenge for food and clothing and look for menial jobs they could do.
In 1860, California attorney William Stewart arrived in Virginia City at about the time when Indian-white relations were most volatile. This was the time when the Pyramid Lake Indian War was being fought. In 1865, Stewart became the state of Nevada’s first senator. He was supportive of Indian education in order to improve their social and economic situation in the state. While in Congress, Stewart worked with the Indian Service and served as the chairman of the Commission on Indian Affairs. He thought rather than relying on the reservation system, Indians would be better served with training that would help them to become self sustaining individuals and citizens.
In 1888, Stewart introduced a Senate bill to establish an Indian school in Nevada. With Stewart’s political persuasion, an Indian boarding school was established south of Carson City in 1890 with money and land dedicated by Ormsby County. Sen. William Stewart helped obtain funding from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also succeeded in establishing the University of Nevada, first in Elko, then in Reno.
During the early years, the Stewart Indian School was a boarding school for elementary students learning to speak and read English, basic math and some vocational skills. It later had a high school with a graduation program and a first-class athletic department. Students at Stewart were required to live on campus and weren’t allowed to speak their native languages. In addition to the local Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe Indians, there were tribes represented from California, Arizona and New Mexico.
The campus grew in size to about 80 buildings. There was a gymnasium, swimming pool, boarding houses, offices and residences for staff members. A railroad spur for the Virginia and Truckee Railroad was built to bring passenger and freight service to the campus. The campus had a cemetery where Washoe Indian basket maker Dat So La Lee is buried, along with the last basket she was making at the time of her death.
Discipline was strict at the school and the students were required to attend classes for about half of each day, then work in vocational training the other half. The vocational part of the training included work on campus such as carpentry, masonry and agriculture. The students planted and harvested crops that were used to feed the student body and staff. Farm animals were raised for meat and dairy products. Girl students operated the laundry and performed sewing and dress making. Many worked in the kitchen preparing meals and doing cleanup chores.
If you visit the Stewart campus today, you can still see many of the colorful old stone buildings built by Hopi Indian student stonemasons from rock they gathered along the Carson River and Clear Creek. When I was a young man on our family farms in Sparks and Spanish Springs in the 1940s and ‘50s, bus loads of Stewart Indian school students came out to pick potatoes in our fields each fall during harvest time. This was cheap labor for several farming families in the region and it made extra money for the school. The school was paid, but the students were not, since the experience was considered part of their education.
The Stewart Indian School closed in 1980 after 90 years of operation. The campus was taken over by the state of Nevada as an office complex. My landscape company was hired in the 1980s to install sprinkler systems in some of the lawn areas for the state Public Works Department. For several years there was a small museum at the Stewart campus. I donated an interesting collection of Great Basin Indian artifacts to the museum where it was displayed until the museum closed. I then repossessed the collection and re-donated it to the Carson Valley Historical Museum in Gardnerville, where it can be seen today.
Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian who can be contacted at email@example.com or on his blog at denniscassinlli.com. All books sold through this publication will be at a 20 percent discount and Dennis will pay the postage.