For people of European descent carving out space for themselves in the present borders of the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a major barrier: people already lived there. The nation did not regard this as an insurmountable hurdle, however. America tried a variety of things as it expanded westward: driving Native Americans across continually shifting borders, attempting to assimilate them into a dominant white culture, and employing a variety of approaches in between. As the United States consumed more and more territory occupied by American Indians who attempted to maintain ownership, conflicts worsened. In the late 19th century, a crisis point had been reached. In 1890 and 1891, the Lakota Sioux fought a losing battle over treaty violations and land use with the United States Army. The Ghost Dance War resulted in the deaths of dozens of combatants on both sides and hundreds of Lakota Sioux civilians during its best-known battle, the Wounded Knee Massacre. During this period, Native Americans came under particular scrutiny.
At the College of New Jersey (Princeton), opinions were mixed about this so-called “Indian Problem.” A few weeks after the Ghost Dance War ended, students debated what should be done. One claimed “that though the good Indian was not the dead Indian, yet the good Indian had not yet been found.” Samuel Semple of the Class of 1891, who was selected as the winner of the debate’s $1,000 prize, argued that the only thing to do was to adopt Richard Pratt’s program of forced assimilation, removing Native American children from their homes and sending them to boarding schools. Pratt later famously summed up his program’s rationale in this way: “All the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”