A fall from grace: Thomas Johnson and the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor School, 1839-1862

Kevin J. Abing, Marquette University


In 1839, Methodist Episcopal missionary Thomas Johnson founded the Shawnee Manual Labor School in the Indian Territory (present-day Johnson County, Kansas). He sought to "civilize" Indian children by teaching religion, academics and manual arts. This was not a novel approach. Similar to seventeenth-century reformers, Johnson believed Indian civilization was inferior and that formal education was the most efficient means to transform Indians into mirror-images of Euro-Americans. With unbounded optimism, Johnson and his fellow Methodists embarked upon this educational experiment. The federal government, eager to find a solution to the "Indian problem," lavished praise and financial support upon the school. Government officials concluded their patronage was well-founded, given the glowing reports the school's superintendents filed. The school's "success," however, was illusory. The Methodists failed to eradicate Native American culture. The students and their parents accepted certain aspects of white society which satisfied specific needs, but they resisted complete cultural suicide. Their experience demonstrated that Indians were more than passive "victims" of American benevolence; they actively shaped their own future. Although Native American resistance undermined the school's effectiveness, other factors brought about its fall from grace. Reverend Johnson used slaves at the school, alienating many Shawnees, Baptist and Quaker missionaries and abolitionists. Given his pro-slavery stance, Johnson engaged in Kansas territorial politics. Indeed, he led the drive to organize Kansas Territory, setting in motion the "Bleeding Kansas" conflict and also the eventual dispossession of the Indian tribes in the territory. These "diversions" certainly impugned the school's once lofty status, but, even more damaging, Johnson exploited the school for personal gain. The school farm and workshops generated sizable revenue for the Methodists. Johnson may have appropriated these funds to finance other business ventures. Even though Shawnee patronage dwindled drastically in the 1850s, Johnson collected every penny due from government contracts. Criticism of Johnson and the school built to a crescendo in the late 1850s. Government officials could not ignore the evidence any longer, and they finally rescinded the school contract in 1862. Thomas Johnson's grand dream had soured badly, as he succumbed to his own personal ambitions.

Recommended Citation

Abing, Kevin J., "A fall from grace: Thomas Johnson and the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor School, 1839-1862" (1995). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9601766.