Samuel and Edward: Two boys, buried under misspelled headstones, at center of fight with U.S. Army

Two Nebraska boys are among the hundreds buried at a boarding school notorious for stripping Native kids of their culture and language. Now, the Winnebago Tribe is fighting to get them back.

The boys were taken from their homes on the northeast Nebraska reservation in early September 1895, part of a small group on a three-day train bound for Pennsylvania.

They were heading for a five-year term at the first government-run Native American boarding school, General Richard Henry Pratt’s experiment to “kill the Indian, save the man.” 

At Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the boys would have their hair cut and traditional clothing taken. They would follow militaristic routines and speak only English. They would join tens of thousands of Native American children, educated in the European-American style, stripped of their cultures and forced to assimilate.

Of the five Winnebago students who boarded that train, only two would make it home.

William Pinegar, 19, ran away from the school just 38 days after he arrived. His student card was marked across the top in slanted red cursive: Dead.

William Pinegar was part of the group of Winnebago students who arrived at Carlisle on Sept. 7th 1895. He ran away from the school 38 days later. His student card was marked dead, but he was not buried at Carlisle. Photo courtesy of the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections

Samuel Gilbert, 19, also known as La-coo-hoo-he-kaw, made it to day 47 before succumbing  to pneumonia. Before fall gave way to winter, his life was reduced to a series of pencil marks in the death record section of Carlisle’s Register of Pupils.

Edward Hensley, 17 when he arrived, lived four more years. He played in the school band and learned to be a tinsmith. He worked for four different white American families through the school’s “outings” system. He was “a most excellent young man, beloved by all.”

Pneumonia killed him on June 29, 1899.

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Samuel and Edward were, and still are, buried on the school grounds. Historians haven’t found any record of any attempt to contact the Winnebago Tribe about either boy’s illness or death. 

“They’re two of many, many, many students that didn’t ever return home,” said Sunshine Thomas-Bear, tribal historic preservation officer for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

Now the boys, dead for more than a century, are at the center of a lawsuit the Winnebago Tribe has filed against the United States Army.

To bring Samuel and Edward’s remains home, the Army says the tribe must find the boys’ closest living relatives to work through its process.

The Winnebago Tribe wants the Army to follow the federal policy that already lets tribes repatriate lost and stolen remains from federal institutions and places like museums. 

This court battle could have an impact far beyond Carlisle and the two boys.

Carlisle was one of 408 Native American boarding schools run by the federal government. So far, 53 burial sites have been identified at those schools in an initial investigative report by the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

Researchers expect more grave sites to be discovered. Samuel and Edward are two of many lost children that tribes will want to bring home. 

Square peg, round hole

Samuel and Edward rest under misspelled headstones in the Carlisle Barracks Main Post Cemetery. 

Their tribal affiliations are still carved into the markers as “Winnebaloo” and “Winnchaga.”

The Winnebago Tribe sees the headstones as a symbol of historic disrespect and the government’s lack of care toward the children buried there.

“Our beliefs are that their spirits have not continued on their journey that they take to the afterlife … they remain lost,” Thomas-Bear said.

The U.S. Army moved the original Carlisle burial site to the current cemetery in 1927 to make room for construction. The process was poorly documented. Several graves are now labeled “unknown.” Photo courtesy of the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections

The Office of Army Cemeteries manages Carlisle’s gravesites, and fields tribes’ requests for the children to be disinterred, using an adapted version of its own process for returning the bodies of soldiers.

Under that process, the closest living relative of a person buried at Carlisle can file two documents to request the return of their remains. The Army conducts disinterments once per year and pays all expenses. 

Since 2017, the Army has returned the remains of 32 children, an OAC spokeswoman said in an email. Currently there are 11 disinterments scheduled for September 2024 and 18 for the following year.

“The Office of Army Cemeteries is committed to conducting dignified and safe disinterment and transfer custody to families who have established they are the closest family link between the decedent and requestor,” the OAC spokeswoman said.

But finding that family member isn’t always realistic, and sometimes – like with Samuel and Edward – borders on impossible, tribal leaders say.  

Many Carlisle students didn’t have living parents. Some 48% of the students were missing at least one parent when they arrived, said Jim Gerencser, archivist for the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center. The school didn’t record the names of students’ deceased parents in their files, further complicating efforts to trace direct family ties now.

And students buried at Carlisle died too young to marry and have children. 

Edward Hensley had no living parents. Samuel Gilbert had a living mother, but her name wasn’t  recorded. The name of his deceased father, White Gull, was written in the address section of his information card.

“Trying to force the tribes into that construct is obviously illegal and disrespectful. It’s particularly tone deaf when you’re talking about the closest living relative, and we’re talking about children,” said Greg Werkheiser, attorney for Cultural Heritage Partners, which is representing the Winnebago in the lawsuit. 

Edward Hensley poses with another Carlisle student, Myron Moses (standing), a member of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, circa 1896. Photo courtesy of the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections

The Winnebago Tribe wants the Army to return the bodies of Samuel and Edward to the tribe under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Then, tribes only need to show that remains were culturally affiliated with the tribe, not directly related to a descendant, said Beth Wright, attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, another group representing the Winnebago. 

The law was designed by Congress to ensure that both tribes and Native American remains and burial sites are treated with respect.

“Under their process, they don’t have to care what the Winnebago’s burial traditions are, the same way they’ve been disregarded for 100 years,” Werkheiser said. “Under NAGPRA that’s supposed to be central, so that this process is healing, instead of just the shifting of remains from one location to another.”

The Army has repeatedly denied that NAGPRA, which has mainly been used to repatriate remains from museums and universities, applies to the children buried at Carlisle, because the cemetery is not a “holding or collection” of remains.

At least two other tribes have tried to repatriate their children from Carlisle under the law, but this is the first lawsuit filed to challenge the U.S. Army’s claim that the law doesn’t apply.

Before the Northern Arapaho requested to repatriate three of their children under NAGPRA in 2015, the Army had no process for repatriating Carlisle students and had refused requests to return their remains. 

In a letter denying the first 2007 request from the Northern Arapaho tribe, Lt. Col. Thomas G. Kane wrote that the Army would “hate to disrupt such a tranquil site, if it can be avoided” and “the cemetery represents one of the most beautiful tributes to the Native American people.”

Small, orderly and historical

Visitors to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, can still take a self-guided tour of the remaining school grounds, including the gymnasium, the band stand and the cemetery. 

“Small, orderly and historical, the Carlisle Cemetery offers visitors a glimpse into the unique past of the United States and Native American history,” the OAC website describes the cemetery. 

The Winnebago Tribe doesn’t want the remains of its children being used to tell a history of the boarding school process that was bad and dehumanizing for the students, Thomas-Bear said. 

“How would you feel if that was your family there?” Thomas-Bear said. “And then they make it seem like, ‘oh, this was all just this greatest thing.’ If you tell a history, tell it truthfully.”

Edward’s headstone lists his name, Edward Hensley, and the misspelled tribal affiliation “Winnebaloo.” Underneath that, where you’d expect a birth and death date, his gravestone is blank. 

Samuel Gilbert’s headstone has his tribal affiliation as “Winnchaga” and a death date that’s different from the one recorded in his student file. 

“Part of NAGPRA is to ensure that tribes and ancestors and all of these things are handled with the utmost care and in a dignified manner,” Thomas-Bear said. “And that definitely hasn’t happened with the Army at Carlisle.”

Edward Hensley’s death was announced in an edition of The Indian Helper, a publication produced by students at Carlisle. Photo courtesy of the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections

During previous disinterments, the Army has found remains that don’t match the name on the grave. For some students, only partial remains were found and returned. At least 14 headstones at Carlisle read only “unknown.”

When the U.S. Army started to relocate the original burial site for construction in 1927, the actual process of moving graves went mostly undocumented, Gerencser said. 

Workers may have had multiple graves open at the same time, Gerencser said, which could’ve caused the partial and mixed remains found during recent disinterments.

Ground penetrating radar was used to survey both the current and old cemetery sites before the first disinterments in 2016, Gerencser said. 

Some tribal members consider the surveying process to be invasive – a further disturbance to the remains, they think, and more proof that the students buried at Carlisle have long been mistreated. 

Sunshine Thomas-Bear, the Winnebago Tribe’s tribal historic preservation office, has been working to bring the bodies of Edward and Samuel home since she started in the position in 2021. Photo courtesy of Sunshine Thomas-Bear

“If you were looking for your grandparent, and you found out this museum had them and were studying them and they were on display or whatnot, how would you feel about that?” Thomas-Bear said.

The loss of Edward and Samuel is part of a series of historical traumas the government inflicted upon the Winnebago, Thomas-Bear said, intended to break their people.

In 1863, the tribe itself was forcibly moved off its traditional land near Minnesota to the Dakota Territories and then, eventually, to northeast Nebraska.   

Then, less than 10 years before Edward and Samuel boarded the train bound for Carlisle, the government passed the Dawes Act, forcing tribes into individual property ownership and fundamentally disrupting life for the Winnebago yet again.

At boarding schools like Carlisle, students faced documented physical, sexual and emotional abuse, as well as disease, malnourishment and overcrowding. 

In its initial analysis, the government recorded more than 500 child deaths at boarding schools, a number expected to soar.  At Carlisle alone, roughly 230 students died on campus.

Like Edward and Samuel, many of those children have been lost to tribes for decades.

“I can’t even fathom what they were feeling,” Thomas-Bear said. “Not only are you not home, but then they take your ways of how you fed yourself and how you take care of yourself and your culture and religion. And then at the end, take your children. I don’t think I’d survive that.”

By Destiny Herbers

Destiny is a Roy W. Howard fellow through the Scripps Howard Foundation. She earned her master’s degree in journalism at the University of Maryland. While at UMD, she covered NASA and Congress for Capital News Service, reporting on everything from cheese served at state dinners to future missions to Mars. She worked on the Howard Center’s award-winning project, “Mega Billons,” an investigation of state lotteries, and was part of an ongoing Associated Press investigation into law enforcement practices. When she isn’t reporting, Destiny loves swing dancing and thrift shopping.

7 Comments

The article clearly points out that the treatment of Native American children in the 19th Century was cruel, inhumane, dangerous, deadly and inexcusable. Unfortunately, their treatment during the entire 20th Century and the first quarter of the 21st Century did not improve. Alcohol and other drug abuse, neglect, physical violence, rape, malnutrition and murder are now prevalent on America’s federal reservations in concentrations that are difficult-to-impossible to find elsewhere in the United States.

Great writing here. We have just begun to shed light on the workings of these government boarding schools/ re-education internment camps. In my sixty plus years I have only seen one possible scenario on film in popular mainstream media. Even now, I can’t remember what I was watching…possibly something on Netflix.
Please keep peeling back the layers of the onion of history, so that the truth of our shared history becomes common knowledge among the population. Five hundred years of violent taking of land by ‘treaty’ and by force and deprivation and disease and ‘manifest destiny’ is not easily reconciled, particularly when the occupiers hold vested reasons to ignore the truthful telling of history. Forced African emigration fares no better in the history of the American empire. I could go on. It is oft said that in the beginning of European advancement across the continent, that the white man held the Bible and the blanket, while the red man held the land. Fast forward several centuries, and the red man holds the Bible and the blankets, while the white man holds the land. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to fill in the blanks. But facts certainly help. Human beings will always exploit and subjugate and de-humanize other humans. It will spell our collective end some day.

The untold story of Native American children and these schools is very disheartening. Thank you for this very thorough story. There’s so much more that needs to be shared regarding what these youth experienced.

Excellent article, Destiny. I sub taught on occasion at Winnebago Public School a few years ago. Always fascinated, not only by their culture, but their rich tradition. Specifically, I had the privilege and honor of campaigning with Frank LaMere, especially during the election cycle. Finally, his championship of closing the four liquor stores in Whiteclay is a remarkable achievement that will stand the test of time.

Boarding schools, whether for NAs or non-NAs, were seen at the time to be an enlightened approach to educate and assimilate youth who did not have those opportunities in their home locales. Remember, there were few local schools on rezs because public education was not a matter funded by state or federal governments–this was true for the sparsely populated areas of the west settled by whites.
Until 15 years ago, those who attended NA boarding schools and those who worked there were effusive in their praise and memories of the experience (which is not to ignore the misguided efforts of assimilation). And of course, on cue, today’s enlightened few (aka “liberals”) have started another crusade to rewrite that history as just another example of Big Bad Whitey victimizing _________. One only has to read the comments here to see that the fallacy of presentism has infected FWP readers. To further substantiate the fanaticism of today’s crusade to rewrite the history of NA boarding schools, one simply has to follow the actual excavations of supposed “unmarked mass graves” of NA children in Canada or Genoa, NE, that have uncovered exactly 0 unmarked graves. Have we no shame?

“Samuel and Edward rest under misspelled headstones in the Carlisle Barracks Main Post Cemetery. ”

This one of the most absurd and inconsequential sentences of this story. The Winnebago, as most of the Plains NAs, HAD NO WRITTEN LANGUAGE! These kids went to Carlisle with a name that was know to them, their families , their tribe, and everyone else in oral form ONLY. There could not have been any “misspelling” because their names had, up to that point, never been spelled! This is just basic knowledge, FFP!

I had the privilege and honor of campaigning with Frank LaMere, especially during the election cycle. Finally, his championship of closing the four liquor (sic) stores in Whiteclay is a remarkable achievement that will stand the test of time.

Did you encourage Mr. LaMere to oppose his tribe’s (Ho Chunk) production and distribution of cigarettes at predatory prices? Did you encourage Mr. LaMere to refuse tribal payments from these tribal enterprises?

Btw, the stores in Whiteclay sold beer only, not liquor. Let’s be factual, oohkay?

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