The Stories Behind the Names: Death at the Santa Fe Indian School, 1891–1909

Today’s post is by Cody White and Rose Buchanan, Subject Matter Experts for Native American Related Records.

Warning: the following piece along with associated archival records discuss the death of minors.

The names of students who died at Native American boarding schools should not be buried in government files; they should be known. For accountability, transparency, and healing, it is important that we confront the legacy of Native boarding schools—including, as discussed in this post, the legacy of the at least twenty-five children laid to rest at the Santa Fe Indian School. 

Don Ortego (Isleta Pueblo) was an eight-year-old student at the Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS) on that October day in 1907. He stood close to the grave, he “remembers well,” when they buried eighteen-year-old Felipe Ahsissa (Navajo) on the school grounds. The simple handwritten note providing that anecdote is not dated; we only know that Ortego graduated from the eighth grade two years later and headed east to study at the Carlisle Institute. But it would not be a stretch to assume the young boy looked up to the older Ahsissa—the superintendent of the school, Clinton Crandall, wrote in a December 1907 letter that “No boy of the school was better liked than Felipe.”

On June 22, 2021, Department of the Interior Secretary Debra Haaland issued a memorandum directing her department to prepare a report addressing the “intergenerational trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance, premature deaths, and other undocumented bodily and mental impacts” of government-supported schools for Native Americans. The impetus for the report was largely focused on one type of school: the off-reservation boarding school, of which the SFIS was but one. The records from that school can be found in Record Group 75: Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is where the seventeen tragedies explored here today are documented.

Hand drawn map of the Santa Fe Indian School with notes of landmarks and latitude and longitude locations.
This is one of the earliest maps of the Santa Fe Indian School, hand drawn in late 1891 and found in the school’s correspondence. Based on the records, the school cemetery would have been created only months before, but it is not noted here.

The SFIS opened in 1890 to students across the southwest and soon had several hundred students. At first the school enrolled children in all grades but later limited enrollment to just sixth grade and above. Like other industrial schools, as the boarding schools were known in that era, the children devoted half of each day to classroom work and the other half to vocational training, which was often just manual labor such as kitchen work, cleaning, or work on the school farm.

Our individual student case file holdings for the school do not start until 1910, so any earlier mention of individual students can only be found in pupil registers, attendance books, and correspondence. At the very end of a student attendance book closed out in 1909, the school superintendent sketched out a plat of the school’s cemetery, along with names, tribal affiliations, and death dates of students buried there. 

Page from a volume with hand written notes about where students who died at the Santa Fe school were buried.
This “graveyard plat” is found at the very back of the bound volume “Student Daily Attendance Book, 7/1903–6/1909” and is the focus for the research in the rest of this essay.

This essay will not look at every student who died at SFIS; no comprehensive list of such students exists, and one would be difficult to create. Many students when taken seriously ill were sent home; some who perished at the school were buried on their home reservation. But using this graveyard plat found in our register of students, we can at least look into seventeen of the twenty-five children we know were buried on school grounds. Absent student case files, we must turn to correspondence, arranged chronologically, to piece together exactly what happened to these students.

The first series we turn to is “Press Copies of Letters Sent, 6/1890–12/1913.” This series of thirty-eight volumes is organized chronologically, but the volumes for the first few years are also indexed by topic and addressee. This collection runs the gamut in regards to topics, at times split into “official” and “miscellaneous” volumes for the same rough date span. In 1900 the school superintendent started a different series to save letters sent only to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, resulting in the sixteen volumes that make up the series “Press Copies of Letters Sent to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 2/1900–9/1914” and once again each volume was indexed by topic. (Both of these series were included in the microfilm collection M1473, Bureau of Indian Affairs Records Created by the Santa Fe Indian School, 1890–1918.) All quoted sections below come directly from the SFIS correspondence series, which can be researched at the National Archives at Denver facility. Supplementing, and at times mirroring, these records are the Commissioner’s “Letters Received, 1881–1907” and “Central Classified Files, 1907–1939,” which can be researched at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

It appears that Lizzie Montoya (Jicarilla Apache) was the first student laid to rest, not even a full year after the school had opened. On June 9, 1891, School Superintendent S. M. Cart telegrammed Indian Agent James Harper at Amargo, New Mexico, that Montoya was ill with tuberculosis, alive but only for “a short time”; if her parents wanted to see her, Cart said, they must come quickly. There was no way they could have made it; Lizzie Montoya passed away the next day, on June 10, 1891. The superintendent telegrammed Harper again with the news and offered to send Montoya home if authority was granted and the parents desired it. He also wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs asking what he should do. Two days later he reached back out to Washington, DC, informing the commissioner she would be buried at the school if there were no objections. The question was then, where? There was land on the school’s farm, so he suggested setting some land there apart “for a burying ground for the school” but wanted to know if the office had instructions or directions “in regards to the internment of deceased pupils.” The commissioner’s office did not receive Cart’s initial letter until June 13 or his second letter until June 16. The commissioner sent a perfunctory response to the first letter on June 20, authorizing Lizzie’s return home ten days after she had already died; there is no evidence that the commissioner responded to Cart’s second letter. Lizzie Montoya was ultimately laid to rest in the school cemetery. She was eighteen years old.

While the correspondence is organized chronologically, the early volumes, and later the commissioner volumes, have an index with names and topics. Here we see the entries for Lizzie Montoya’s death. The letter on the left also highlights the difficulty at times in making out the text in poor carbon copies. Compare this copy with the original letter received by the commissioner on the right.

James/Jamie Calladito (Jicarilla Apache) was one of fifteen children to come down with the measles in October 1891. He recovered fully but soon developed pneumonia—“all the children are up and about but Jamie,” the school superintendent wrote on the 22nd to the Jicarilla Apache agent, instructing him to pass on the news to Jamie’s father. Despite “careful nursing,” Jamie Calladito passed away on October 25, 1891. He was only eight years old.

Telegrams were transcribed and then placed in the volumes of outgoing correspondence. Here is one such transcription alerting the Jicarilla Apache Indian agent to James Calladito’s death.

Measles emerges as a common denominator in many of these cases. In December 1891 Julia Fox (Mohave) contracted measles but recovered, only to then come down with tuberculosis, one of several cases the school superintendent noted at the same time. She held on for a few months but passed away on February 12, 1892. The superintendent wrote to the agent at the San Carlos Agency where Julia was from, asking him to inform her parents; the school, however, did not know their names. Julia Fox was ten years old.

Doly Brown (Navajo) became ill with pneumonia in September 1896. School Superintendent Thomas Jones’s wife was a nurse at the school and cared for him, but medical help proved hopeless. Brown—“one of my best Navajo boys,” the superintendent wrote—passed away on the morning of September 29, 1896. Thomas wrote the acting Indian agent for the Navajo to express his sympathies to Brown’s parents and to assure them that the school “will place a nice stone over him.” Brown was 10 years old.

In early February 1897, Emily Jones (Pima) came down sick. She spent ten days in the school hospital with a “slight indisposition” and was thought to be “getting entirely over her sickness.” However, on February 21, 1897, Jones died of sudden heart failure at 8:30 p.m. She was eighteen years old.

Sava Cook (Pima) had been a student at the Santa Fe Indian School since 1895, when in May 1898 she fell ill with measles. She battled the disease for four weeks, when it turned into pneumonia. “Everything was done that kind and experienced hand could do, but without avail,” the school superintendent wrote. Cook succumbed at 6:00 p.m. on May 26, 1898. She was thirteen years old.

A common theme in the correspondence is a request for funds to cover the coffin: generally $15–20, with the local vendor sometimes named.

Bertha Snooks enrolled at SFIS on March 12, 1894. On April 1, 1898, almost exactly four years later, she took ill with tuberculosis. On June 30 the school wrote the San Carlos Agency, where she was from, that she was in critical condition; unfortunately the letter copy is faint, and nothing else can be made out. That same day the school also alerted the commissioner that “a fatal result is anticipated soon”; the commissioner did not respond. Snooks passed away on July 1, 1898. While the graveyard plat entry noted that she was Pima, a letter from the SFIS to the commissioner said she was Yuma, today known as Quechan. Snooks was fifteen years old.

On March 27, 1900, Lobie Ischief (Pima) took ill in the school’s sewing room and was sent to the hospital while the school’s physician, Dr. Haroun, was called. “Pneumonia of the worst form” took her life three days later, on March 31, 1900. The next day at 4:00 p.m. she was interred “in the school cemetery under the auspices of the presbyterian church of which she was a member.” Lobie Ischief was seventeen years old.

James Gorman (Navajo) passed away on May 20, 1900, after a lingering illness. Unlike many who had no family at the school while they were ill, James’s cousin Nelson Gorman had been at his side throughout his illness. James’s funeral was held the next day. He was eighteen years old.

One June 9, 1900, three boys took the school wagon into Santa Fe to pick up some packages for the school. On a narrow street the neck yoke broke, causing the wagon tongue to drop. The spooked team of horses then ran, throwing the three boys clear of the wagon. Frank Lyons (Apache) was killed instantly while the other two boys suffered a broken arm and bruises. Lyons had only enrolled in the school the previous fall but was prominent in its literary and social circles. He was also a band leader and member of the choir. As the superintendent wrote, “Frank will be buried in the school cemetery with all the honor that the school can bestow.” He was seventeen years old.

The school superintendent typically wrote to both the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the agent of the reservation the student came from. Here we see the superintendent writing to the San Carlos agency about the death of Frank Lyons in Santa Fe proper.

Frank Charles (Western Shoshone) was sent to the school hospital on February 6, 1901, and diagnosed with tuberculosis in “the primary stage.” His condition continued to worsen until at midnight on May 6, 1901, he passed away. Frank Charles was fourteen years old.

Chico Juan (Tohono O’odham) entered the school hospital in July 1902 with a slight fever. It turned out to be tuberculosis, however, and he passed away on September 7, 1902. Chico Juan was fifteen years old.

On June 22, 1903, the school superintendent informed the San Juan Pueblo governor that he could not make the fiesta on the 24th as planned because “one of my boys working on the Santa Fe Central Railroad was accidentally drowned last evening.” On June 21, Taylor Dave (Western Shoshone) had been working with several other students on a new road for the railroad outside Moriarty, New Mexico, about sixty miles south of Santa Fe. While bathing in a lake, Dave attempted to swim across the roughly ten-foot-deep expanse, but his strength gave out. He was last heard saying, “I am tired, I am tired,” before sinking. The letters detailing this story are partly illegible; it is unclear if the body was recovered, but the school held a funeral. Taylor Dave was nineteen years old.

Rosa Ignacio (Tohono O’odham) was admitted to the school hospital in the spring of 1906 and remained there for several months for treatment. The details provided by the school superintendent are vague, but she apparently developed a more serious illness, eventually passing away on June 4, 1906. The following day she was interred in the school’s cemetery, in a funeral officiated by the Right Reverend Anthony Fourchegu, Vicar General at the Santa Fe Catholic Cathedral. Rosa Ignacio was nine years old.

Maria Frances (Tohono O’odham) entered the SFIS on August 17, 1905. In April 1907 she fell ill with pneumonia and despite being admitted to the hospital, succumbed three days later, at 4:35 p.m. on April 19, 1907. A Roman Catholic priest conducted the funeral the next day; as the school superintendent wrote the San Xavier Reservation, the school “had bought a beautiful coffin” for her. Maria Frances was twelve years old.

The records are not perfect. Ink smudged, text was not pressed well enough into carbon copies, and letters sometimes suffered damage later.  For example, the letter the school sent to the San Xavier Reservation concerning Maria Frances’s death suffered water damage.

Susie Bah (Navajo) had been at the SFIS for three years when she was stricken by a paralytic stroke. On October 21, 1907, the school wrote to Fort Defiance to let the agent know and encouraged him to try to locate her father, as her condition was deteriorating. Susie Bah passed away on October 28, 1907. She was thirteen years old.

On May 3, 1909, the Right Reverend Anthony Fourchegu returned to the school to officiate the funeral for Maria Xavier (Tohono O’odham). She had passed away the night before from pneumonia, which was “more or less fatal at this altitude,” the school superintendent wrote, but especially for Maria, who was “rather delicate” and so unable to combat the disease. Maria Xavier was fifteen years old.

Juana, or Juanita, Jose (Tohono O’odham) entered SFIS on March 8, 1906. In June 1909, she fell suddenly ill with pneumonia and soon after developed additional issues. A “consultation of physicians” was held and surgery ordered, which a Dr. David Knapp conducted. But it was to no avail. Juanita Jose died of peritonitis at 1:00 a.m. on June 11, 1909. She was sixteen years old.

The stories told here come directly from letters sent by the Santa Fe Indian School and letters received by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs; they are likely only a fraction of what could be found through more detailed, in-depth research. Please contact for more information about SFIS records or to schedule a research visit. Please contact for more information about the commissioner’s records or to schedule a research visit. Please note that due to privacy restrictions, student case files are only fully open after 75 years; otherwise they are closed to all but the student until their death.

The Department of the Interior released their Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report on May 11, 2022, which sheds additional light on this topic and identifies next steps that will be taken in a second volume (see more information here).