Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records
On September 29, 1936, Carmen Gurnoe of Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, wrote the Albuquerque Indian School in New Mexico. Her request was simple, and one that Native elders still make today—she needed proof of her birth date, in this case for the Civil Service Commision, and she hoped her student case file would provide it. She had graduated only 19 years earlier, so it should have been no big issue to pull her file—or so she probably thought. Unfortunately, her request dated to the “wild west” days of records management and storage, an era with such pervasive issues across government agencies that it eventually inspired the creation of the National Archives that very same decade.
One of the most frustrating aspects of researching topics, locations, or individuals in the records created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs is often the absence of records. Records from entire boarding schools, such as the Genoa Boarding School in Nebraska or the Teller Institute in Colorado, were not kept. The activities at these schools are only documented today in correspondence or reports sent to other officials. Others, such as the Fort Shaw Boarding School in Montana, open for nearly 20 years, only left behind a handful of student ledgers and cost books. The records were simply not saved. Today archivists and records managers have anecdotes galore of poor records management and storage, including tales of records piled in rattlesnake-infested sheds or dumped in large trash pits. We are often left to simply guess why records were never saved, to just opine that they were mishandled or tossed. What is unique with the Albuquerque Indian School is that in the case of Gurnoe, the school documented their highly dubious record storage policies as the staff attempted to answer her query.
Fires are a constant threat in archives and have a long history within the National Archives; the loss of nearly the entire 1890 census is often mentioned as an impetus to create the agency, and the 1973 National Personnel Records Center inferno still affects Official Military Personnel Case file requests 50 years later. The Albuquerque Indian School too was no stranger to fires. According to annual reports and budget documents, we can see a pattern of fire damage on the campus. A 1906 blaze destroyed a warehouse. In 1922, the school lost the gym and auditorium. In 1929, a coal and equipment shed burned to the ground. In 1951, it was a shop building. And after the school’s closure in 1981, fires plagued the abandoned grounds.
When Gurnoe’s request arrived in 1936, the school created a new student case file to hold the correspondence regarding the request. Today the National Archives at Denver holds 8,762 student case files from the Albuquerque Indian School, but although the school opened in 1881, few student records files predate 1910. A letter in Gurnoe’s file seems to corroborate that a fire was the cause for the loss of those earlier files.
The school’s business manager, Henry Newman, wrote Carmen nearly half a year later, informing her they were working on the request and gamely asking if perhaps she already found the information she needed. The school was in fact working on the request regardless, as evidenced by two internal memos detailing the search. It appears the task fell to teacher Lillie McKinney, who at one point asked the whereabouts of records; the response notes that most of the old files were “in the Condemned house now boxed up,” while other files were “under the main office in the cellar.” Another note remarks that “letters and files” were stored in the commissary. None of these places was probably the best or most stable records storage location.
McKinney appears to have had some luck, for on both July 6 and 15 of that year the school wrote Gurnoe with more biographical details uncovered in their records hunt. There is no information, however, about where she found the information, be it in the commissary, cellar, condemned house, or some unnamed clerk’s file cabinet. It was not noted and wherever the Albuquerque staff found Gunroe’s information in 1937 remains a mystery today.
The records noted in this blog post detailing the Albuquerque Indian School and its students are part of Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and are located at the National Archives at Denver. For more information or inquiries about these records, please contact email@example.com.